The new GPF site has been running live for half a month now, and I’m proud to say things have been running incredibly smoothly. That is, at least, from my perspective; I haven’t seen any major glitches, and aside from a few typos in the comic (which are obviously independent of the site code), nobody has written me about any problems. This is especially heartening because the new site was pretty much entirely coded by hand by me, sans a few bits and pieces. (I can’t take credit for the OS, the web server software, the database engine, or the forum. But everything else… yep, that was me.)
Of course, I can’t really take all the credit. I do have to give some serious props to XCache.
For those unfamiliar with PHP, it is one of many server-side, interpreted scripting languages commonly used for dynamic Web site development. The caveat, however, to any interpreted language is that on each request the source script must be read, parsed, compiled, and executed before anything is set back to the end user’s browser. This is one reason why dynamic sites are and will always be slower than serving purely static HTML files. Static HTML just needs to be read and regurgitated; anything that requires the Web server to actually think takes more time. Add to that the fact that there could be hundreds or even thousands of requests all competing at once for content and it’s a miracle anything get served at all.
XCache is one of several opcode caching extensions for PHP. Essentially, when the first request for a script is made, the script is parsed and compiled as usual. However, XCache stores the compiled code so subsequent requests can skip the parsing and compilation steps and go directly to executing the code. This significantly increases the speed of execution by eliminating one of the costliest parts of the process (except perhaps database connections). In addition, XCache also includes the ability to cache variables and objects, so commonly repeated and expensive variable generation–such as the cryptographic hashes I use for salting cookie hashes or database look-ups for common elements like the Premium subscription levels–can be stored in the cache rather rebuilt on each request.
I was first introduced to XCache by the XCache for WordPress plugin, which was probably mentioned in one of the development feeds built into the WordPress dashboard. I’ve been running this combination here on the blog for a little while with moderate success; I’m still trying to find a good balance of configuration settings to get the best results, but I’ve been happy with the results so far. Without putting much thought into it, I went ahead and installed XCache on the GPF server, hoping that it would help even if I never got a chance to optimize it. Fortunately, it has helped, and now that I’ve optimized the settings it’s exceeded most of my expectations. I’m not sure if there’s something about my code that caches better than WordPress, but GPF has done much better with XCache than the blog has.
Admittedly, I haven’t compared it to any other opcode cachers, nor have I benchmarked it against any of the competition. That said, however, I heartily recommend it to anybody running PHP applications. To get the greatest benefit, you may need to modify some code (or install a plugin if you’re using a prepackaged application) to take advantage of the variable/object caching. But even without modification the opcode caching alone makes for a vast improvement.
By now, I’m assuming most of you have read Mondays GPF News item. (If you haven’t, shame on you.) GPF is leaving Keenspot, and I’m neck-deep in unit testing the new site with hopes of releasing it to beta testers soon. If you’re interested in beta testing, you can volunteer in this thread on the old forum.
However, I’ve hit upon one little programming snag, so I thought I’d put out an appeal for help. I thought the blog would be more appropriate venue for this than the forum; that assumption could be wrong, but I’ll go with it anyway. For those of you with some Web-based programming knowledge, especially in the areas of PHP and cookies, please put on your thinking caps.
As part of the new site, I’m implementing my own version of Keenspot’s PREMIUM service, reusing the old relabeling of GPF Premium. Keenspot PREMIUM is going away (for several reasons I won’t go into here), but as the service’s biggest proponent and largest beneficiary, I’d hate to lose that functionality. So the new site will launch with its own independent Premium functionality including all the old service’s features (optional ad-free surfing, weekly archives, High-Def archives, tons of exclusives like Jeff’s Sketchbook, etc.) plus a few new features that I’ve been wanting to implement but haven’t had the time or technological hoop-jumping expertise to work on at Keen.
For security reasons, I want to secure Premium sign-ups and account management via secure HTTP (HTTPS). The benefits should be obvious. By encrypting account creation & management pages, you eliminate sniffing attacks and protect user privacy. While these pages may still be susceptible to other forms of attacks (and I’ve coded them to be as resilient as I know how), encrypting the traffic end-to-end can go a long way to cutting off those vectors of attack.
The problem occurs when I set the cookie over the encrypted HTTPS connection, then try to read it over unencrypted HTTP. I appears that none of my test browsers send the cookie back when the encryption state changes. The reverse is the same; if I change the URL and set the cookie over HTTP, then try to access a page via HTTPS, the encrypted page can’t see the cookie either. It works like an either-or situation, when what I really want is both. If I set a cookie over HTTPS, I want to see it in both HTTP and HTTPS mode.
PHP’s primary cookie interface is the
setcookie() method (for setting) and the
$_COOKIE array (for reading).
setcookie() includes a boolean parameter for secure cookies, i.e. cookies that will only be sent via HTTPS. What’s annoying is that even when I set this flag to false to force it to be insecure, the scripts continue to exhibit the same behavior: cookies set via HTTP can only be read via HTTP and vice versa. I’ve also tried setting the same cookie both ways–first in one protocol, then the other, without erasing the first cookie–but that didn’t seem to work. The second cookie overwrites the first one, effectively turning it off.
I had heard that IE 6 exhibited this behavior as a bug. However, I tried the exact same tests in Firefox 220.127.116.11, Opera 9.24, and Safari 3.0.4 (all on Windows) as well as IE 7, and all reacted the same way. Cookies set over HTTP could not be read over HTTPS and vice versa. It’s a bit frustrating. Obviously, I don’t want my Premium folks to be forced to use the new site in encrypted mode all the time, as this would slow down all the pages and put a significant extra load on the server as the number of subscribers increases. But I want to protect my users’ privacy and settings (and one of my important revenue streams) by encrypting their account access.
So I guess I’m looking for answers to two questions:
Any responses via e-mail or (preferred) comments below will be appreciated.
Update March 5, 2008: Thanks to the input of many commentors below, it looks like I’ve got a solution. The problem, as usual, was somewhere between the chair and the keyboard and the faulty component has been sufficiently flogged with a wet noodle. Immense thanks to everyone who provided feedback and suggestions.