Notes on software, organizations, product development, and professional growth

April 4, 2021

Learning a new codebase: hacking on nginx

I have never contributed to nginx. My C skills are 1/10. But downloading the source, hacking it up, compiling it, and running it doesn't scare me. This post is to help you overcome your own fears about doing so. Not necessarily because you should be running out-of-tree diffs in production but because I see a lot of developers never even consider looking at the source of a big tool or dependency they use.

Most of all, studying mature software projects is one of the best ways to grow as a programmer.

Source and build

At a high-level, the steps for hacking on software projects are always the same:

  1. Find/download the source code
  2. Install necessary dependency libraries/compilers
  3. Start grepping around based on something you see in the output or capabilities you know exist
  4. Make a change
  5. Run some variation of ./configure && make to build
  6. Run the program
  7. Go back to step 4 until you're happy

nginx

Let's follow these steps for nginx. We google nginx github to learn that there's a read-only copy of the source on Github.

$ mkdir ~/vendor
$ cd ~/vendor
$ git clone https://github.com/nginx/nginx
$ cd nginx

There's no readme, bummer. We google nginx build from source and find this. We see it's a typical C project that builds exactly as guessed: ./configure && make. And it doesn't look like it has any third-party dependencies besides my C compiler.

Install autoconf, gmake, and a C compiler. There's no ./configure file in this directory but notice there is a configure file in auto. Trying cd auto && ./configure crashes so let's try ./auto/configure. That seems to do it except for the warning:

$ ./auto/configure
...
./auto/configure: error: the HTTP rewrite module requires the PCRE library.
You can either disable the module by using --without-http_rewrite_module
option, or install the PCRE library into the system, or build the PCRE library
statically from the source with nginx by using --with-pcre=<path> option.

Run ./auto/configure --without-http_rewrite_module. And then again when that fails but also omitting http_gzip_module.

Ok autoconfigure is done. Now we've got a Makefile. Run make -j to compile using all cores.

Run git status to see where the binary was placed. Run ls objs and there it is, great:

$ ls objs
autoconf.err  nginx    ngx_auto_config.h   ngx_modules.c  src
Makefile      nginx.8  ngx_auto_headers.h  ngx_modules.o

The hack

We want a simple dump command that will return a literal string in a location block. So something like this:

$ diff --git a/conf/nginx.conf b/conf/nginx.conf
index 29bc085f..e96e817f 100644
--- a/conf/nginx.conf
+++ b/conf/nginx.conf

@@ -41,8 +41,7 @@ http {
#access_log  logs/host.access.log  main;

location / {
-            root   html;
-            index  index.html index.htm;
+            dump 'It was a good Thursday.';
         }

         #error_page  404              /404.html;
}

Now that we've built nginx we can use the -t flag to test the validity of this config:

$ ./objs/nginx -t -c $(pwd)/conf/nginx.conf
nginx: [alert] could not open error log file: open() "/usr/local/nginx/logs/error.log" failed (2: No such file or directory)
2021/04/04 21:24:09 [emerg] 1030951#0: unknown directive "dump" in /home/phil/vendor/nginx/conf/nginx.conf:44
nginx: configuration file /home/phil/vendor/nginx/conf/nginx.conf test failed

And now we've got something to go on! Clearly we have to register this directive and the log gives us enough info to start grepping:

$ git --no-pager grep 'unknown directive'
src/core/ngx_conf_file.c:                       "unknown directive \"%s\"", name->data);

The case that has this failing comes from line 463: rv = cmd->set(cf, cmd, conf). So let's see what this set does. git grep set is useless. Let's try finding out what cmd is so we can locate the struct that has set on it. Ah it's an ngx_command_t. Since it doesn't have struct behind it it means it's typedef-ed and will likely have a ; after it. So git grep ngx_command_t\; finds us:

$ git --no-pager grep ngx_command_t\;
src/core/ngx_core.h:typedef struct ngx_command_s         ngx_command_t;

Which means the implementation is hidden, so grep for ngx_command_s:

$ git --no-pager grep ngx_command_s
src/core/ngx_conf_file.h:struct ngx_command_s {
src/core/ngx_core.h:typedef struct ngx_command_s         ngx_command_t;

Ok this is going nowhere. Different approach. What command did we remove?

$ git --no-pager diff
diff --git a/conf/nginx.conf b/conf/nginx.conf
index 29bc085f..e96e817f 100644
--- a/conf/nginx.conf
+++ b/conf/nginx.conf
@@ -41,8 +41,7 @@ http {
         #access_log  logs/host.access.log  main;

         location / {
-            root   html;
-            index  index.html index.htm;
+            dump 'It was a good Thursday.';
         }

         #error_page  404              /404.html;

root is a command. Maybe we can copy that.

$ git --no-pager grep \"root\"
docs/xml/nginx/changes.xml:in the "root" or "auth_basic_user_file" directives.
docs/xml/nginx/changes.xml:a request was handled incorrectly, if a "root" directive used variables;
docs/xml/nginx/changes.xml:the $document_root variable usage in the "root" and "alias" directives
docs/xml/nginx/changes.xml:the $document_root variable did not support the variables in the "root"
docs/xml/nginx/changes.xml:if a "root" was specified by variable only, then the root was relative
src/http/ngx_http_core_module.c:    { ngx_string("root"),
src/http/ngx_http_core_module.c:                           &cmd->name, clcf->alias ? "alias" : "root");

That looks more promising. Let's copy that:

$ git --no-pager diff src/http/
diff --git a/src/http/ngx_http_core_module.c b/src/http/ngx_http_core_module.c             index 9b94b328..17a64e80 100644                                                            --- a/src/http/ngx_http_core_module.c                                                      +++ b/src/http/ngx_http_core_module.c                                                      @@ -331,6 +331,14 @@ static ngx_command_t  ngx_http_core_commands[] = {
       0,
       NULL },
+    { ngx_string("dump"),
+      NGX_HTTP_MAIN_CONF|NGX_HTTP_SRV_CONF|NGX_HTTP_LOC_CONF|NGX_HTTP_LIF_CONF
+                        |NGX_CONF_TAKE1,
+      ngx_http_core_dump,
+      NGX_HTTP_LOC_CONF_OFFSET,
+      0,
+      NULL },
+
     { ngx_string("alias"),
       NGX_HTTP_LOC_CONF|NGX_CONF_TAKE1,
       ngx_http_core_root,

Ok so this is how a command is registered. It obviously won't build without ngx_http_core_dump so let's implement that by copying/renaming ngx_http_core_root:

$ git --no-pager diff src
diff --git a/src/http/ngx_http_core_module.c b/src/http/ngx_http_core_module.c
index 9b94b328..c184dab5 100644
--- a/src/http/ngx_http_core_module.c
+++ b/src/http/ngx_http_core_module.c
@@ -4402,6 +4410,16 @@ ngx_http_core_root(ngx_conf_t *cf, ngx_command_t *cmd, void *conf)
}


+static char *
+ngx_http_core_dump(ngx_conf_t *cf, ngx_command_t *cmd, void *conf)
+{
+    ngx_http_core_loc_conf_t *clcf = conf;
+    ngx_str_t *value = cf->args->elts;
+    clcf->dump = value[1];
+    return NGX_CONF_OK;
+}
+
+
static ngx_http_method_name_t  ngx_methods_names[] = {
     { (u_char *) "GET",       (uint32_t) ~NGX_HTTP_GET },
     { (u_char *) "HEAD",      (uint32_t) ~NGX_HTTP_HEAD },

The goal here is to just store the dump string on this conf object. Then while serving the request we can check if this is set and if so, respond to the request with this string.

This still clearly won't build because we didn't modify this conf object. But let's run make anyway.

$ make -f objs/Makefile
make[1]: Entering directory '/home/phil/vendor/nginx'
cc -c -pipe  -O -W -Wall -Wpointer-arith -Wno-unused-parameter -Werror -g  -I src/core -I src/event -I src/event/modules -I src/os/unix -I objs -I src/http -I src/http/modules \
        -o objs/src/http/ngx_http_core_module.o \
        src/http/ngx_http_core_module.c
src/http/ngx_http_core_module.c:337:7: error: ngx_http_core_dump undeclared here (not in a function); did you mean ngx_http_core_type?
337 |       ngx_http_core_dump,
    |       ^~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    |       ngx_http_core_type
src/http/ngx_http_core_module.c: In function ngx_http_core_dump:
src/http/ngx_http_core_module.c:4418:9: error: ngx_http_core_loc_conf_t {aka struct ngx_http_core_loc_conf_s} has no member named dump
4418 |     clcf->dump = value[1];
     |         ^~
src/http/ngx_http_core_module.c:4418:5: error: statement with no effect [-Werror=unused-value]
4418 |     clcf->dump = value[1];
     |     ^~~~
At top level:
src/http/ngx_http_core_module.c:4414:1: error: ngx_http_core_dump defined but not used [-Werror=unused-function]
4414 | ngx_http_core_dump(ngx_conf_t *cf, ngx_command_t *cmd, void *conf)
     | ^~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
cc1: all warnings being treated as errors
make[1]: *** [objs/Makefile:834: objs/src/http/ngx_http_core_module.o] Error 1
make[1]: Leaving directory '/home/phil/vendor/nginx'
make: *** [Makefile:10: build] Error 2

The dump handler is undeclared. While copying ngx_http_core_root earlier I saw that there was a forward declaration toward the top. Let's copy that as well and see if that fixes anything.

$ git --no-pager diff
diff --git a/src/http/ngx_http_core_module.c b/src/http/ngx_http_core_module.c
index 9b94b328..430e1256 100644
--- a/src/http/ngx_http_core_module.c
+++ b/src/http/ngx_http_core_module.c
@@ -56,6 +56,7 @@ static char *ngx_http_core_listen(ngx_conf_t *cf, ngx_command_t *cmd,
static char *ngx_http_core_server_name(ngx_conf_t *cf, ngx_command_t *cmd,
    void *conf);
static char *ngx_http_core_root(ngx_conf_t *cf, ngx_command_t *cmd, void *conf);
+static char *ngx_http_core_dump(ngx_conf_t *cf, ngx_command_t *cmd, void *conf);
 static char *ngx_http_core_limit_except(ngx_conf_t *cf, ngx_command_t *cmd,
    void *conf);
 static char *ngx_http_core_set_aio(ngx_conf_t *cf, ngx_command_t *cmd,

And build:

$ make
make -f objs/Makefile
make[1]: Entering directory '/home/phil/vendor/nginx'
cc -c -pipe  -O -W -Wall -Wpointer-arith -Wno-unused-parameter -Werror -g  -I src/core -I src/event -I src/event/modules -I src/os/unix -I objs -I src/http -I src/http/modules \
        -o objs/src/http/ngx_http_core_module.o \
src/http/ngx_http_core_module.c
src/http/ngx_http_core_module.c: In function ngx_http_core_dump:
src/http/ngx_http_core_module.c:4419:9: error: ngx_http_core_loc_conf_t {aka struct ngx_http_core_loc_conf_s} has no member named dump
4419 |     clcf->dump = value[1];
     |         ^~
make[1]: *** [objs/Makefile:834: objs/src/http/ngx_http_core_module.o] Error 1
make[1]: Leaving directory '/home/phil/vendor/nginx'
make: *** [Makefile:10: build] Error 2

Perfect. Now let's add dump as a member to this conf object.

$ git --no-pager grep ngx_http_core_loc_conf_t\;
src/http/ngx_http_core_module.h:typedef struct ngx_http_core_loc_conf_s  ngx_http_core_loc_conf_t;

Let's just clone the root member:

$ diff --git a/src/http/ngx_http_core_module.h b/src/http/ngx_http_core_module.h
index 2aadae7f..6b1b178b 100644
--- a/src/http/ngx_http_core_module.h
+++ b/src/http/ngx_http_core_module.h
@@ -333,6 +333,7 @@ struct ngx_http_core_loc_conf_s {
/* location name length for inclusive location with inherited alias */
     size_t        alias;
     ngx_str_t     root;                    /* root, alias */
+    ngx_str_t     dump;
     ngx_str_t     post_action;

     ngx_array_t  *root_lengths;

Run make and it succeeds!

Now we spend a few hours looking around for a good place to add a hook during a request. Ultimately, ngx_http_core_find_config_phase seems like a good place since only then will we be dealing with the struct we added dump to.

Next step is figuring out how to send a response. Grepping for response isn't super useful, neither is write. But send has some pretty low-level but obvious behavior.

$ git --no-pager grep send\(
src/mail/ngx_mail.h:void ngx_mail_send(ngx_event_t *wev);
src/mail/ngx_mail_auth_http_module.c:    n = ngx_send(c, ctx->request->pos, size);)
...

That second result looks promising. Looking at that file it looks like we need an object that has a ->data member. In src/http/ngx_http_core_module.c I noticed that the request object has a member that looks interesting: r->connection->write->data. And if we look up the signature we just need to also send ngx_send a string and a length.

Thankfully we already have that from our dump member. So let's try something simple:

$ git --no-pager diff
diff --git a/src/http/ngx_http_core_module.c b/src/http/ngx_http_core_module.c
index 9b94b328..bd58788b 100644
--- a/src/http/ngx_http_core_module.c
+++ b/src/http/ngx_http_core_module.c
@@ -989,6 +996,11 @@ ngx_http_core_find_config_phase(ngx_http_request_t *r,
         ngx_http_finalize_request(r, NGX_HTTP_REQUEST_ENTITY_TOO_LARGE);
         return NGX_OK;
}
+
+    if (clcf->dump.len) {
+      ngx_send(r->connection->write->data, clcf->dump.data, clcf->dump.len);
+      return NGX_OK;
+    }

Run make and it's good! Let's turn off the nginx daemon and worker processes so it's easier to quit as we're iterating.

$ git --no-pager diff conf/
diff --git a/conf/nginx.conf b/conf/nginx.conf
index 29bc085f..7cce7d65 100644
--- a/conf/nginx.conf
+++ b/conf/nginx.conf
@@ -1,4 +1,5 @@
-
+daemon off;
+master_process off;
 #user  nobody;
 worker_processes  1;

Now run ./objs/nginx -c $(pwd)/conf/nginx.conf. Try to curl:

$ curl localhost:2020
curl: (1) Received HTTP/0.9 when not allowed

Huh, that's unexpected. Let's try using telnet to get the whole raw response:

$ telnet localhost 2020
Trying ::1...
telnet: connect to address ::1: Connection refused
Trying 127.0.0.1...
Connected to localhost.
Escape character is '^]'.
GET /
It was a good Thursday.

Oh man. That's super cool. Unfortunately it's also not valid HTTP. It seems like if we're using ngx_send we'll have to set the HTTP response headers manually.

If we're going to pass a literal string to ngx_send we'll have to convert it to an ngx_str_t. Judging from src/core/ngx_string.h the ngx_string macro should be able to do this.

$ git --no-pager diff src
diff --git a/src/http/ngx_http_core_module.c b/src/http/ngx_http_core_module.c
index 9b94b328..1a1baccd 100644
--- a/src/http/ngx_http_core_module.c
+++ b/src/http/ngx_http_core_module.c
@@ -989,6 +996,13 @@ ngx_http_core_find_config_phase(ngx_http_request_t *r,
         ngx_http_finalize_request(r, NGX_HTTP_REQUEST_ENTITY_TOO_LARGE);
         return NGX_OK;
     }
+
+    static ngx_str_t header = ngx_string("HTTP/1.0 200 OK\r\n\r\n");
+    if (clcf->dump.len) {
+      ngx_send(r->connection->write->data, header.data, header.len);
+      ngx_send(r->connection->write->data, clcf->dump.data, clcf->dump.len);
+      return NGX_OK;
+    }

     if (rc == NGX_DONE) {
         ngx_http_clear_location(r);
}

Compile, run and curl:

$ curl localhost:2020

Huh. It's no longer complaining about HTTP/0.9 but it's now hanging. Let's try verbose curling.

$ curl -vvv localhost:2020
*   Trying ::1:2020...
* connect to ::1 port 2020 failed: Connection refused
*   Trying 127.0.0.1:2020...
* Connected to localhost (127.0.0.1) port 2020 (#0)
> GET / HTTP/1.1
> Host: localhost:2020
> User-Agent: curl/7.71.1
> Accept: */*
>
* Mark bundle as not supporting multiuse
* HTTP 1.0, assume close after body
< HTTP/1.0 200 OK

That's really weird. But I noticed there was a ngx_http_request_finalize function that other parts of the code were calling. Let's try adding that.

$ git --no-pager diff src
diff --git a/src/http/ngx_http_core_module.c b/src/http/ngx_http_core_module.c
index 9b94b328..1a1baccd 100644
--- a/src/http/ngx_http_core_module.c
+++ b/src/http/ngx_http_core_module.c
@@ -989,6 +996,14 @@ ngx_http_core_find_config_phase(ngx_http_request_t *r,
         ngx_http_finalize_request(r, NGX_HTTP_REQUEST_ENTITY_TOO_LARGE);
         return NGX_OK;
     }
+
+    static ngx_str_t header = ngx_string("HTTP/1.0 200 OK\r\n\r\n");
+    if (clcf->dump.len) {
+      ngx_send(r->connection->write->data, header.data, header.len);
+      ngx_send(r->connection->write->data, clcf->dump.data, clcf->dump.len);
+      ngx_http_finalize_request(r, NGX_DONE);
+      return NGX_OK;
+    }

Build, run, curl. Still hanging. Looking into the source code of ngx_http_finalize_request it seems like there's a case where the connection is completely closed if you pass in NGX_HTTP_CLOSE. Let's try that.

$ curl localhost:2020
It was a good Thursday.

Well hot dog, it works.

Reflection

Is this a good way to implement commands in nginx? No. While I knew a bit about nginx modules as a user it's clear that as a developer this command could have been implemented much more cleanly as a module too.

There also has to be higher-level tooling for returning constructing responses rather than writing out headers manually.

Feedback

As always, I'd love to hear from you with questions or ideas.