Introduction to XCGI

Since most browser-based applications are dynamic web sites by nature, there is a need to efficiently support dynamically generated content. The recommended way is to use XCGI protocol, similar to CGI in spirit, for producing dynamic content using Perl code. The sample site shipped with Stunnix Perl Web Server includes sample trivial XCGI script in /sample-image/site/www/apps/sample-lib/Mods/ and a descriptor for it in /sample-image/site/www/root/sample-xcgi.xcgi.

The XCGI protocol Stunnix Perl Web Server supports is designed to allow one process to serve several http requests, thus eliminating startup time of Perl interpreter and time it needs to parse and compile code. It's very similar to FastCGI protocol in spirit, since it explicitly organizes flow control and lifetime of variables, unlike mod_perl framework.

When request comes that is to be handled by mod_xcgi module of Stunnix Perl Web Server, serving of this request is dispatched to one of the slave processes of Stunnix Perl Web Server. The chosen slave process checks whether it ever loaded corresponding XCGI script during its lifetime. If not, the file to which requested URL maps is loaded by the slave (using Perl "do" keyword). The return value of the "do" operator is reference to subroutine that has to be invoked to serve the request. The reference to Perl subroutine is stored in the slave process' dictionary, and then it's invoked. After the request to the corresponding XCGI script comes again, slave process just invokes the subroutine using reference extracted from dictionary. Before subroutine is invoked, environment is prepared the same way it's prepared for CGI scripts, and input and output are redirected to the socket that interfaces with browser in certain manner. This means that subroutine gets the same operating environment (i.e. STDIN/STDOUT/%ENV) the CGI script would get - meaning that all standard modules designed for CGI environment (most importantly, just work if used in XCGI. The only sign of running via XCGI for scripts is non-zero value of $ENV{RUNNING_VIA_XCGI}.

Writing a descriptor of the XCGI script

In order to simplify development of XCGI scripts, a Perl framework is provided as module. Using this framework, the file that is processed by XCGI script is effectively a description of the location of the code to load. Here is a content of /sample-image/site/www/root/sample-xcgi.xcgi from sample site shipped with SPWS:

use XCGI;
XCGI::run( {
	'inc'		=> "$ENV{'DOCUMENT_ROOT'}../apps/sample-lib/",
	    #don't use any path separator after $ENV{} - since it will make
	    #your script platform-dependant!!
        'nocache'       => (0+$ENV{XCGI_DONTCACHE_COMPILED_CODE}),
            #the line above computes whether to cache compiled scripts in
            #memory. To prevent XCGI scripts from being cached in memory
            #(i.e. to force reloading of them on each request - e.g. during
            #debugging them) uncomment corresponding "Set Env" entry at
            #the bottom of 'http.conf'
	'module' 	=> 'Mods::mod1',#name of module with implementation
					#of XCGI handler
	'function'	=> 'doit'	#name of sub to execute from that
					#module. Name 'handler' is default
    } );

As you can see, it loads module, and then calls subroutine run from XCGI passing various options in the reference to anonymous hash. The options are 'inc' (locations to add to @INC - list of directories to seach for modules in), 'nocache' (whether slave process should exit after serving one request to XCGI - e.g. during development), 'module' - specifying name of module to load for handling the request, and 'function' - specifying name of subroutine to invoke from that module.

Writing XCGI script

The XCGI script itself should be a Perl module, containing a subroutine that is invoked to handle http request. Here is a sample trivial XCGI script (simpler than script shipped with SPWS in sample site, located in file /sample-image/site/www/apps/sample-lib/Mods/

package Mods::mod1;
my $nr = 0;

#this is subroutine that is executed to handle request.
sub doit
    print "Content-type: text/html\n\n";
    print "Hi from Mods::mod1 - invoked $nr time(s)<br>";


The code can perform any initialization (like opening files or connections to database) at the module's scope. module also allows to write http request handlers that can be executed as plain CGI scripts and FastCGI scripts when used in other web servers like Apache; support for execution them under mod_perl is planned too.

Debugging XCGI scripts

During development it can be desireble to have web server to reload all sources of XCGI scripts before each request (e.g. to notice modifications or bugfixes made by developer). The value of 'nocache' option in XCGI descriptor controls this; the most convenient way to initialize the value passed to this option on a site-wide basis is using environment variable. We think that most convenient way to set them on site-wide or per-location basis is using configuration file directives. The sample configuration file shipped with SPWS already has a commented-out section that sets environment variable XCGI_DONTCACHE_COMPILED_CODE, and sample XCGI descriptors use them for initializing option 'nocache'; we advice other developers to follow this approach.