Bob Showalter acts_as_developer

How I Converted a Large mod_perl Project to a PSGI App


I’ve been working on a large intranet application for several years. The user facing portion of the application is a set of CGI scripts using I have everything running under Apache mod_perl 2.0. The pages are handled with ModPerl::Registry::Prefork, which allows normal CGI scripts to run under mod_perl.

(Note: since ModPerl::Registry::Prefork wraps your script in an outer sub {} that can be executed by the handler, you have to avoid file-scoped lexicals for sharing variables within your script. The easy fix is to change file-scoped my variables to our variables. All of my scripts had this in place already, which made the migration to PSGI easier.)


This environment works fine, but it has a few drawbacks in practice:

  • The application is tied to Apache, which means I have to configure a full Apache stack for development.
  • It’s difficult to use mod_perl with tools like plenv and Carton, which allow an application-specific Perl installation. So I end up polluting the system Perl.
  • Acceptance testing is difficult, since I can’t run the application pages without an Apache stack.


Enter PSGI/Plack. This is a modern specfication and set of supporting modules inspired by Ruby’s Rack. Think of it as a standard way of defining applications and servers so they can work together in multiple configurations.

What it meant for me was that if I could change my application from working with mod_perl-specific specification (ModPerl::Registry::Prefork) to working with the PSGI specification, I would no longer have to run the application under Apache, and I would be able to address all of the drabacks mentioned above.


My goals for this change were:

  • I would like to move away from, but don’t want to have to do it right now. Ideally, I would like to not have to change any of the current CGI scripts.
  • I don’t want to have to rearrange the file structure of my application right away. The current application has executable CGI scripts, template files, stylesheets, javascripts, and images all under the same tree.

Both of these would allow me to get to PSGI now, without having to make changes to all of the scripts. Once I am on PSGI, I can work on restructuring the app to get away from and use a more intelligent file layout.

What’s in the Box?

The toughest part of this whole thing was trying to wrap my head around what all this stuff in Plack/PSGI was, exactly. There are a ton of tools included, and it took some time to figure out what I did and did not need for my task.

The most important concept to understand is a PSGI application. A PSGI application is a code reference that is executed to handle an HTTP request and return an HTTP response. The format of the request and response are defined by the PSGI specification.

There are essentially four types of tools in the Plack toolbox (or in separately available modules):

  • Servers and server adapters. These are either standalone web servers or adapters for popular web servers that enable them to run PSGI applications. I didn’t need to worry about this yet; once I had a PSGI application, I should be able to run it on any of these servers using these tools.
  • Frameworks. A framework is a “canned” PSGI application that you can hook your functionality into. I originally thought that I needed to pick one of these frameworks, but that turned out to be incorrect. More on that below.
  • Middleware. Plack middleware are code references that can be injected into the request/response cycle to do all kinds of things, including modifying the request before it gets to the application or modifying the response after it is returned by the application. Middleware is extremely powerful and easy to use, and there are tons of pre-built middleware modules.
  • Applications. Plack comes with a set of pre-built applications that are ready to use right away; you don’t have to add any code. Each of these has a specific single function. For example, there is one to serve static files from a directory tree. There is another to execute CGI scripts in a cgi-bin directory.

Getting to a Solution

When I first started looking at all of this, nothing seemed to be the right answer. I didn’t want a framework, because I would have to rewrite all my scripts to adapt to the framework’s calling conventions. The Plack::APP::CGIBin application seemed promising. From the description:

Plack::App::CGIBin allows you to load CGI scripts from a directory and convert them into a PSGI application.

OK, this is close to what I’m doing, but the problem is that my directory contains more than just CGI scripts. It also contains static assets that need to be served (stylesheets, etc.) as well as other files that should not be served (templates). Plack::App::CGIBin will just blindly treat all the files in my directory as CGI scripts to be executed.

The solution finally came to me when I examined the Plack::App::CGIBin source code. It turns out that Plack::App::CGIBin just subclasses Plack::App::File, which serves static files from a directory. Plack::App::File takes care of converting a URL to a file path, responding with a 404 for non-existent files, and then returning the file contents. Plack::App::CGIBin replaces the file sending with code to execute the file as a script.

So what I needed was my own custom version of Plack::App::File that would do the following things:

  • Map urls to file names from a document root. Plack::App::File does that out of the box.
  • Send a 404 response on a non-existent file. Again, already does that.
  • Send stylesheets, images, etc. as static content. Already does that as well.
  • Send a 404 response on my templates or other files that should not be served to the client. New functionality.
  • Handle my CGI scripts by executing them. New functionality I can steal from Plack::App::CGIBin
  • Treat as the script to run if a directory url is requested (similar to Apache’s DirectoryIndex directive). I will use middleware for this.

The Final Application

Here is what I finally came up with. I named the file app.psgi, which is the default application file name. This means I can start a local server for this application just by running the command plackup. Sweet.

I placed the app.psgi file in the root directory of my application. All the content that I want to serve is in the www subdirectory below this root.

A line-by-line analysis of the application follows.

     1	#!/usr/bin/env perl
     3	package MyApp;
     5	use common::sense;
     7	use File::Basename;
     8	use File::Spec;
     9	use Plack::App::WrapCGI;
    10	use SUPER;
    12	use parent 'Plack::App::File';
    14	# only files ending with these suffixes will be served statically
    15	my @STATIC_SUFFIXES = qw(.css .gif .ico .js .png);
    17	sub should_serve_static
    18	{
    19	  my ($self, $suffix) = @_;
    20	  $self->{static_suffixes} ||= do {
    21	    my %h;
    22	    @h{@STATIC_SUFFIXES} = ();
    23	    \%h;
    24	  };
    25	  exists($self->{static_suffixes}{$suffix});
    26	}
    28	sub serve_path
    29	{
    30	  my ($self, $env, $file) = @_;
    32	  # get path and suffix
    33	  my ($name, $path, $suffix) = fileparse($file, qr/\.[^.]*/);
    35	  # serve as a perl script (adapted from Plack::App::CGIBin serve_path method)
    36	  if ($suffix eq '.pl') {
    37	    local @{$env}{qw(SCRIPT_NAME PATH_INFO)} = @{$env}{qw( plack.file.SCRIPT_NAME plack.file.PATH_INFO )};
    38	    local $env->{DOCUMENT_ROOT} = $self->root;
    39	    local $env->{GATEWAY_INTERFACE} = 'PSGI/1.1';
    40	    local $env->{REMOTE_USER} = 'bshowalt';
    41	    my $app = $self->{_compiled}{$file} ||= Plack::App::WrapCGI->new(script => $file)->to_app;
    42	    return $app->($env);
    43	  }
    45	  # serve as static file
    46	  return super if $self->should_serve_static($suffix);
    48	  # otherwise not found
    49	  $self->return_404;
    50	}
    52	package main;
    54	use common::sense;
    56	use FindBin;
    57	use Plack::Builder;
    59	builder {
    60	  enable 'DirIndex', dir_index => '';
    61	  MyApp->new(
    62	    root => "$FindBin::Bin/www"
    63	  )->to_app;
    64	};
  • Line 1: Perl scripts should be loaded with #!/usr/bin/env perl instead of #!/usr/bin/perl, so tools like plenv can use a local Perl environment.
  • Line 3-13: I’m creating my custom application class, based on Plack::App::File.
  • Lines 14-26. Since I have some files I want to serve statically (e.g. stylesheets), and some that I don’t (e.g. templates), I created a whitelist of suffixes to be served statically. The should_serve_static method will return true of a given suffix represents a file that should be served statically.
  • Line 28: serve_path is overriding Plack::App::File’s method. Here is the meat of my application.
  • Line 30: serve_path receives the PSGI evironment and the full path of the file that needs to be served. (This file exists; a 404 would already have been returned if a non-existent file was requested).
  • Line 33: Split the file path into separate components. The suffix will be the key to how the file will be handled.
  • Line 36-43: If the suffix is ‘.pl’, the file needs to be executed as a CGI script. The code here is lifted from Plack::App::CGIBin. Lines 38-40 set some environment variables that are needed by my particular application. Note that line 41 creates an app (a coderef), and line 42 executes the app, returning whatever the app returns (which in this case, is the output of the CGI program, in the PSGI response format).
  • Line 46: If the file was not a .pl, it should be served statically, but only if it is one of the whitelisted suffixes. The call to super invokes Plack::App::File’s handling, which will return the file contents.
  • Line 49: If we get here, the suffix was not .pl and was not one of the whitelisted static suffixes, so it must be a template or some other file I do not wish to be served. We will treat it as a “Not Found” response. The return_404 method is defined in Plack::App::File.
  • Line 52: Now that I have my custom application class, we can start the main application. The end result needs to be a PSGI application, which is a coderef.
  • Line 57: Plack::Builder is a DSL that lets you build an app by composing other apps with middleware.
  • Line 59: The call to builder wraps the DSL and returns an app coderef.
  • Line 60: This line enables the Plack::Middleware::DirIndex middleware, which changes the request for a directory to a request for a specific file within the directory ( in this case). This is handling what Apache’s DirectoryIndex directive was doing for me. Note that I did not need to add anything to my application to handle this case; the middleware takes care of it, and my application will only see the file. (Also, if a directory does not have an file, the middleware will not adjust the request, and Plack::App::File will treat the request as a 404.
  • Line 61-63: This constructs my application, setting the root directory to the www directory below the app.psgi file. The to_app method returns the psgi application.

There are some features I still need to handle, most of which will probably be done through middleware:

  • Authentication and authorization. This is being done now through some Apache directives in .htaccess files.
  • Error response pages (the standard pages are very minimalistic)

This conversion turned out really well. The application runs great, and I did not have to touch any of the actual CGI scripts or move any of the files around. I am now able to run and test the application outside of the Apache environment, and I’m ready to start migrating it away from and into a new framework, which might be an existing one or one that I create.

comments powered by Disqus