Common Gateway Interface (CGI)

cgi

CGI is a Common Gateway Interface. As the name says, it is a "common" gateway interface for everything. It is so trivial and naive from the name. I feel that I understood this and I felt this every time I encountered this word. But frankly, I didn't. I'm still confused.

I am a PHP programmer with web development experience.

user (client) request for page —> webserver(->embedded PHP
interpreter) —-> Server side(PHP) Script —> MySQL Server.

Now say my PHP Script can fetch results from MySQL server & MATLAB server & some other server.

So, now PHP Script is the CGI? Because its interface for the between webserver & All other servers? I don't know. Sometimes they call CGI, a technology & other times they call CGI a program or some other server.

  • What exactly is CGI?

  • Whats the big deal with /cgi-bin/*.cgi? What's up with this? I don't know what is this cgi-bin directory on the server for. I don't know why they have *.cgi extensions.

  • Why does Perl always comes in the way. CGI & Perl (language). I also don't know what's up with these two. Almost all the time I keep hearing these two in combination "CGI & Perl". This book is another great example CGI Programming with Perl. Why not "CGI Programming with PHP/JSP/ASP"? I never saw such things.

  • CGI Programming in C, confuses me a lot. "in C"?? Seriously?? I don't know what to say. I'm just confused. "in C"?? This changes everything. Program needs to be compiled and executed. This entirely changes my view of web programming. When do I compile? How does the program gets executed (because it will be a machine code, so it must execute as a independent process). How does it communicate with the web server? IPC? and interfacing with all the servers (in my example MATLAB & MySQL) using socket programming? I'm lost!!

  • People say that CGI is deprecated and isn't in use anymore. Is that so? What is the latest update?

Once, I ran into a situation where I
had to give HTTP PUT request access to
web server (Apache HTTPD). Its a long
back. So, as far as I remember this is
what I did:

  1. Edited the configuration file of Apache HTTPD to tell webserver to pass
    all HTTP PUT requests to some
    put.php ( I had to write this PHP
    script)

  2. Implement put.php to handle the request (save the file to the location
    mentioned)

People said that I wrote a CGI Script.
Seriously, I didn't have a clue what
they were talking about.

  • Did I really write CGI Script?

I hope you understood what my confusion is. (Because I myself don't know where I'm confused). I request you guys to keep your answer as simple as possible. I really can't understand any fancy technical terminology. At least not in this case.

EDIT:

I found this amazing tutorial "CGI Programming Is Simple!" – CGI Tutorial, which explains the concepts in simplest possible way. After reading this article you may want to read Getting Started with CGI Programming in C to supplement your understanding with actual code samples. I've also added these links to this tutorial to Wikipedia's article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_Gateway_Interface

Best Solution

CGI is an interface which tells the webserver how to pass data to and from an application. More specifically, it describes how request information is passed in environment variables (such as request type, remote IP address), how the request body is passed in via standard input, and how the response is passed out via standard output. You can refer to the CGI specification for details.

To use your image:

user (client) request for page ---> webserver ---[CGI]----> Server side Program ---> MySQL Server.

Most if not all, webservers can be configured to execute a program as a 'CGI'. This means that the webserver, upon receiving a request, will forward the data to a specific program, setting some environment variables and marshalling the parameters via standard input and standard output so the program can know where and what to look for.

The main benefit is that you can run ANY executable code from the web, given that both the webserver and the program know how CGI works. That's why you could write web programs in C or Bash with a regular CGI-enabled webserver. That, and that most programming environments can easily use standard input, standard output and environment variables.

In your case you most likely used another, specific for PHP, means of communication between your scripts and the webserver, this, as you well mention in your question, is an embedded interpreter called mod_php.

So, answering your questions:

What exactly is CGI?

See above.

Whats the big deal with /cgi-bin/*.cgi? Whats up with this? I don't know what is this cgi-bin directory on the server for. I don't know why they have *.cgi extensions.

That's the traditional place for cgi programs, many webservers come with this directory pre configured to execute all binaries there as CGI programs. The .cgi extension denotes an executable that is expected to work through the CGI.

Why does Perl always comes in the way. CGI & Perl (language). I also don't know whats up with these two. Almost all the time I keep hearing these two in combination "CGI & Perl". This book is another great example CGI Programming with Perl Why not "CGI Programming with PHP/JSP/ASP". I never saw such things.

Because Perl is ancient (older than PHP, JSP and ASP which all came to being when CGI was already old, Perl existed when CGI was new) and became fairly famous for being a very good language to serve dynamic webpages via the CGI. Nowadays there are other alternatives to run Perl in a webserver, mainly mod_perl.

CGI Programming in C this confuses me a lot. in C?? Seriously?? I don't know what to say. I"m just confused. "in C"?? This changes everything. Program needs to be compiled and executed. This entirely changes my view of web programming. When do I compile? How does the program gets executed (because it will be a machine code, so it must execute as a independent process). How does it communicate with the web server? IPC? and interfacing with all the servers (in my example MATLAB & MySQL) using socket programming? I'm lost!!

You compile the executable once, the webserver executes the program and passes the data in the request to the program and outputs the received response. CGI specifies that one program instance will be launched per each request. This is why CGI is inefficient and kind of obsolete nowadays.

They say that CGI is deprecated. Its no more in use. Is it so? What is its latest update?

CGI is still used when performance is not paramount and a simple means of executing code is required. It is inefficient for the previously stated reasons and there are more modern means of executing any program in a web enviroment. Currently the most famous is FastCGI.

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