Virtual Hosts Permissions

One thing that can causes concern and configuration headaches is virtual hosts permissions.

Using the multiple host layout in this article is a good way of keeping your domains in one place and with easy access. Let's take a look at the permissions of the folders.




A quick reminder of the layout used in these articles:

All the vhosts directories are place in the user's home directory under public_html. Each domain has its own directory with a standard set of folders such as public, private, logs, cgi-bin, backup and so on.

The multiple host layout article has some images to show the layout in detail.


We have to think of who will want access to the folders. There are two users to consider.

The first is the Cloud Server user - in this case the username is demo. It is in demo's home directory that the public_html directory is placed.

Secondly is the Apache user. On Debian-based systems, it is usual for Apache to be www-data and be in the www-data group. Other Linux distributions use the user nobody or even apache.


Now we need to think about what actions will need to be taken by what user.

Apache needs to be able to enter the public_html folder and to be able to read the public and private directories.

The logs are written by the parent Apache process which is root so we don't have to worry about that (root will have access to the logs directory anyway — all other Apache processes are completed by the child process, which will be www-data or nobody).



Write Access

OK, but what happens if Apache needs write access? An example of this would be uploading images or files.

One way would be to allow world write access to the folder (setting the permissions at 777). The problem with this is that the world has write access to the folder.

Even if you had a specific upload folder and were careful with your scripts, it still leaves a 777 folder exposed to the public.

Even if you had a specific upload folder and were careful with your scripts, it still leaves a 777 folder exposed to the public.


Remember the layout being used is for single user Cloud Servers. We host many websites on one Cloud Server and we are the only ones who have access to it.

What if we placed the main user (demo) in the www-data group? That way, any folder that Apache needs to write to, such as the image upload folder, would only need 660 permissions.

There is no need for any other system user to access those folders. This also stops the practice of having a folder with 777 permissions.

User Setup

So let's start by adding the main user to the Apache user group:

sudo usermod -a -G www-data demo

That adds the user demo to the www-data group. Do ensure you use both the -a and the -G options with the usermod command shown above.

You will need to log out and log back in again to enable the group change.

Check the groups now:

demo www-data

So now we are a member of two groups: the demo and the Apache group (www-data).

Folder Setup

Now we need to ensure the public_html folder is owned by the main user (demo) and is part of the Apache group (www-data).

Let's set that up:

sudo chgrp -R www-data /home/demo/public_html

Since we are talking about permissions, I'll add a quick note regarding the sudo command:

NOTE: It's a good habit to use absolute paths (/home/demo/public_html) as shown above rather than relative paths (~/public_html). This ensures sudo is being used in the correct location.

If you have a public_html folder with symlinks in place, then be careful with that command as it will follow the symlinks. In those cases of a working public_html folder, change each folder by hand.


Good so far, but remember the command we just gave only affects existing folders. What about anything new?

We can set the ownership so anything new is also in the www-data group.

The first command will change all permissions in the public_html directory so, again, be careful if you have existing content and symlinks:

sudo chmod -R 2750 /home/demo/public_html

That will ensure that any new files are given the user demo and the group www-data.

If we need to allow write access to Apache, for an upload directory for example, then set the permissions for that folder like so:

sudo chmod -R 2770 /home/demo/public_html/

The permissions only need to be set once since new files will automatically be assigned the correct ownership.

The Tedious Part

This may get a bit tedious when you add new domains to your public_html folder.

In that case, I would create a skeleton domain structure with the relevant permissions and copy it to the new domain:

cp -a /home/demo/public_html/skeleton /home/demo/public_html/my_new_domain

That way you have a nice new set of folders with the correct permissions in one simple command.


Permissions are a sensitive topic and you do have to be careful with them. Don't just enter a chmod -R command without thinking about the contents and symlinks.

I hope this helps alleviate concerns about vhosts and permissions.

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