Optimizing an Xserve for Web Hosting

Posted on January 24, 2008. Filed under: Apache, Hardware, Hosting, Leopard, OSX, Servers, Software, Xserve | Tags: , , , , , |

A single Xserve is ideally suited for smaller scale Web hosting, where the task is to host a handful of moderate-traffic sites. (With a fleet of Xserves, you could host an eBay or an Apple.com, but that’s a topic for another article.) The Xserve’s Apache Web server software has a multitude of configuration options. In this article, I will go over how to set up Apache to serve multiple Web sites from the same machine—so-called “virtual hosting.” I will also look at ways to optimize the server’s setup for fast, robust Web hosting. This article assumes that you have already followed the steps in the Mac OS X Server Administrator’s Guide to start Web service. (You can find the Guide on the Mac OS X Server Manuals page.)

Hosting Multiple Domains on One Server

The out-of-the-box behavior of Apache is to have one IP address and to serve one domain. However, it is quite easy to transparently host thousands of domains on a single Xserve, and the users need never know that it’s one machine behind the scenes and not a whole farm. There are two approaches to this sort of “virtual hosting”—IP-based and name-based. With IP-based hosting, each domain name is mapped to its own individual IP address. Name-based hosting uses a little trickery so that many domains can be served from the same IP address. IP-based hosting is a little more robust—it allows for secured HTTPS transactions, which are important for Web commerce, reverse DNS, and some other features; but IP addresses are scarce, so name-based hosting, which works perfectly well, is probably preferable for most applications. Name-based hosting depends on a certain header sent by the browser, and as a result it doesn’t work with some browsers released before 1997, but that is less and less of an issue as those browsers become increasingly scarce. I will go over how to set up both kinds of virtual hosting.

IP-Based Hosting

Assuming you have already acquired the domain names and IP addresses you’ll be using, the first step in creating an IP-based hosting setup is to configure the Xserve to have multiple IP addresses on the same Ethernet card. This can be done from System Preferences on the Xserve. Open the Network Preferences pane. Select “Active Network Ports” from the Show drop-down menu. Choose the port corresponding to the Ethernet card that you want to assign multiple IP addresses to, and click “Duplicate.” Then simply change the duplicate configuration to reflect the second IP address. It is necessary also to make sure that the Subnet Mask setting for all but one of the ports is This will prevent conflicts in the routing tables.

On a headless Xserve, the same thing can be accomplished with the IPAliases startup item. If the file /etc/IPAliases.conf doesn’t exist, create it. For each additional IP address, this file should contain one line of the form


For example, to add the IP address to the en0 network interface, the following line would be used:


The netmask should always be

In addition, IP aliases must be turned on, by adding to /etc/hostconfig the line


Every time the system is booted, the aliases listed in /etc/IPAliases.conf will be added. The file can contain any number of aliases.

With multiple IP addresses configured, the next step is to add DNS entries. For each domain that you want mapped to an IP address, create an A record in the DNS pointing the address to the site. In BIND, the A record might look like this:

firstdomain.com.   A

All of the records for the various domains can be in the same DNS file or in different ones, depending on the preferences of your users and whether you host your own DNS or not.

Finally, tell Apache how to deal with requests for the various addresses. In Server Settings, click Web in the Internet tab. Choose “Configure Web Service” from the drop-down menu. In the Sites tab, you can add as many sites as you like, just by entering the domain name and IP address for each one. The content for each site should be placed in the folder you specify in the “Web folder” field here.

Name-Based Hosting

Setting up name-based hosting is a bit simpler. Add DNS records for each domain to be hosted, such that each domain name resolves to the same single IP address—the one associated with your Xserve. When a user’s browser makes a request for one of the domains, it will send an HTTP Host header indicating which domain it is requesting. Apache interprets this header and returns the appropriate content.

After the DNS is configured, go to Server Settings’ Internet tab, and choose “Configure Web Service” from the Web drop-down menu. Go to the Sites tab. Here you can create an entry for each site you want to serve. Give each one the same IP address but different domain names. Content will be served from the location specified in the “Web folder” field.

If desired, name-based and IP-based hosting can co-exist.

Handling A Lot Of Domains

If you are hosting quite a few domains, or adding new ones frequently, it can be inconvenient to add an entry for each one in Server Settings. The process can be automated to a degree, so that simply adding a DNS entry and creating a new directory for content on the Xserve is sufficient to launch each new domain. NOTE that this method and that of adding sites via Server Settings are mutually exclusive—new domains added in this way will not be reflected in Server Settings, and adding or editing sites in Server Settings will alter the configuration of the automatically created domains with unpredictable results. This method also precludes turning the performance cache on and off on a per-domain basis. That said, here are the basic steps.

First, configure a single site in Server Settings, with the correct IP address. The domain name you give it doesn’t matter. Save the changes.

Edit /etc/httpd/httpd.conf to uncomment the two lines beginning:

LoadModule vhost_alias_module


AddModule vhost_alias_module

Also, change the line

UseCanonicalName On


UseCanonicalName Off

Next, edit /etc/httpd/httpd_macosXserver.conf. There should be a long comment section starting with the line:

## The section below contains a block for each site (virtual host).

Below this comment section is the stanza to edit. It looks something like this:

#<RAdmin 100>NameVirtualHost



#WebPerfCacheEnable Off

#SiteAutomaticallyDisabled Off

ServerName example.com

ServerAdmin webmaster@example.com

DocumentRoot "/Library/WebServer/Documents/"

DirectoryIndex index.html index.php

CustomLog "/private/var/log/httpd/access_log" "%{PC-Remote-Addr}i %l %u %t \"%r\" %>s %b"

ErrorLog "/private/var/log/httpd/error_log"

and so on.

The stanza may look somewhat different if performance caching is enabled.

There are just a few changes to make to this. First, on the ServerName line, you can place the fallback domain to which users of pre-1997 browsers will be sent. This line has to exist, but for users of modern browsers, it will be ignored.

Then modify the DocumentRoot line to look like this:

VirtualDocumentRoot /Library/WebServer/Documents/%0

and the CustomLog line to include %v :

CustomLog "/private/var/log/httpd/access_log" "%v %{PC-Remote-Addr}i %l %u %t \"%r\" %>s %b"

Save the file and restart Apache.

The VirtualDocumentRoot directive tells Apache to interpolate information from the server name, which in this case is read on the fly from the user’s browser, into the pathname. “%0” is a specifier representing the requested domain name. Thus, a browser request for http://domain-ten.com/index.html will be answered with the file at /Library/WebServer/Documents/domain-ten.com/index.html.

As a result, to host a new domain, all that has to be done is to create a new directory corresponding to the domain name in /Library/WebServer/Documents, and to place content to be served in that directory.

The various specifiers understood by the VirtualDocumentRoot directive are explained on the apache.org website. For example, if you have hundreds of domains hosted, they can be sorted into 36 directories based on their first alphanumeric character with the following directive:

VirtualDocumentRoot /Library/WebServer/Documents/%1.1/%0

A side-effect of this aliasing technique is that log data for all the virtual domains is sent to the same file. Adding the “%v” specifier to the CustomLog line prepends the name of the domain to each log line. A simple script can be used to parse this master log file into individual files for each domain, if so desired. More information on CustomLog specifiers is available on the apache.org website.

Tuning Web Server Performance

When setting up an Xserve for use as a Web server, there are a number of things you can do to improve performance. Some of these techniques improve the performance of the machine in general; others involve examining where bottlenecks may be occurring and tuning the Web server to work around them.

First, it is important to make sure the hardware is up to speed. Even a low-end Xserve has a very nice feature set, including fast disk access, fast Ethernet, and a minimum of 256MB of RAM out of the box. The RAM allotment can be increased to 2 gigs: if the Web server at full-throttle seems to be using a lot of memory, buying more RAM could speed things up considerably. In terms of hardware, there are several options that will increase reliability, including IP failover to a second server, which is described in detail in the Admin Guide, and adding an Xserve RAID for ultra-fast and reliable storage.

In addition to the hardware approaches, there are a number of software-based strategies for optimizing a Web server. I will detail some of these below.

Apple’s Performance Cache

Included in the OS X Server installation is Apple’s performance cache. This acts as an intermediary between the Apache Web server and the user: the cache stores a copy of commonly requested pages from the sites served, and, upon receiving a user request for one of these pages, sends it along. This involves much less overhead than invoking Apache each time the page is requested. Apache is still kept busy serving dynamic and less common pages. The cache can be enabled and disabled individually for each of the sites served from the machine. In general, the cache is very helpful for highish-traffic sites that consist primarily of static HTML pages. The total size of the site’s popularly requested static pages should be small enough to fit in the machine’s RAM; otherwise caching may actually slow things down. For sites with primarily dynamic content, the cache will not be helpful.

To turn the performance cache for a particular site on or off, go to the Internet tab in Server Settings and click Web. Choose “Configure Web Service,” and then select the Sites tab. Edit the site you want to change, and go to the Options tab. Check or uncheck “Enable performance cache” and save. The changes take effect when the Web server is restarted from the Web drop-down menu. Note that this cannot be done with a server configured with dynamic site addressing, as explained above.

Aspects of the behavior of the cache can be configured in the file /etc/webperfcache/webperfcache.conf. The default settings seem to work quite well, but they can be adjusted to make the cache work better with tweaked Apache settings (see below) or unusual server configurations.

Tweaking Apache

Apache has various settings which control how it handles requests. Tuning these can make a big difference in the performance of the server.

Apache’s performance can be monitored by viewing yourhosteddomain.com/server-status in a browser. Configure the <Location /server-status> section in /etc/httpd/httpd_macosXserver.conf to control who can view the status: it’s set by default to deny all but localhost.

Eliminating Unnecessary Modules

The first step in speeding up Apache is to remove any unnecessary modules. To see which modules are compiled in, do the following:

In httpd.conf, there is a section that looks like this:

#<Location /server-info>#    SetHandler server-info

#    Order deny,allow

#    Deny from all

#    Allow from .your-domain.com


Remove the # from the beginning of each line to uncomment the directive. Change “.your-domain.com” to the actual domain(s) that you wish to access server information from, and then restart Apache.

Now http://yoursite.com/server-info should display a variety of detailed information about the server, including which modules are compiled in, and configuration information for each module.

Modules that are compiled in statically can’t be removed without recompiling the Web server. The out-of-the-box configuration of Apache on Xserve has almost every module compiled as dynamically loadable, so it is easy to turn off unnecessary ones without recompiling the Web server. Dynamic modules are loaded when Apache starts, according to the LoadModule and AddModule directives in the file /etc/httpd/httpd.conf.

The base installation of Apache that ships with OS X Server loads quite a few dynamic modules by default. Each of these takes up some memory, and some of them, such as mod_status, cause Apache to do extra work with every request. Any modules that aren’t necessary to the functioning of the sites you host should not be loaded. This can be controlled by commenting out (by prefixing a # on each line) the relevant LoadModule and AddModule directives for each module in /etc/httpd/httpd.conf. Every module has both a LoadModule and and AddModule directive—be sure to comment out both when disabling a module. Mod_include and mod_rewrite, among others, are notorious performance hogs.

Adjusting Processes

There are several directives that can be adjusted to modify how Apache handles traffic. Apache will spawn new versions of itself to handle requests. MaxClients sets the maximum number of these that will be spawned. The more of these there are, the faster Apache can handle a large number of requests—up to the limitations of the machine’s memory. The default is 500. Figure on about 1 MB of RAM for each httpd instance, and set MaxClients accordingly in Server Settings (or /etc/httpd/httpd_macosXserver.conf).

The MinSpareServers and MaxSpareServers directives, in /etc/httpd/httpd.conf, set how many spare server processes are running to handle sudden requests. StartServers sets how many are created when Apache first starts. You may want to increase StartServers and MaxSpareServers if Apache seems to be slowing down when it has to create new processes. When Apache spawns more than four child processes per second—a sign that it may need more spare servers—it logs that fact to its error log. Keep an eye on the log and tune if necessary.

MaxRequestsPerChild keeps a lid on potential memory leaks by killing off each child process after it has served a certain number of requests. The default setting on OS X Server is 100,000, which is reasonable. A setting of 0 means that Apache’s children are never killed.

The KeepAlive settings in /etc/httpd/httpd_macosXserver.conf control how each server process listens for new requests on a connection that has been established. Increasing KeepAlive requests reduces traffic from new connections, but increases server load with many Apache processes waiting around for orders.

Removing Extra Steps

Another key to speeding up Apache’s behavior is to minimize the number of things it has to do for each request. If the Web server is receiving a lot of requests, these extra tasks can bog it down tremendously.

HostnameLookups causes Apache to perform a DNS lookup for every incoming request, so it can log the domain name as well as the IP address in the access log. This should be turned off, as it is by default, if performance is an issue. The DNS lookups can be performed after the fact, on another machine, using a tool such as logresolve.

If AllowOverride is turned on, then Apache checks for the presence of .htaccess files containing overriding directives at every level of the hierarchy. This repetitive checking eats up server resources. For maximum performance, set AllowOverride None. (This is the default setting for OS X Server.)

FollowSymLinks is a directive that instructs Apache to follow symbolic links without performing an additional security check on them. If this is turned off, Apache slows down to check each symbolic link.

Finally, logging is very important for 95 percent of Web-hosting activities, but if you are not using it, turning it off will improve performance. All that file access slows things down considerably. Set TransferLog /dev/null in /etc/httpd/httpd.conf.

Temporary Adjustments

Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you have advance warning of a peak in Web traffic; say, a well-read news site is planning to link to one of the domains you host tomorrow. There are a few emergency preparations that can be made to allow for that kind of situation.

First, free up memory and CPU by offloading everything you can. If the Xserve is acting as a mail server, database server, or what-have-you, as well as a Web server, move those duties to another machine if possible. If there are other medium-traffic domains that could be hosted elsewhere temporarily, do it. Shut down unnecessary processes and cron jobs.

Second, make sure you have enough bandwidth. If you use a firewall, you may want to reconfigure its socket handling to maximize throughput.

If it is possible, making changes to the content of the
domain to be served can be very effective. Remove images, reduce
their file sizes, or simply move them to another server and
serve them from there.

Apache’s MaxClients limit is hard-coded at 2048 in OS X
Server. For peak traffic, you may want far more clients than
this. It is necessary to recompile Apache to make this change.
You will have to download the source code from the
href=”http://httpd.apache.org/download.cgi”>apache.org website. In the source file src/include/httpd.h,
change the line

#define HARD_SERVER_LIMIT 2048


#define HARD_SERVER_LIMIT 4096

Or whatever number seems appropriate. Note that the number given here is usually a factor of 2.

Then recompile according to the instructions in the INSTALL file included with the source.

Careful deployment of all of these tips should significantly improve the way the Xserve handles Web serving. If, after all of the above, your server simply can’t handle the load it’s getting, that’s when you should consider adding a second machine to share the burden.

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[…] Quad Master wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptA single Xserve is ideally suited for smaller scale Web hosting, where the task is to host a handful of moderate-traffic sites. (With a fleet of Xserves, you could host an eBay or an Apple.com, but that’s a topic for another article.) The Xserve’s Apache Web server software has a multitude of configuration options. In this article, I will go over how to set up Apache to serve multiple Web sites from the same machine—so-called “virtual hosting.” I will also look at ways to optimize the server’s setup for fast, robust Web hosting. This article assumes that you have already followed the steps in the Mac OS X Server Administrator’s Guide to start Web service. (You can find the Guide on the Mac OS X Server Manuals page.) Hosting Multiple Domains on One Server The out-of-the-box behavior of Apache is to have one IP address and to serve one domain. However, […] […]

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[…] Optimizing an Xserve for Web Hosting – Been there done that. […]

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