What are SSI?

SSI (Server Side Includes) are directives that are placed in HTML pages, and evaluated on the server while the pages are being served. They let you add dynamically generated content to an existing HTML page, without having to serve the entire page via a CGI program, or other dynamic technology.

The decision of when to use SSI, and when to have your page entirely generated by some program, is usually a matter of how much of the page is static, and how much needs to be recalculated every time the page is served. SSI is a great way to add small pieces of information, such as the current time. But if a majority of your page is being generated at the time that it is served, you need to look for some other solution.

Basic SSI directives

SSI directives have the following syntax:

<!--#element attribute=value attribute=value ... -->

It is formatted like an HTML comment, so if you don't have SSI correctly enabled, the browser will ignore it, but it will still be visible in the HTML source. If you have SSI correctly configured, the directive will be replaced with its results.

The element can be one of a number of things, and we'll talk some more about most of these in the next installment of this series. For now, here are some examples of what you can do with SSI

Today's date

<!--#echo var="DATE_LOCAL" -->

The echo element just spits out the value of a variable. There are a number of standard variables, which include the whole set of environment variables that are available to CGI programs. Also, you can define your own variables with the set element.

If you don't like the format in which the date gets printed, you can use the config element, with a timefmt attribute, to modify that formatting.

<!--#config timefmt="%A %B %d, %Y" -->
Today is <!--#echo var="DATE_LOCAL" -->

Modification date of the file

This document last modified <!--#flastmod file="index.html" -->

This element is also subject to timefmt format configurations.

Including the results of a CGI program

This is one of the more common uses of SSI - to output the results of a CGI program, such as everybody's favorite, a ``hit counter.''

<!--#include virtual="/cgi-bin/counter.pl" -->

Additional examples

Following are some specific examples of things you can do in your HTML documents with SSI.

When was this document modified?

Earlier, we mentioned that you could use SSI to inform the user when the document was most recently modified. However, the actual method for doing that was left somewhat in question. The following code, placed in your HTML document, will put such a time stamp on your page. Of course, you will have to have SSI correctly enabled, as discussed above.

<!--#config timefmt="%A %B %d, %Y" -->
This file last modified <!--#flastmod file="ssi.shtml" -->

Of course, you will need to replace the ssi.shtml with the actual name of the file that you're referring to. This can be inconvenient if you're just looking for a generic piece of code that you can paste into any file, so you probably want to use the LAST_MODIFIED variable instead:

<!--#config timefmt="%D" -->
This file last modified <!--#echo var="LAST_MODIFIED" -->

For more details on the timefmt format, go to your favorite search site and look for strftime. The syntax is the same.

Including a standard footer

If you are managing any site that is more than a few pages, you may find that making changes to all those pages can be a real pain, particularly if you are trying to maintain some kind of standard look across all those pages.

Using an include file for a header and/or a footer can reduce the burden of these updates. You just have to make one footer file, and then include it into each page with the include SSI command. The include element can determine what file to include with either the file attribute, or the virtual attribute. The file attribute is a file path, relative to the current directory. That means that it cannot be an absolute file path (starting with /), nor can it contain ../ as part of that path. The virtual attribute is probably more useful, and should specify a URL relative to the document being served. It can start with a /, but must be on the same server as the file being served.

<!--#include virtual="/footer.html" -->

I'll frequently combine the last two things, putting a LAST_MODIFIED directive inside a footer file to be included. SSI directives can be contained in the included file, and includes can be nested - that is, the included file can include another file, and so on.

What else can I config?

In addition to being able to config the time format, you can also config two other things.

Usually, when something goes wrong with your SSI directive, you get the message

[an error occurred while processing this directive]

If you want to change that message to something else, you can do so with the errmsg attribute to the config element:

<!--#config errmsg="[It appears that you don't know how to use SSI]" -->

Hopefully, end users will never see this message, because you will have resolved all the problems with your SSI directives before your site goes live. (Right?)

And you can config the format in which file sizes are returned with the sizefmt attribute. You can specify bytes for a full count in bytes, or abbrev for an abbreviated number in Kb or Mb, as appropriate.

Executing commands

I expect that I'll have an article some time in the coming months about using SSI with small CGI programs. For now, here's something else that you can do with the exec element. You can actually have SSI execute a command using the shell (/bin/sh, to be precise - or the DOS shell, if you're on Win32). The following, for example, will give you a directory listing.

<!--#exec cmd="ls" -->

or, on Windows

<!--#exec cmd="dir" -->

You might notice some strange formatting with this directive on Windows, because the output from dir contains the string ``<dir>'' in it, which confuses browsers.

Note that this feature is exceedingly dangerous, as it will execute whatever code happens to be embedded in the exec tag. If you have any situation where users can edit content on your web pages, such as with a ``guestbook'', for example, make sure that you have this feature disabled. You can allow SSI, but not the exec feature, with the IncludesNOEXEC argument to the Options directive.

Advanced SSI techniques

In addition to spitting out content, Apache SSI gives you the option of setting variables, and using those variables in comparisons and conditionals.


Most of the features discussed in this article are only available to you if you are running Apache 1.2 or later. Of course, if you are not running Apache 1.2 or later, you need to upgrade immediately, if not sooner. Go on. Do it now. We'll wait.

Setting variables

Using the set directive, you can set variables for later use. We'll need this later in the discussion, so we'll talk about it here. The syntax of this is as follows:

<!--#set var="name" value="Rich" -->

In addition to merely setting values literally like that, you can use any other variable, including environment variables or the variables discussed above (like LAST_MODIFIED, for example) to give values to your variables. You will specify that something is a variable, rather than a literal string, by using the dollar sign ($) before the name of the variable.

<!--#set var="modified" value="$LAST_MODIFIED" -->

To put a literal dollar sign into the value of your variable, you need to escape the dollar sign with a backslash.

<!--#set var="cost" value="\$100" -->

Finally, if you want to put a variable in the midst of a longer string, and there's a chance that the name of the variable will run up against some other characters, and thus be confused with those characters, you can place the name of the variable in braces, to remove this confusion. (It's hard to come up with a really good example of this, but hopefully you'll get the point.)

<!--#set var="date" value="${DATE_LOCAL}_${DATE_GMT}" -->

Conditional expressions

Now that we have variables, and are able to set and compare their values, we can use them to express conditionals. This lets SSI be a tiny programming language of sorts. mod_include provides an if, elif, else, endif structure for building conditional statements. This allows you to effectively generate multiple logical pages out of one actual page.

The structure of this conditional construct is:

<!--#if expr="test_condition" -->
<!--#elif expr="test_condition" -->
<!--#else -->
<!--#endif -->

A test_condition can be any sort of logical comparison - either comparing values to one another, or testing the ``truth'' of a particular value. (A given string is true if it is nonempty.) Here are some examples of how one might use this construct.

In your configuration file, you could put the following line:

BrowserMatchNoCase macintosh Mac
BrowserMatchNoCase MSIE InternetExplorer

This will set environment variables ``Mac'' and ``InternetExplorer'' to true, if the client is running Internet Explorer on a Macintosh.

Then, in your SSI-enabled document, you might do the following:

<!--#if expr="${Mac} && ${InternetExplorer}" -->
Apologetic text goes here
<!--#else -->
Cool JavaScript code goes here
<!--#endif -->

Not that I have anything against IE on Macs - I just struggled for a few hours last week trying to get some JavaScript working on IE on a Mac, when it was working everywhere else. The above was the interim workaround.

Any other variable (either ones that you define, or normal environment variables) can be used in conditional statements. With Apache's ability to set environment variables with the SetEnvIf directives, and other related directives, this functionality can let you do some pretty involved dynamic stuff without ever resorting to CGI.

SSI is certainly not a replacement for CGI, or other technologies used for generating dynamic web pages. But it is a great way to add small amounts of dynamic content to pages, without doing a lot of extra work.