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Implementing Nginx as a web server and a reverse proxy (208.4)

Candidates should be able to install and configure a reverse proxy server, Nginx. Basic configuration of Nginx as a HTTP server is included.

Key Knowledge Areas

  • Nginx

  • Reverse Proxy

  • Basic Web Server

Terms and Utilities

  • /etc/nginx/

  • nginx


nginx Nginx can be used as a webserver, an HTTP reverse proxy or as an IMAP/POP3 proxy. It is pronounced as engine-x. Nginx is performing so well that large sites as Netflix, Wordpress and GitHub rely on Nginx. It doesn't work using threads as most of the other webserver software does but it's using an event driven (asynchronous) architecture. It has a small footprint and performs very well under load with predictable usage of resources. This predictable performance and small memory footprint makes Nginx interesting in both small and large environments. Nginx is distributed as Open Source software. There is also 'Nginx Plus', which is the commercial edition. This book will focus on the Open Source edition.

Reverse Proxy

A proxy server is a go-between or intermediary server that forwards requests for content from multiple clients to different servers across the Internet. A reverse proxy server is a type of proxy server that typically sits behind the firewall in a private network and directs client requests to the appropriate back-end server. A reverse proxy provides an additional level of abstraction and control to ensure the smooth flow of network traffic between clients and servers.

Common uses for a reverse proxy server include:

  • Load balancing -- A reverse proxy server can act as a "traffic cop," sitting in front of your back-end servers and distributing client requests across a group of servers in a manner that maximizes speed and capacity utilization while ensuring no server is overloaded, which can degrade performance. If a server goes down, the load balancer redirects traffic to the remaining online servers.

  • Web acceleration -- Reverse proxies can compress inbound and outbound data, as well as cache commonly requested content, both of which speed up the flow of traffic between clients and servers. They can also perform additional tasks such as SSL encryption to take load off of your web servers, thereby boosting their performance.

  • Security and anonymity -- By intercepting requests headed for your back-end servers, a reverse proxy server protects their identities and acts as an additional defense against security attacks. It also ensures that multiple servers can be accessed from a single record locater or URL regardless of the structure of your local area network.

Using Nginx as reverse HTTP proxy is not hard to configure. A very basic reverse proxy setup might look like this:

location / {
      proxy_set_header X-Real-IP $remote_addr;
      proxy_set_header X-Forwarded-For $remote_addr;
      proxy_set_header Host      $host;
      proxy_pass       http://localhost:8000;

In this example all requests received by Nginx, depending on the configuration of the server parameters in /etc/nginx/nginx.conf, are forwarded to an HTTP server running on localhost and listening on port 8000. The Nginx configuration file looks like this:

server {
    listen   80;

    root /var/www/; 
    index index.php index.html index.htm;


    location / {
        try_files $uri $uri/ /index.php;

    location ~ \.php$ {    
        proxy_set_header X-Real-IP  $remote_addr;
        proxy_set_header X-Forwarded-For $remote_addr;
        proxy_set_header Host $host;
        proxy_pass http://localhost:8080;

    location ~ /\.ht {
        deny all;

The line starting with location ~ /\.ht is added to prevent Nginx of displaying the content of Apache's .htaccess files. The try_files line is used to attempt to serve whatever page the visitor requests. If nginx is unable, then the file is passed to the proxy.

Basic Web Server

The default location for the configuration file in Nginx is /etc/nginx/nginx.conf.

A basic Nginx configuration, able to serve html files, looks like this:

server {
    # This will listen on all interfaces, you can instead choose a specific IP
    # such as listen x.x.x.x:80;  
    listen 80;

    # Here you can set a server name, you can use wildcards such as *
    # however remember if you use server_name *; You'll only match subdomains
    # to match both subdomains and the main domain use both and *

    # It is best to place the root of the server block at the server level, and not the location level
    # any location block path will be relative to this root. 
    root /usr/local/www/;

    # Access and error logging. NB: Error logging cannot be turned off. 
    access_log /var/log/nginx/example.access.log;
    error_log /var/log/nginx/example.error.log;

    location / { 
        # Rewrite rules and other criterias can go here
        # Remember to avoid using if() where possible (

For PHP support Nginx relies on a PHP fast-cgi spawner. Preferable is php-fpm which can be found at It has some unique features like adaptive process spawning and statistics and has the ability to start workers with different uid/gid/chroot/environment and different php.ini. The safe_mode can be replaced using this feature.

You can add the content below to nginx.conf. A better practice is to put the contents in a file and include this file into the main configuration file of Nginx. Create a file, for example php.conf and include the next line at the end of the Nginx main configuration file:

include php.conf;

The content of php.conf :

location ~ \.php {
    # for security reasons the next line is highly encouraged
    try_files $uri =404;

    fastcgi_param  QUERY_STRING       $query_string;
    fastcgi_param  REQUEST_METHOD     $request_method;
    fastcgi_param  CONTENT_TYPE       $content_type;
    fastcgi_param  CONTENT_LENGTH     $content_length;

    fastcgi_param  SCRIPT_NAME        $fastcgi_script_name;

    # if the next line in yours still contains $document_root
    # consider switching to $request_filename provides
    # better support for directives such as alias
    fastcgi_param  SCRIPT_FILENAME    $request_filename;

    fastcgi_param  REQUEST_URI        $request_uri;
    fastcgi_param  DOCUMENT_URI       $document_uri;
    fastcgi_param  DOCUMENT_ROOT      $document_root;
    fastcgi_param  SERVER_PROTOCOL    $server_protocol;

    fastcgi_param  GATEWAY_INTERFACE  CGI/1.1;
    fastcgi_param  SERVER_SOFTWARE    nginx;

    fastcgi_param  REMOTE_ADDR        $remote_addr;
    fastcgi_param  REMOTE_PORT        $remote_port;
    fastcgi_param  SERVER_ADDR        $server_addr;
    fastcgi_param  SERVER_PORT        $server_port;
    fastcgi_param  SERVER_NAME        $server_name;

    # If using a unix socket...
    # fastcgi_pass unix:/tmp/php5-fpm.sock;

    # If using a TCP connection...