Bug Report
Browser Hangs After Access Through modowa

Doug McMahon

May 30, 2000


I have recently discovered a problem with the operation of modowa when configured to connect directly to the Oracle database (rather than via SQL*Net). This problem manifests itself in a client's browser session after an access through modowa; the browser appears to "hang" on a subsequent request. Generally, stopping the request and resubmitting it will then succeed. The problem is due to subtle interactions between Apache and Oracle. The purpose of this note is to document what I've come to understand about the problem, what I suspect the underlying cause may be, and to suggest some corrective/preventative actions. As a secondary purpose, I'm hoping someone will read this and know of a solution I've missed and/or be able to explain exactly what's happening.

What Causes the Problem?

I have not found the direct cause, though I have a theory (described below). Through lots of testing, I have found that the problem tends to occur:

The problems seems not to occur:

Through lots of debugging of the internals of Apache, I have determined that the proximate cause of this failure is the expiration of the Apache keepalive timer for the connection to the browser, and the subsequent closure of that connection. Here's what I know for sure:

Avoiding the Problem

There are basically two ways to avoid the problem:

  1. Always use SQL*Net to connect to the database.
  2. Modify modowa to skip transmission of Content-Length under some circumstances.

In the more recent versions of the code, modowa sends a Content-Length under the following circumstances:

Unfortunately these efforts to send the content length back whenever possible have aggravated the problem. The latest version of the code now checks the SQL*Net connect strings for the presence of a SQL*Net alias string (e.g. @database), and if it doesn't find one on a Location directive, it assumes the worst and disables content length returns.

Finding the Problem

I began observing these browser hangs intermittently. At first they seemed almost random. Then, over time, I began to experience them more frequently. I finally began to see a rough correlation with waiting at least a small amount of time before hitting the server with the followup request. But this wasn't conclusive; it happened to some requests, not to others. Also, it seemed to clear up after a while; the system seemed most vulnerable shortly after being started up. Finally, I never saw the problem anywhere except on Linux, never on NT or Solaris.

Diagnostics placed in the code didn't help; as far as I could tell, modowa was simply never receiving the request that was getting "stuck". Clearly the request was getting held up somewhere else. I began looking carefully at the state of the pool of Apache worker processes (on Unix, Apache's not multi-threaded - more on that later). I discovered that at any given instant one worker process was always in an I/O wait state, while the others were blocked on some sort of latch. After a request was serviced, I would see that a different worker now held the I/O state, while the process that had serviced the request had become one of the latched processes. I also observed that none of the processes changed state when the stuck request was sent, a clue that the request was not even being dispatched to any of the workers.

As noted earlier, I placed some diagnostics into Apache's httpd_main to tell me what each process was up to. I also wrote a dummy module that did nothing but send back a very simple HTML page. I found that the dummy module always worked reliably, whereas modowa would always fail the first time after the keepalive timer expired. By comparing the behavior of the two modules, I was able to determine that the dummy module was simply not triggering the keepalive operation at all; instead, it was causing Apache (and, presumably, the browser) to close the connection every time. I eventually tracked this down to the fact that the dummy module wasn't returning a Content-Length in the HTTP response header, but modowa was. Clearly, the presence of a content length was triggering the keepalive behavior in Apache.

On making this discovery, I initially thought that there must be a bug in the Apache keepalive logic. This would certainly explain why the problem has gotten worse over time; the original modowa never returned a content length, but the current implementation returns one under many if not most circumstances (as described earlier). I modified the dummy module to return a content length, too, expecting it to begin failing in a fashion similar to modowa. However, the dummy module continued to work perfectly even when sending the Content-Length every time; after the keepalive expires, a subsequent request from the browser is serviced without any problem at all.

I looked very carefully at Apache's connection processing logic, especially the closure logic. It seemed clear to me that the stuck request was never being read by Apache. The only thing that might explain this would be if the browser was still sending requests to Apache on a socket connection that Apache had dropped. When the keepalive timer expires, Apache closes the connection to the browser. Diagnostics in this code show that it occurred identically in both cases (on the Apache side), but symptomatically in the modowa case the browser would hang a subsequent request but in the case of the dummy module it would not. Strangest of all, I observed that after a block had occurred on a particular process, that process would usually start working reliably on subsequent modowa requests. This isn't apparent to the browser user, because requests are just assigned to worker process on a first-come, first-served basis; over time, though, the problem eventually will occur and be "cleared" on every worker (at least, until the worker reaches its request limit and gets killed, starting the cycle all over again).

At this point I began to suspect that the problem was some sort of interaction between the way that Oracle handles requests for SQL, and the way Apache handles HTTP requests (on Unix). I also started thinking about the fact that I hadn't observed the problem on NT or Solaris. Since my database was running on Linux, modowa was always tested on the other platforms with a connection via SQL*Net. To see if this might be related to the problem, I switched my Linux server from making a direct ORACLE_SID-based connection to using SQL*Net, and suddenly the problem vanished!

Now at least I had a theory about the source of the problem, but to follow it you have to know a little bit about how both Apache and Oracle work. So, forgive the brief digression while I describe both of them.

How Apache Handles Requests

It took some time, but I believe I at last understand how Apache works on Unix. The current 1.3.x generation of the listener is not multi-threaded on Unix. Instead, when you start Apache, a manager process starts a number of worker processes and then monitors the health of the workers from that point on. The manger is not involved in dispatching requests. Instead, all workers have access to the common set of sockets on which requests and events will come in. There is a mutex that is used to ensure that at any one time, only one process has control of the sockets. This process is then in a wait state for I/O while all other workers are either finishing up other requests or stopped while waiting to acquire the mutex. When a request comes in, this activates the worker that was listening on the socket; the worker notifies the browser that it accepts the request, arranges with the browser for a limited-duration direct connection through which the request and response will travel, and releases the mutex (which will then be acquired by the next available worker).

After picking up a request, the worker services it as necessary and then will either close the connection to the brower immediately or (if the keepalive bit is set) await a further request from the browser on the same communications channel. To avoid tying up the worker for one browser indefinitely, a timer eventually fires that wakes up the worker and causes it to close down the browser connection. Regardless of whether or not the worker went into a keepalive state, once the connection is closed, it goes back and queues up on the mutex again to wait its turn for the sockets.

How Oracle Handles Connections

All Oracle SQL operations, including those sent by modowa, are executed by a dedicated worker process called a shadow process. Except in the case of the multi-threaded server, every database connection will cause the instantiation of one shadow process. The shadow processes actually do most of the processing associated with database operations. The shadow processes require access to the shared memory of the database and to the files where the database actually keeps data, so they must run on the same machine (or cluster) as the database itself.

When a program such as modowa makes a connection to the database, one of these worker process has to get created to service that connection. In the general case, the client program is not executing on the same machine as the database, so the job of spawning the shadow process falls to the SQL*Net listener. The client program sends a request to the listener, and the listener spawns a process on the (possibly remote) machine which then establishes a two-way connection to the client for SQL traffic.

In the case where both the client and the database are running on the same machine, there is a more direct way to make a connection to the database, namely the use of ORACLE_SID and the so-called "bequeath" connector. Technically this is also a part of the SQL*Net stack, but it doesn't go through the listener; in fact, you can shut down your SQL*Net listener on the database machine and still make a connection via ORACLE_SID. The direct connection means that your client program is, in effect, spawning the database shadow process by itself.


Now armed with all these facts, here's my theory as to what's going wrong:

When an Oracle request is handled for the first time, modowa has to connect to the database, and, if the bequeath connection mode is indicated, this involves spawning a shadow process. If the operation in question eventually results in a Content-Length being returned, this triggers the Apache keepalive logic, and also causes the browser to keep the connection open. The browser doesn't have a timeout; instead, the browser is relying on the server to signal it if the connection gets dropped. Apache doesn't do anything to signal the closure to the browser, there's no final message sent; instead, it simply closes the socket, apparently assuming that the browser will get an error the next time it tries to transmit on that connection and thereby determine that it's no longer valid. Unfortunately, the Oracle shadow process, which was forked from the original Apache process at a point in time when the socket was open, still has a valid handle to the socket, and my guess is that Linux doesn't error out the browser's follow-up request, it simply accepts it and dumps it into memory in hopes that the Oracle shadow process will eventually pick it up. Of course it won't, so the browser blocks indefinitely waiting for a response than never comes and never times out.

The theory sure seems to fit the facts. Why did the problem get worse in recent versions of modowa? It started to get worse after the file download logic was added, because for the first time modowa would, under some circumstances, send a content length as part of the response. Because of the pool-process architecture on Unix, it was the luck of the draw - if the download request happened to be the first request serviced by a particular process, you'd encounter the error once for that process, clear it, then perhaps encounter it again on another "virgin" process. After the change that included content lengths for all short response pages, the probability of encountering the problem jumped to a virtual certainty; only if your very first request to a process was for a character-based document download, or a large response page without a PL/SQL-supplied length in the header, would you avoid running into the problem. Why doesn't the problem appear for SQL*Net-based connections? For these connections, the shadow process is spawned by the SQL*Net listener, not by Apache/modowa, so there's no lingering "clone" of the browser connection left around after the keepalive timeout expires.

Fixing the Problem

Bearing in mind that I'm not completely sure the above explanation is correct, I've been wondering how to work around this problem. I could simply stop sending content lengths, but this seems sub-optimal because it prevents browsers from taking advantage of the improved efficiency of the short-lifespan connection to Apache, and of course it means that the browser doesn't get a proper length for the object being downloaded (which matters in situations such as displaying the progress bar in the download box). I could document a restriction that modowa be used only with SQL*Net connections, i.e. that the bequeath connector is not supported, but this seems rather drastic and limiting (even though most users are probably running Apache and the database on separate boxes anyway, and the rest can just use SQL*Net). Here's what the latest patch of the code does:

The exception for the first case is very simple code, and so I recommend using SQL*Net if at all practical because it seems to avoid the problem entirely.

In the second case, it might be safer to disable the content length logic entirely. There is a possibility of a problem if a set of Locations for a single Apache instance use a mixture of SQL*Net and ORACLE_SID-based connections. In this case, it would seem possible that a worker process could be called upon to initiate the bequeathed connection at a time when it still has a connection held for a browser whose last request was to a SQL*Net-based Location, and thus create a troublesome connection "clone". I don't think this can really happen, though; the connection would have to get closed before the worker would go back to listening for new traffic from other browsers, and if the request that caused the creation of the bequeathed connection came from the same browser, that connection should be killed automatically when the response comes back without the content length.

I haven't looked carefully at the situation on Windows NT. My belief is that this problem doesn't occur there, because a different mechanism is used to create shadow process threads. The code reflects this by #ifdefing out the keepalive hack for that platform. Note, however, that in general when Apache is multithreaded, it is not safe to send content lengths as long as any managed connection is using the Unix bequeathed mechanism, because of the possibility that the creation of a shadow process could pick up "clones" of the in-flight communication handles of other threads. So, if/when Apache becomes multithreaded on Unix, a different hack will be needed.

The only permanent solution to this problem would involve changing the spawn logic for the bequeath adaptor such that file handles not being used specifically by the connection to Oracle are explictly closed. It might also be a good idea for Apache to transmit an HTTP close message to the browser, too, before disconnecting.