Extended Thoughts on Custom Tiny URL Engines


Mon May 31 17:35:00 2010 -0700

A blog reader recently contacted me via email and asked, “hey, how does your koli.ch tiny URL thing work?” Well, I would be happy to explain. First, I’m not using Apache’s mod_rewrite engine. No, koli.ch tiny URL’s are using an interesting combination of Apache’s mod_rewrite RewriteRule directive and Onyx, which is basically PHP talking to a MySQL database.

So, let’s follow http://koli.ch/x3dh through the redirection process. The “3dh” you see on the end of each URL is a base-36 encoded number, that maps to a unique bookmark resource stored inside of Onyx.

Step 1 - koli.ch to mark.koli.ch

First, you may have noticed that http://koli.ch always redirects to http://mark.koli.ch by default. This is accomplished using Apache’s mod_rewrite in my virtual host configuration:

RewriteCond %{HTTP_HOST} !^mark\.koli\.ch [NC]
RewriteRule ^/(.*)$ http://mark.koli.ch/$1 [R=301,L]

You’ll notice that the Perl compatible regular expression in the RewriteRule directive captures the URL-path content after the first slash, allowing me to gracefully forward URL’s like http://koli.ch/about to http://mark.koli.ch/about. Consequently, tiny URL’s like [http://koli.ch/x3dh] are forwarded to [http://mark.koli.ch/x3dh]. And, this redirect is a 301 Moved Permanently instead of a default 302 Found redirect.

Step 2 - mark.koli.ch to onyx.koli.ch

Next, in the same virtual host configuration, I use mod_rewrite’s RewriteRule directive to match URL-paths that represent a tiny URL. As far as Onyx is concerned, all of my tiny URL’s all start with “x” and contain at least one, but no more than ten, word characters following the “x”:

RewriteCond %{REQUEST_URI} !\.(htm?l)$ [NC]
RewriteRule ^/x(\w{1,10})$ https://onyx.koli.ch/x$1 [L]

Notice the regular expression group, I’m only capturing the word-characters following the “x” in the request URI, then appending them onto [https://onyx.koli.ch/x] before handing it off to Onyx. Note that I have not specified the redirect response code in the RewriteRule options. In this case, Apache will 302 Found redirect to Onyx, which tells search engines and other bots that this redirect is much less permanent than a 301 Moved Permanently.

Step 3 - onyx.koli.ch to ?

Once the browser hits [https://onyx.koli.ch/x], I use RewriteRule one last time to call a redirection controller I wrote in PHP which actually takes the tiny URL, sanitizes the request URI then looks it up in a MySQL database to retrieve the final URL to redirect to. This is part of Onyx. Here’s the pseudo code:


$uri = (isset($_SERVER['REQUEST_URI'])) ? $_SERVER['REQUEST_URI'] : null;
if(empty($uri)) {
  throw new InternalErrorException();

// Strip the leading / from the front of the URI
$uri = preg_replace("/^\//","",$uri);
@list(, $resource) = preg_split("/[\/\?]/", $uri, -1, PREG_SPLIT_NO_EMPTY);
if(!empty($resource)) {
  $resource = preg_replace("/\D/","",$resource);
} else {
  throw new BadRequestException();

// ... do some MySQL things here, look up the $resource in the DB.
$url = ... some URL from the database

// Redirect the user to their destination, via an HTTP 302 Found

// Unset the Pragma HTTP response header; to avoid
// redirection issues on IE.
header(PRAGMA.": ");
header(CACHE_CONTROL.": no-store, no-cache");

header(LOCATION_HEADER.': '.$url);


That’s it. Cheers.