WASD VMS Web Services - Install and Config

6 - String Matching

6.1 - Wildcard Patterns 6.2 - Regular Expressions 6.3 - Examples 6.4 - Expression Substitution
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Matching of strings is a pervasive and important function within the server. Two types are supported; wildcard and regular expression. Wildcard matching is generally much less expensive (in CPU cycles and time) than regular expression matching and so should always be used unless the match explicitly requires otherwise. WASD attempts to improve the efficiency of both by performing a preliminary pass to make simple matches and eliminate obvious mismatches using a very low-cost comparison. This either matches or doesn't, or encounters a pattern matching meta-character which causes it to undertake full pattern matching.

To assist with the refinement of string matching patterns the Server Administration facility has a report item named "Match". This report allows the input of target and match strings and allows direct access to the server's wildcard and regular expression matching routines. Successful matches show the matching elements and a substitution field (6.4 - Expression Substitution) allows resultant strings to be assessed.

To determine what string match processing is occuring during request processing in the running server use the match item available from the Server Administration WATCH Report.

6.1 - Wildcard Patterns

Wildcard patterns are simple, low-cost mechanisms for matching a string to a template. They are designed to be used in path and authorization mapping to compare a request path to the root (left-hand side) or a template expression.

Wildcard Operators
*Match zero or more characters (non-greedy)
**Match zero or more characters (greedy)
%Match any one character

Wildcard matching uses the '*' and '%' symbols to match any zero or more, or any one character respectively. The '*' wildcard can either be greedy or non-greedy depending on the context (and for historical reasons). It can also be forced to be greedy by using two consecutive ('**'). By default it is not greedy when matching request paths for mapping or authentication, and is greedy at other times (matching strings within conditional testing, etc.)

Greedy and Non-Greedy

Non-greedy matching attempts to match an asterisk wildcard up until the first character that is not the same as the character immediately following the wildcard. It matches a minimum number of characters before failing. Greedy matching attempts to match all characters up until the first string that does not match what follows the asterisk.

To illustrate; using the following string

non-greedy character matching compared to greedy character matching
the following non-greedy pattern
*non-greedy character*matching
does not match but the following greedy pattern
*non-greedy character**matching
does match. The non-greedy one failed as soon as it encountered the space following the first "matching" string, while the greedy pattern continued to match eventually encountering a string matching the string following the greedy wildcard.

6.2 - Regular Expressions

Regular expression matching is case insensitive (in line with other WASD behaviour) and uses the POSIX EGREP pattern syntax and capabilities. Regular expression matching offers significant but relatively expensive functionality. One of those expenses is expression compilation. WASD attempts to eliminate this by pre-compiling expressions during server startup whenever feasable. Regular expression matching must be enabled using the [RegEx] WASD_CONFIG_GLOBAL directive and are then differentiated from wildcard patterns by using a leading "^" character.

A detailed tutorial on regular expression capabilities and usage is well beyond the scope of this document. Many such hard-copy and on-line documents are available.


This summary is only to serve as a quick mnemonic. WASD regular expressions support the following set of operators.

Operator Overview
Match-self OperatorOrdinary characters.
Match-any-character Operator.
Concatenation OperatorJuxtaposition.
Repetition Operators* + ? {}
Alternation Operator|
List Operators[...] [^...]
Grouping Operators(...)
Back-reference Operator\digit
Anchoring Operators^ $
Backslash OperatorEscape meta-character; i.e. \ ^ . $ | [ (

The following operators are used to match one, or in conjunction with the repetition operators more, characters of the target string. These single and leading characters are reserved meta-characters and must be escaped using a leading backslash ("\") if required as a literal character in the matching pattern. Note that this does not apply to the range hyphen; to include a hyphen in a range ensure the character is the first or last in the range.

Matching Operators
^Match the beginning of the line
.Match any character
$Match the end of the line
|Alternation (or)
[abc]Match only a, b or c
[^abc]Match anything except a, b and c
[a-z0-9]Match any character in the range a to z or 0 to 9

Repetition operators control the extent, or number, of whatever the matching operators match. These are also reserved meta-characters and must be escaped using a leading backslash if required as a literal character.

Repetition Operators
*Match 0 or more times
+Match 1 or more times
?Match 1 or zero times
{n}Match exactly n times
{n,}Match at least n times
{n,m}Match at least n but not more than m times

6.3 - Examples

The following provides a series of examples as they might occur in use for server configuration.

  1. Equivalent functionality using wildcard and regular expression patterns. Note that "Mozilla" must be at the start of the string, with the regular expression using the start-of-string anchor resulting in two consecutive "^"s, one indicating to WASD a regular expression, the other being part of the expression itself.
    if (user-agent:Mozilla*Gecko*)
    if (user-agent:^^Mozilla.*Gecko)
  2. This shows path matching using equivalent wildcard and regular expression matching. Note the requirement to use the regular expression grouping parentheses to provide the substitution elements, something provided implicitly with wildcard matching.
    map /*/-/* /wasd_root/runtime/*/*
    map ^/(.+)/-/(.+) /wasd_root/runtime/*/*
  3. This rather contrived regular expression example has no equivalent capability available with wildcard matching. It forbids the use of any path that contains any character other than alpha-numerics, the hyphen, underscore, period and forward-slash.
    pass ^[^-_./a-z0-9]+ "403 Forbidden character in path!"

6.4 - Expression Substitution

Expression substitution is available during path mapping (12 - Request Processing Configuration). Both wildcard (implicitly) and regular expressions (using grouping operators) note the offsets of matched portions of the strings. These are then used for wildcard and specified wildcard substitution where result strings provide for this (e.g. mapping 'pass' and 'redirect' rules). A maximum of nine such wildcard substitutions are supported (one other, the zeroeth, is the full match).

Wildcard Substitution

With wildcard matching each asterisk wildcard contained in the pattern (template string) has matching characters in the target string noted and stored. Note that for the percentage (single character) wildcard no such storage is provided. These characters are available for substitution using corresponding wildcards present in the result string. For instance, the target string

this is an example target string
would be matched by the pattern string
* is an example target *
as containing two matching wildcard strings
which could be substituted using the result string
* is an example result * 
producing the resultant string
this is an example result string

Regular Expression Substitution

With regular expression matching the groups of matching characters must be explicitly specified using the grouping parenthesis operator. Hence with regular expression matching it is possible to match many characters from the target string without retaining them for later substitution. Only if that match is designated as a subsitution source do the matching characters become available for substituion via any result string. Using two possible target strings as an example

this is an example target string
this is a contrived target string
would both be matched by the regular expression
^^([a-z]*) is [a-z ]* target ([a-z]*)$
which though it contains three regular expressions in the pattern, only two have the grouping parentheses, and so make their matching string available for substitution
which could be substituted using the result string
* is the final result * 
producing the resultant string
this is the final result string

Specified Substitution

By default the strings matched by wildcard or grouping operators are substituted in the same order in which they are matched. This order may be changed by specifying which wildcard string should be substituted where. Not all matched (and stored) strings need to be substituted. Some may be omitted and the contents effectively ignored.

The specified substitution syntax is a result wildcard followed by a single-apostrophe (') and a single digit from zero to nine (0...9). The zeroeth element is the full matching string. Element one is the first matching part of the expression, on through to the last. Specifying an element that had no matching string substitutes an empty string (i.e. nothing is added). Using the same target string as in the previous previous example

this is an example target string
and matched by the wildcard pattern string
* is an example target *
when substituted by the result string
*'2 is an example result
would produce the resultant string
string is an example result
with the string represented by the first wildcard effectively being discarded.

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