Networking / Beginners


Programmers working on a Web application already know that if they want their site to do something such as gather information through forms or customize itself to their users, they will have to go beyond HTML. They will have to do Web programming, and one of the most common methods used to make Web applications is the CGI, which applies rules for running external programs in a Web HTTP server. External programs are called gateways because they open outside information to the server.

There are other ways to customize or add client activity to a Web site. For example, JavaScript can be used, which is a client-side scripting language. If a developer is looking for quick and easy interactive changes to their Web site, CGI is the way to go. A common example of CGI is a "visitor counter" on a Web site. CGI can do just about anything to make a Web site more interactive. CGI can grab records from a database, use incoming forms, save data to a file, or return information to the client side, to name a few features. Developer's have numerous choices as to which language to use to write their CGI scripts; Perl, Java, and C++ are a just a few of the choices.

Of course, security must be considered when working with CGI.Vulnerable CGI programs are attractive to hackers because they are simple to locate, and they operate using the privileges and power of the Web server software itself. A poorly written CGI script can open a server to hackers. With the assistance of Nikto or other Web vulnerability scanners, a hacker could potentially exploit CGI vulnerabilities. Scanners like Nikto are designed specifically to scan Web servers for known CGI vulnerabilities. Poorly coded CGI scripts have been among the primary methods used for obtaining access to firewall-protected Web servers. However, developers and Webmasters can also use hacker tools to identify and address the vulnerabilities on their networks and servers.

NOTE: CGI is commonly exploited from the server side.

What is a CGI Script and What Does It Do?

Web servers use CGI to connect to external applications. It provides a way for data to be passed back and forth between the visitor to a site and a program residing on the Web server. In other words, CGI acts as a middleman, providing a communication link between the Web server and an Internet application.With CGI, a Web server can accept user input, and pass that input to a program or script on the server. In the same way, CGI allows a program or script to pass data to the Web server, so that this output can then be passed on to the user.

In Step 1, the user visits the Web site and submits a request to the Web server. For example, say the user has subscribed to a magazine and wants to change their subscription information.The user enters an account number, name, and address into a form on a Web page, and clicks Submit. This information is sent to the Web server for processing.

In Step 2, CGI is used to process the data. Upon receiving the updated data, the Web server identifies the submitted data as a CGI request. Using CGI, the form data is passed to an external application. Because CGI communicates over the HTML, which is part of the TCP/IP protocol suite, the Web server's CGI support uses this protocol to pass the information on to the next step.

Once CGI has been used to pass the data to a separate program, the application program processes it. The program may save it to the database, overwriting the existing data, or compare the data to existing information before it is saved. What happens at this point (Steps 3 and 4) depends on the Internet application. If the CGI application accepts input but does not return output, it may not work. While many CGI programs will accept input and return output, some may only do one or the other. There are no hard-and-fast rules regarding the behavior of programs or scripts, as they perform the tasks they are designed to perform, which is no different from non-Internet applications that are bought or programmed for use on a network.

If the application returns data, Step 5 takes place. For this example, assume that it has read the data that was saved to the database, and returns this to the Web server in the form of a Web page. In doing so, the CGI is again used to return data to the Web server.

Step 6 finalizes the process, and has the Web server returning the Web page to the user.The HTML document will be displayed in the user's browser window.This allows the user to see that the process was successful, and will allow the user to review the saved information for any errors.

In looking at how CGI works, almost all of the work is done on the Web server. Except for submitting the request and receiving the output Web page, the Web browser is left out of the CGI process. This is because CGI uses server-side scripting and programs. Code is executed on the server, so it does not matter what type of browser the user is using when visiting the site. Because of this, the user's Internet browser does not need to support CGI, or need special software for the program or script to execute. From the user's point of view, what has occurred is no different from clicking on a hyperlink to move from one Web page to another.

Typical Uses of CGI Scripts

CGI programs and scripts allow users to have a Web site that provides functionality that is similar to a desktop application. By itself, HTML can only be used to create Web pages. It will show the text that was typed in when the page was created, and various graphics that you specified. CGI allows you to go beyond this, and takes your site from providing static information to being dynamic and interactive.

CGI can be used in a number of ways. For example, CGI is used to process information submitted by users, such as in the case of online auction houses like eBay. CGI is used to process bids and process user logons to display a personal Web page of purchases and items being watched during the bidding process.This is similar to other sites that use CGI programs to provide shopping carts, CGI programs that keep track of items a user has selected to buy. Once the users decide to stop shopping, these customers use another CGI script to "check out" and purchase the items.

While e-commerce sites may use more complex CGI scripts and programs for making transactions, there are also a number of other common uses for CGI on the Web, including hit counters, which show the number of users who have visited a particular site. Each time a Web page is accessed, a CGI script is run that increments the counter number by one.This allows Webmasters (and visitors) to view how often a particular page is viewed, and the type of content that is being accessed most often.

Guest books and chat rooms are other common uses for CGI programs. Chat rooms allow users to post messages and chat with one another online in real time.This also allows users to exchange information without exchanging personal information such as IP addresses, e-mail addresses, or other connection information.This provides autonomy to the users, while allowing them to discuss topics in a public forum. Guest books allow users to post their comments about the site to a Web page. Users enter their comments and personal information (such as their name and/or e-mail address). Upon clicking Submit, the information is appended to a Web page and can usually be viewed by anyone who wishes to view the contents of the guest book.

Another popular use for CGI is comment or feedback forms, which allow users to voice their concerns, praise, or criticisms about a site or a company's product. In many cases, companies use these for customer service so that customers have an easy way to contact a company representative. Users enter their name, e-mail address, and comments on this page. When they click Send, the information is sent to a specific e-mail address or can be collected in a specified folder on the Web server for perusal by the Web master.

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