Serving via nginx on Debian and Ubuntu

Serving via nginx on Debian and Ubuntu

This document is an extension of the platform-independent SCGI instructions, which may suffice for your purposes if your needs are simple.

Here, we add more detailed information on nginx itself, plus details about running it on Debian type OSes. We focus on Debian 10 (Buster) and Ubuntu 20.04 here, which are common Tier 1 OS offerings for virtual private servers at the time of writing. This material may not work for older OSes. It is known in particular to not work as given for Debian 9 and older!

We also cover adding TLS to the basic configuration, because several details depend on the host OS and web stack details. Besides, TLS is widely considered part of the baseline configuration these days.


This scheme is considerably more complicated than the standalone HTTP server and CGI options. Even with the benefit of this guide and pre-built binary packages, it requires quite a bit of work to set it up. Why should you put up with this complexity? Because it gives many benefits that are difficult or impossible to get with the less complicated options:

Fossil Service Modes

Fossil provides four major ways to access a repository it’s serving remotely, three of which are straightforward to use with nginx:

SCGI it is, then.

Installing the Dependencies

The first step is to install some non-default packages we’ll need. SSH into your server, then say:

   $ sudo apt install fossil nginx

You can leave “fossil” out of that if you’re building Fossil from source to get a more up-to-date version than is shipped with the host OS.

Running Fossil in SCGI Mode

For the following nginx configuration to work, it needs to contact a Fossil instance speaking the SCGI protocol. There are many ways to set that up. For Debian type systems, we recommend following our systemd system service guide.

There are other ways to arrange for Fossil to run as a service backing nginx, but however you do it, you need to match up the TCP port numbers between it and those in the nginx configuration below.


On Debian and Ubuntu systems the primary user-level configuration file for nginx is /etc/nginx/sites-enabled/default. I recommend that this file contain only a list of include statements, one for each site that server hosts:

  include local/
  include local/

Those files then each define one domain’s configuration. Here, /etc/nginx/local/ contains the configuration for * and its alias *; and local/ contains the configuration for *

The configuration for our web site, stored in /etc/nginx/sites-enabled/local/ is:

  server {
      server_name "";
      include local/generic;

      access_log /var/log/nginx/;
       error_log /var/log/nginx/;

      # Bypass Fossil for the static documentation generated from
      # our source code by Doxygen, so it merges into the embedded
      # doc URL hierarchy at Fossil’s $ROOT/doc without requiring that
      # these generated files actually be stored in the repo.  This
      # also lets us set aggressive caching on these docs, since
      # they rarely change.
      location /code/doc/html {
          root /var/www/;

          location ~* \.(html|ico|css|js|gif|jpg|png)$ {
              expires 7d;
              add_header Vary Accept-Encoding;
              access_log off;

      # Redirect everything else to the Fossil instance
      location /code {
          include scgi_params;
          scgi_param SCRIPT_NAME "/code";

As you can see, this is a pure extension of the basic nginx service configuration for SCGI, showing off a few ideas you might want to try on your own site, such as static asset proxying.

The local/generic file referenced above helps us reduce unnecessary repetition among the multiple sites this configuration hosts:

  root /var/www/$host;

  listen 80;
  listen [::]:80;

  charset utf-8;

There are some configuration directives that nginx refuses to substitute variables into, citing performance considerations, so there is a limit to how much repetition you can squeeze out this way. One such example is the access_log and error_log directives, which follow an obvious pattern from one host to the next. Sadly, you must tolerate some repetition across server { } blocks when setting up multiple domains on a single server.

The configuration for is similar.

See the nginx docs for more ideas.

Proxying HTTP Anyway

Above, we argued that proxying SCGI is a better option than making nginx reinterpret Fossil’s own implementation of HTTP. If you want Fossil to speak HTTP, just set Fossil up as a standalone server. And if you want nginx to provide TLS encryption for Fossil, proxying HTTP instead of SCGI provides no benefit.

However, it is still worth showing the proper method of proxying Fossil’s HTTP server through nginx if only to make reading nginx documentation on other sites easier:

    location /code {
        rewrite ^/code(/.*) $1 break;

The most common thing people get wrong when hand-rolling a configuration like this is to get the slashes wrong. Fossil is sensitive to this. For instance, Fossil will not collapse double slashes down to a single slash, as some other HTTP servers will.

Allowing Large Unversioned Files

By default, nginx only accepts HTTP messages up to a meg in size. Fossil chunks its sync protocol such that this is not normally a problem, but when sending unversioned content, it uses a single message for the entire file. Therefore, if you will be storing files larger than this limit as unversioned content, you need to raise the limit. Within the location block:

    # Allow large unversioned file uploads, such as PDFs
    client_max_body_size 20M;

Integrating fail2ban

One of the nice things that falls out of proxying Fossil behind nginx is that it makes it easier to configure fail2ban to recognize attacks on Fossil and automatically block them. Fossil logs the sorts of errors we want to detect, but it does so in places like the repository’s admin log, a SQL table, which fail2ban doesn’t know how to query. By putting Fossil behind an nginx proxy, we convert these failures to log file form, which fail2ban is designed to handle.

First, install fail2ban, if you haven’t already:

  sudo apt install fail2ban

We’d like fail2ban to react to Fossil /login failures. The stock configuration of fail2ban only detects a few common sorts of SSH attacks by default, and its included (but disabled) nginx attack detectors don’t include one that knows how to detect an attack on Fossil. We have to teach it by putting the following into /etc/fail2ban/filter.d/nginx-fossil-login.conf:

  failregex = ^<HOST> - .*POST .*/login HTTP/..." 401

That teaches fail2ban how to recognize the errors logged by Fossil as of 2.14. (Earlier versions of Fossil returned HTTP status code 200 for this, so you couldn’t distinguish a successful login from a failure.)

Then in /etc/fail2ban/jail.local, add this section:

  enabled = true
  logpath = /var/log/nginx/*-https-access.log

The last line is the key: it tells fail2ban where we’ve put all of our per-repo access logs in the nginx config above.

There’s a lot more you can do, but that gets us out of scope of this guide.

Adding TLS (HTTPS) Support

One of the many ways to provide TLS-encrypted HTTP access (a.k.a. HTTPS) to Fossil is to run it behind a web proxy that supports TLS. One such option is nginx on Debian, so we show the details of that here.

You can extend this guide to other operating systems by following the instructions found via the front Certbot web page instead, telling it what OS and web stack you’re using. Chances are good that they’ve got a good guide for you already.

Configuring Let’s Encrypt, the Easy Way

If your web serving needs are simple, Certbot can configure nginx for you and keep its certificates up to date. Simply follow Certbot’s nginx on Ubuntu 20.04 LTS guide.

Unfortunately, the setup above was beyond Certbot’s ability to cope the last time we tried it. The use of per-subdomain files in particular confused Certbot, so we had to arrange these details manually, else the Let’s Encrypt ACME exchange failed in the necessary domain validation steps.

At this point, if your configuration needs are simple, needing only a single Internet domain and a single Fossil repo, you might wish to try to reduce the above configuration to a more typical single-file nginx config, which Certbot might then cope with out of the box.

Configuring Let’s Encrypt, the Hard Way

The primary motivation for this section is that it documents the manual Certbot configuration on my public Fossil-based site. I’m addressing the “me” years hence who needs to upgrade to Ubuntu 22.04 or 24.04 LTS and has forgotten all of this stuff. 😉

Step 1: Shifting into Manual

The first thing we’ll do is install Certbot in the normal way, but we’ll turn off all of the Certbot automation and won’t follow through with use of the --nginx plugin:

  $ sudo snap install --classic certbot
  $ sudo systemctl disable certbot.timer

Next, edit /etc/letsencrypt/renewal/ to disable the nginx plugins. You’re looking for two lines setting the “install” and “auth” plugins to “nginx”. You can comment them out or remove them entirely.

Step 2: Configuring nginx

This is a straightforward extension to the HTTP-only configuration above:

  server {

      include local/tls-common;

      charset utf-8;

      access_log /var/log/nginx/;
       error_log /var/log/nginx/;

      # Bypass Fossil for the static Doxygen docs
      location /doc/html {
          root /var/www/;

          location ~* \.(html|ico|css|js|gif|jpg|png)$ {
              expires 7d;
              add_header Vary Accept-Encoding;
              access_log off;

      # Redirect everything else to the Fossil instance
      location / {
          include scgi_params;
          scgi_param HTTPS "on";
          scgi_param SCRIPT_NAME "";
  server {
      root /var/www/;
      include local/http-certbot-only;
      access_log /var/log/nginx/;
       error_log /var/log/nginx/;

One big difference between this and the HTTP-only case is that we need two server { } blocks: one for HTTPS service, and one for HTTP-only service.

HTTP over TLS (HTTPS) Service

The first server { } block includes this file, local/tls-common:

  listen 443 ssl;

  ssl_certificate     /etc/letsencrypt/live/;
  ssl_certificate_key /etc/letsencrypt/live/;

  ssl_dhparam /etc/letsencrypt/ssl-dhparams.pem;

  ssl_stapling on;
  ssl_stapling_verify on;

  ssl_protocols TLSv1 TLSv1.1 TLSv1.2 TLSv1.3;
  ssl_session_cache shared:le_nginx_SSL:1m;
  ssl_prefer_server_ciphers on;
  ssl_session_timeout 1440m;

These are the common TLS configuration parameters used by all domains hosted by this server.

The first line tells nginx to accept TLS-encrypted HTTP connections on the standard HTTPS port. It is the same as listen 443; ssl on; in older versions of nginx.

Since all of those domains share a single TLS certificate, we reference the same*.pem files written out by Certbot with the ssl_certificate* lines.

The ssl_dhparam directive isn’t strictly required, but without it, the server becomes vulnerable to the Logjam attack because some of the cryptography steps are precomputed, making the attacker’s job much easier. The parameter file this directive references should be generated automatically by the Let’s Encrypt package upon installation, making those parameters unique to your server and thus unguessable. If the file doesn’t exist on your system, you can create it manually, so:

  $ sudo openssl dhparam -out /etc/letsencrypt/dhparams.pem 2048

Beware, this can take a long time. On a shared Linux host I tried it on running OpenSSL 1.1.0g, it took about 21 seconds, but on a fast, idle iMac running LibreSSL 2.6.5, it took 8 minutes and 4 seconds!

The next section is also optional. It enables OCSP stapling, a protocol that improves the speed and security of the TLS connection negotiation.

The next section containing the ssl_protocols and ssl_ciphers lines restricts the TLS implementation to only those protocols and ciphers that are currently believed to be safe and secure. This section is the one most prone to bit-rot: as new attacks on TLS and its associated technologies are discovered, this configuration is likely to need to change. Even if we fully succeed in keeping this document up-to-date in the face of the evolving security landscape, we’re recommending static configurations for your server: it will thus be up to you to track changes in this document and others to merge the changes into your local static configuration.

Running a TLS certificate checker against your site occasionally is a good idea. The most thorough service I’m aware of is the Qualys SSL Labs Test, which gives the site I’m basing this guide on an “A+” rating at the time of this writing. The long ssl_ciphers line above is based on their advice: the default nginx configuration tells OpenSSL to use whatever ciphersuites it considers “high security,” but some of those have come to be considered “weak” in the time between that judgement and the time of this writing. By explicitly giving the list of ciphersuites we want OpenSSL to use within nginx, we can remove those that become considered weak in the future.

There are a few things you can do to get an even better grade, such as to enable HSTS:

  add_header Strict-Transport-Security "max-age=31536000; includeSubDomains" always;

This prevents a particular variety of man in the middle attack where our HTTP-to-HTTPS permanent redirect is intercepted, allowing the attacker to prevent the automatic upgrade of the connection to a secure TLS-encrypted one. I didn’t enable that in the configuration above because it is something a site administrator should enable only after the configuration is tested and stable, and then only after due consideration. There are ways to lock your users out of your site by jumping to HSTS hastily. When you’re ready, there are guides you can follow elsewhere online.

HTTP-Only Service

While we’d prefer not to offer HTTP service at all, we need to do so for two reasons:

So, from the second service { } block, we include this file to set up the minimal HTTP service we require, local/http-certbot-only:

  listen 80;
  listen [::]:80;

  # This is expressed as a rewrite rule instead of an "if" because
  #rewrite ^(/.well-known/acme-challenge/.*) $1 break;

  # Force everything else to HTTPS with a permanent redirect.
  #return 301 https://$host$request_uri;

As written above, this configuration does nothing other than to tell nginx that it’s allowed to serve content via HTTP on port 80 as well. We’ll uncomment the rewrite and return directives below, when we’re ready to begin testing.

Notice that most of the nginx directives given above moved up into the TLS server { } block, because we eventually want this site to be as close to HTTPS-only as we can get it.

Step 3: Dry Run

We want to first request a dry run, because Let’s Encrypt puts some rather low limits on how often you’re allowed to request an actual certificate. You want to be sure everything’s working before you do that. You’ll run a command something like this:

  $ sudo certbot certonly --webroot --dry-run \
     --webroot-path /var/www/ \
         -d -d \
         -d -d \
     --webroot-path /var/www/ \
         -d -d

There are two key options here.

First, we’re telling Certbot to use its --webroot plugin instead of the automated --nginx plugin. With this plugin, Certbot writes the ACME HTTP-01 challenge files to the static web document root directory behind each domain. For this example, we’ve got two web roots, one of which holds documents for two different second-level domains ( and with www at the third level being optional. This is a common sort of configuration these days, but you needn’t feel that you must slavishly imitate it. The other web root is for an entirely different domain, also with www being optional. Since all of these domains are served by a single nginx instance, we need to give all of this in a single command, because we want to mint a single certificate that authenticates all of these domains.

The second key option is --dry-run, which tells Certbot not to do anything permanent. We’re just seeing if everything works as expected, at this point.

Troubleshooting the Dry Run

If that didn’t work, try creating a manual test:

  $ mkdir -p /var/www/
  $ echo hi > /var/www/

Then try to pull that file over HTTP — not HTTPS! — as I’ve found that using Firefox or Safari is better for this sort of thing than Chrome, because Chrome is more aggressive about automatically forwarding URLs to HTTPS even if you requested “http”.

In extremis, you can do the test manually:

  $ curl -i
  HTTP/1.1 200 OK
  Server: nginx/1.14.0 (Ubuntu)
  Date: Sat, 19 Jan 2019 19:43:58 GMT
  Content-Type: application/octet-stream
  Content-Length: 3
  Last-Modified: Sat, 19 Jan 2019 18:21:54 GMT
  Connection: keep-alive
  ETag: "5c436ac2-4"
  Accept-Ranges: bytes


The key bits you’re looking for here are the “200 OK” response code at the start and the “hi” line at the end. (Or whatever you wrote in to the test file.)

If you get a 301 redirect to an https:// URI, you either haven’t uncommented the rewrite line for HTTP-only service for this directory, or there’s some other problem with the “redirect to HTTPS” config.

If you get a 404 or other error response, you need to look into your web server logs to find out what’s going wrong.

If you’re still running into trouble, the log file written by Certbot can be helpful. It tells you where it’s writing the ACME files early in each run.

Step 4: Getting Your First Certificate

Once the dry run is working, you can drop the --dry-run option and re-run the long command above. (The one with all the --webroot* flags.) This should now succeed, and it will save all of those flag values to your Let’s Encrypt configuration file, so you don’t need to keep giving them.

Step 5: Test It

Edit the local/http-certbot-only file and uncomment the redirect and return directives, then restart your nginx server and make sure it now forces everything to HTTPS like it should:

  $ sudo systemctl restart nginx

Test ideas:

This forced redirect is why we don’t need the Fossil Admin → Access "Redirect to HTTPS on the Login page" setting to be enabled. Not only is it unnecessary with this HTTPS redirect at the front-end proxy level, it would actually cause an infinite redirect loop if enabled.

Step 6: Switch to HTTPS Sync

Fossil remembers permanent HTTP-to-HTTPS redirects on sync since version 2.9, so all you need to do to switch your syncs to HTTPS is:

  $ fossil sync -R /path/to/repo.fossil

Step 7: Renewing Automatically

Now that the configuration is solid, you can renew the LE cert with the certbot command from above without the --dry-run flag plus a restart of nginx:

  sudo certbot certonly --webroot \
     --webroot-path /var/www/ \
         -d -d \
         -d -d \
     --webroot-path /var/www/ \
         -d -d
  sudo systemctl restart nginx

I put those commands in a script in the PATH, then arrange to call that periodically. Let’s Encrypt doesn’t let you renew the certificate very often unless forced, and when forced there’s a maximum renewal counter. Nevertheless, some people recommend running this daily and just letting it fail until the server lets you renew. Others arrange to run it no more often than it’s known to work without complaint. Suit yourself.

Return to the top-level Fossil server article.