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What is Medusa?


Medusa is an architecture for very-high-performance TCP/IP servers (like HTTP, FTP, and NNTP). Medusa is different from most other servers because it runs as a single process, multiplexing I/O with its various client and server connections within a single process/thread.

It is capable of smoother and higher performance than most other servers, while placing a dramatically reduced load on the server machine. The single-process, single-thread model simplifies design and enables some new persistence capabilities that are otherwise difficult or impossible to implement.

Medusa is supported on any platform that can run Python and includes a functional implementation of the <socket> and <select> modules. This includes the majority of Unix implementations.

During development, it is constantly tested on Linux and Win32 [Win95/WinNT], but the core asynchronous capability has been shown to work on several other platforms, including the Macintosh. It might even work on VMS.

The Power of Python

A distinguishing feature of Medusa is that it is written entirely in Python. Python (http://www.python.org/) is a 'very-high-level' object-oriented language developed by Guido van Rossum (currently at CNRI). It is easy to learn, and includes many modern programming features such as storage management, dynamic typing, and an extremely flexible object system. It also provides convenient interfaces to C and C++.

The rapid prototyping and delivery capabilities are hard to exaggerate; for example

I've heard similar stories from alpha test sites, and other users of the core async library.

Server Notes

Both the FTP and HTTP servers use an abstracted 'filesystem object' to gain access to a given directory tree. One possible server extension technique would be to build behavior into this filesystem object, rather than directly into the server: Then the extension could be shared with both the FTP and HTTP servers.

HTTP

The core HTTP server itself is quite simple - all functionality is provided through 'extensions'. Extensions can be plugged in dynamically. [i.e., you could log in to the server via the monitor service and add or remove an extension on the fly]. The basic file-delivery service is provided by a 'default' extension, which matches all URI's. You can build more complex behavior by replacing or extending this class.

The default extension includes support for the 'Connection: Keep-Alive' token, and will re-use a client channel when requested by the client.

FTP

On Unix, the ftp server includes support for 'real' users, so that it may be used as a drop-in replacement for the normal ftp server. Since most ftp servers on Unix use the 'forking' model, each child process changes its user/group persona after a successful login. This is a appears to be a secure design.

Medusa takes a different approach - whenever Medusa performs an operation for a particular user [listing a directory, opening a file], it temporarily switches to that user's persona _only_ for the duration of the operation. [and each such operation is protected by a try/finally exception handler].

To do this Medusa MUST run with super-user privileges. This is a HIGHLY experimental approach, and although it has been thoroughly tested on Linux, security problems may still exist. If you are concerned about the security of your server machine, AND YOU SHOULD BE, I suggest running Medusa's ftp server in anonymous-only mode, under an account with limited privileges ('nobody' is usually used for this purpose).

I am very interested in any feedback on this feature, most especially information on how the server behaves on different implementations of Unix, and of course any security problems that are found.


Monitor

The monitor server gives you remote, 'back-door' access to your server while it is running. It implements a remote python interpreter. Once connected to the monitor, you can do just about anything you can do from the normal python interpreter. You can examine data structures, servers, connection objects. You can enable or disable extensions, restart the server, reload modules, etc...

The monitor server is protected with an MD5-based authentication similar to that proposed in RFC1725 for the POP3 protocol. The server sends the client a timestamp, which is then appended to a secret password. The resulting md5 digest is sent back to the server, which then compares this to the expected result. Failed login attempts are logged and immediately disconnected. The password itself is not sent over the network (unless you have foolishly transmitted it yourself through an insecure telnet or X11 session. 8^)

For this reason telnet cannot be used to connect to the monitor server when it is in a secure mode (the default). A client program is provided for this purpose. You will be prompted for a password when starting up the server, and by the monitor client.

For extra added security on Unix, the monitor server will eventually be able to use a Unix-domain socket, which can be protected behind a 'firewall' directory (similar to the InterNet News server).


Performance Notes

The select() function

At the heart of Medusa is a single select() loop. This loop handles all open socket connections, both servers and clients. It is in effect constantly asking the system: 'which of these sockets has activity?'. Performance of this system call can vary widely between operating systems.

There are also often builtin limitations to the number of sockets ('file descriptors') that a single process, or a whole system, can manipulate at the same time. Early versions of Linux placed draconian limits (256) that have since been raised. Windows 95 has a limit of 64, while OSF/1 seems to allow up to 4096.

These limits don't affect only Medusa, you will find them described in the documentation for other web and ftp servers, too.

The documentation for the Apache web server has some excellent notes on tweaking performance for various Unix implementations. See http://www.apache.org/docs/misc/perf.html for more information.

Buffer sizes

The default buffer sizes used by Medusa are set with a bias toward Internet-based servers: They are relatively small, so that the buffer overhead for each connection is low. The assumption is that Medusa will be talking to a large number of low-bandwidth connections, rather than a smaller number of high bandwidth.

This choice trades run-time memory use for efficiency - the down side of this is that high-speed local connections (i.e., over a local ethernet) will transfer data at a slower rate than necessary.

This parameter can easily be tweaked by the site designer, and can in fact be adjusted on a per-server or even per-client basis. For example, you could have the FTP server use larger buffer sizes for connections from certain domains.

If there's enough interest, I have some rough ideas for how to make these buffer sizes automatically adjust to an optimal setting. Send email if you'd like to see this feature.


See ./medusa.html for a brief overview of some of the ideas behind Medusa's design, and for a description of current and upcoming features.

Enjoy!



-Sam Rushing
rushing@nightmare.com