Apache HTTP Server Version 1.3

Descriptors and Apache

A descriptor, also commonly called a file handle is an object that a program uses to read or write an open file, or open network socket, or a variety of other devices. It is represented by an integer, and you may be familiar with stdin, stdout, and stderr which are descriptors 0, 1, and 2 respectively. Apache needs a descriptor for each log file, plus one for each network socket that it listens on, plus a handful of others. Libraries that Apache uses may also require descriptors. Normal programs don't open up many descriptors at all, and so there are some latent problems that you may experience should you start running Apache with many descriptors (i.e., with many virtual hosts).

The operating system enforces a limit on the number of descriptors that a program can have open at a time. There are typically three limits involved here. One is a kernel limitation, depending on your operating system you will either be able to tune the number of descriptors available to higher numbers (this is frequently called FD_SETSIZE). Or you may be stuck with a (relatively) low amount. The second limit is called the hard resource limit, and it is sometimes set by root in an obscure operating system file, but frequently is the same as the kernel limit. The third limit is called the soft resource limit. The soft limit is always less than or equal to the hard limit. For example, the hard limit may be 1024, but the soft limit only 64. Any user can raise their soft limit up to the hard limit. Root can raise the hard limit up to the system maximum limit. The soft limit is the actual limit that is used when enforcing the maximum number of files a process can have open.

To summarize:

  #open files  <=  soft limit  <=  hard limit  <=  kernel limit

You control the hard and soft limits using the limit (csh) or ulimit (sh) directives. See the respective man pages for more information. For example you can probably use ulimit -n unlimited to raise your soft limit up to the hard limit. You should include this command in a shell script which starts your webserver.

Unfortunately, it's not always this simple. As mentioned above, you will probably run into some system limitations that will need to be worked around somehow. Work was done in version 1.2.1 to improve the situation somewhat. Here is a partial list of systems and workarounds (assuming you are using 1.2.1 or later):

BSDI 2.0
Under BSDI 2.0 you can build Apache to support more descriptors by adding -DFD_SETSIZE=nnn to EXTRA_CFLAGS (where nnn is the number of descriptors you wish to support, keep it less than the hard limit). But it will run into trouble if more than approximately 240 Listen directives are used. This may be cured by rebuilding your kernel with a higher FD_SETSIZE.

FreeBSD 2.2, BSDI 2.1+
Similar to the BSDI 2.0 case, you should define FD_SETSIZE and rebuild. But the extra Listen limitation doesn't exist.

By default Linux has a kernel maximum of 256 open descriptors per process. There are several patches available for the 2.0.x series which raise this to 1024 and beyond, and you can find them in the "unofficial patches" section of the Linux Information HQ. None of these patches are perfect, and an entirely different approach is likely to be taken during the 2.1.x development. Applying these patches will raise the FD_SETSIZE used to compile all programs, and unless you rebuild all your libraries you should avoid running any other program with a soft descriptor limit above 256. As of this writing the patches available for increasing the number of descriptors do not take this into account. On a dedicated webserver you probably won't run into trouble.

Solaris through 2.5.1
Solaris has a kernel hard limit of 1024 (may be lower in earlier versions). But it has a limitation that files using the stdio library cannot have a descriptor above 255. Apache uses the stdio library for the ErrorLog directive. When you have more than approximately 110 virtual hosts (with an error log and an access log each) you will need to build Apache with -DHIGH_SLACK_LINE=256 added to EXTRA_CFLAGS. You will be limited to approximately 240 error logs if you do this.

AIX version 3.2?? appears to have a hard limit of 128 descriptors. End of story. Version 4.1.5 has a hard limit of 2000.

SCO OpenServer
Edit the /etc/conf/cf.d/stune file or use /etc/conf/cf.d/configure choice 7 (User and Group configuration) and modify the NOFILES kernel parameter to a suitably higher value. SCO recommends a number between 60 and 11000, the default is 110. Relink and reboot, and the new number of descriptors will be available.
If you have details on another operating system, please submit it through our Bug Report Page.

In addition to the problems described above there are problems with many libraries that Apache uses. The most common example is the bind DNS resolver library that is used by pretty much every unix, which fails if it ends up with a descriptor above 256. We suspect there are other libraries that similar limitations. So the code as of 1.2.1 takes a defensive stance and tries to save descriptors less than 16 for use while processing each request. This is called the low slack line.

Note that this shouldn't waste descriptors. If you really are pushing the limits and Apache can't get a descriptor above 16 when it wants it, it will settle for one below 16.

In extreme situations you may want to lower the low slack line, but you shouldn't ever need to. For example, lowering it can increase the limits 240 described above under Solaris and BSDI 2.0. But you'll play a delicate balancing game with the descriptors needed to serve a request. Should you want to play this game, the compile time parameter is LOW_SLACK_LINE and there's a tiny bit of documentation in the header file httpd.h.

Finally, if you suspect that all this slack stuff is causing you problems, you can disable it. Add -DNO_SLACK to EXTRA_CFLAGS and rebuild. But please report it to our Bug Report Page so that we can investigate.

Apache HTTP Server Version 1.3

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