HTTP request processing phases in Nginx

Nginx processes HTTP requests in multiple phases. In each of the phases there might be 0 or more handlers called. In the Nginx source code phases have specific constants associated with them. Here is a list of all phases:

  1. NGX_HTTP_SERVER_REWRITE_PHASE — the phase of request URI transformation on virtual server level;
  2. NGX_HTTP_FIND_CONFIG_PHASE — the phase of configuration location lookup;
  3. NGX_HTTP_REWRITE_PHASE — the phase of request URI transformation on location level;
  4. NGX_HTTP_POST_REWRITE_PHASE — request URI transformation post-processing phase;
  5. NGX_HTTP_PREACCESS_PHASE — access restrictions check preprocessing phase;
  6. NGX_HTTP_ACCESS_PHASE — access restrictions check phase;
  7. NGX_HTTP_POST_ACCESS_PHASE — access restrictions check post-processing phase;
  8. NGX_HTTP_TRY_FILES_PHASE — try_files directive processing phase;
  9. NGX_HTTP_CONTENT_PHASE — content generation phase;
  10. NGX_HTTP_LOG_PHASE — logging phase.

On every phase you can register any number of your handlers. Exceptions are following phases:

  • NGX_HTTP_FIND_CONFIG_PHASE. On this phase no handlers are called, instead a search for configuration location is performed and “Location” request header is filled.
  • NGX_HTTP_POST_ACCESS_PHASE. On this phase no handlers are called,
    only the result of access checks is interpreted and applied. The phase is required to implement directive satisfy all/any.
  • NGX_HTTP_POST_REWRITE_PHASE. On this phase no handlers are called,
    instead request URI transformation post-processing is performed;
  • NGX_HTTP_TRY_FILES_PHASE. On this phase no handlers are called,
    instead Nginx processes the try_files directive.

Each phase has a list of handlers associated with it. Once registered on a phase, handler can return one of the following values:

  • NGX_OK — the request has been successfully processed, request must be routed to the next phase;
  • NGX_DECLINED — request must be routed to the next handler;
  • NGX_AGAIN, NGX_DONE — the request has been successfully processed, the request must be suspended until some event (e.g., subrequest finishes, socket becomes writeable or timeout occurs) and handler must be called again;
  • NGX_ERROR, NGX_HTTP_… — an error has occurred while processing the request.

In order to register a handler you need to find the configuration of ngx_http_core_module and add the handler to one of elements of phases vector. Example:

static ngx_int_t
ngx_http_sample_module_init(ngx_conf_t *cf)
    ngx_http_handler_pt        *h;
    ngx_http_core_main_conf_t  *cmcf;

    cmcf = ngx_http_conf_get_module_main_conf(cf, ngx_http_core_module);

    h = ngx_array_push(&cmcf->phases[NGX_HTTP_CONTENT_PHASE].handlers);
    if (h == NULL) {
        return NGX_ERROR;

    *h = ngx_http_sample_module_handler;

    return NGX_OK;

The vector phases has one entry for each phase. Each entry contains a field handlers which is a vector of handlers that are registered on this phase.

Handlers are called in reverse order. Therefore the last handler registered at configuration time will be called first at runtime.

As you can see, the order of actions in request processing has nothing to do with the order of directives in configuration file. Phase handlers are called regardless of what configuration the user has specified. Hence a phase handler must be able to determine when it is applicable and return NGX_DECLINED when it is not and do it as fast as possible to avoid performance penalties.

The phase NGX_HTTP_ACCESS_PHASE calls handlers that restrict access to resources. In this phase the order in which handlers are called is determined by directive satisfy. The values, that handlers return, have additional meaning:

  • NGX_OK — handler allows to access the resource specified by request URI;
  • NGX_HTTP_FORBIDDEN, NGX_HTTP_UNAUTHORIZED — handler does not allow to request the resource specified by request URI.

In case of satisfy all all handlers must return NGX_OK in order to proceed with the next phase.
In case of satisfy any at least one handler must return NGX_OK in order to proceed with the next phase.

Nginx uses the phase NGX_HTTP_CONTENT_PHASE to generate a response. Whenever a location configuration of ngx_http_core_module has handler field initialized, all requests on content phase are routed to this handler. The handler that is specified by handler field is hence called content handler. When content handler is not set, request is routed to handlers of content phase in main configuration.

How to override content handler? Here is an example:

static char *
ngx_http_sample_module_command(ngx_conf_t *cf, ngx_command_t *cmd, void *conf)
    ngx_http_core_loc_conf_t  *clcf;

    clcf = ngx_http_conf_get_module_loc_conf(cf, ngx_http_core_module);
    clcf->handler = ngx_http_sample_handler;

    return NGX_CONF_OK;

The content handler has following specific properties:

  • It is not resumable. That is, it’s not going to be called again if it returns NGX_AGAIN or NGX_DONE. Instead the handler must change read and/or write handlers of the request;
  • Each location can have it’s own dedicated content handler;
  • If content handler returns NGX_DECLINED, Nginx routes request to content phase handlers.

How do you find out which phase to put your handler on?

Although this blog is not to criticize Nginx, here seems to be a bit of a problem. According to my feelings and to Igor Sysoev comments, phases are legacy from Apache. They are not as flexible for a module developer as you would expect. Clearly this point could be improved (and it will be), but for the moment here are suggestions, that you can use in order to figure out what phase you need to put your handler on:

  • Your handler needs to be manageable by satisfy directive (e.g. access restriction checks) — put it on access phase;
  • Your handler does resource limitations — put it on pre-access phase;
  • Your handler changes URI or manipulates variables than need to be accessible in set directive or rewrites — put it on rewrite phase;
  • Your handler generates content — put it on content phase, take care of the handler registration order;
  • Your handler does logging — put it on logging phase;

When you should use content handlers?

What is the difference between content phase handler and content handler?

  • the content phase handler is promiscuous: it is called for every request that reaches the content phase and this particular handler. The content handler is called only for those requests that reach a location with configured content handler;
  • more than one content phase handler can be called per location. Only one content handler can be called per location.

A combination of these two types of handlers are employed by nginx mogilefs module for doing PUT requests:

Main location is handled by a content phase handler. This handler has 3 stages that correspond to create_open command, storing the resource on storage node and create_close command. On each stage content phase handler does a subrequest. When subrequest finishes, it wakes up the main content phase handler.  In case of create_open and create_close commands subrequest is routed to a hidden location that has a content handler set up in it. This handler implements communication with MogileFS tracker using upstream module.

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