For the want of a slash

Last week at work we had a minor issue with our public website. We're using Drupal with a MySQL backend and mysqldump for backups which we're then compressing, and, in an act of idiocy, are storing on the same drive. We hadn't run into any problems previously because the database is supposed to be significantly smaller than the disk and always has been1.

Until last week.


Towards the end of the week I got a resigned phone call from our web-team saying that the site was down and could I have a look to see if I could bring it back up. After a little poking about I realised that the disk had run out of space, so I deleted some spare backups and old binary logs that hadn't been recycled yet and the website sprang back to life.

After some investigation we found a table called cache_metatags that was about three times the size of the rest of the database. I discussed it with our web-team lead and we decided to look into it on Monday. Surely there would be enough disk space for it to last two days?

Ah, the hubris of Friday afternoon IT support staff.


So the website was down. It had run out of disk space as soon as it started running the backup on Friday evening and then spent the next two days floundering and being generally unhelpful. We don't do support on weekends, so there wasn't anyone around to fix it.

I started by clearing some disk space and it leapt back into life almost immediately. Then our web-team lead cleared the Drupal caches and that brought the cache_metatags table down to a few kilobytes.

I ran a backup immediately, just to be sure.

Looking at the backup log I noticed that the (compressed) database backup from the previous Tuesday was significantly larger than the backup from the night before. Nobody could think of anything that had changed then, and we thought that the increase in the size of the Metatag cache was probably the culprit.

The Metatag module

The Metatag module seems to be used for putting ‘meta tags’ into the html output of the site. I know little about this arcane art, but apparently they’re useful for search-engines. The module then caches the meta tags for each page that Drupal renders so it doesn’t have to recreate them every time someone views the page. I found a discussion about it caching the tags for 404 pages, which could result in a lot of excess cached data if someone hit the site with a lot of junk URLs, but this issue appears to have been fixed, so that was ruled out.

To see if I could spot anything unusual I went to the Apache log files and immediately noticed something. There were an excessive number of logfiles from Tuesday and Wednesday. We rotate them when they reach five megabytes, and rarely get through more than two or three in a day. (There’s a Varnish caching proxy in front of the web server that catches most requests, so the traffic reaching the back-end is, generally, fairly low.) We had about thirty for these two days. Something was clearly not right.

The logs

The logs were full of entries with extremely long paths, and they seemed to consist of repeating segments, like:


There were thousands of them and they all seemed to come from one search engine optimisation web crawler. I don't know why it was crawling our site, but it seemed to have got caught in some sort of recursive loop and hammered through thousands2 of these URLs over the course of about two days.

Our web-team lead immediately recognised the partial URLs and that it was related to an image that a module was putting on certain pages. He also knew that the image was broken on certain pages, but hadn't investigated it yet. Once I knew where to look it didn't take me long to work out what had happened.

The image URL was missing a leading /, which meant that instead of looking for the image in /sites/all/modules/fwia/css/, it was looking in /news/2015/apr/sites/all/modules/fwia/css/. For some reason the pages under /news handle any extra data in the path by ignoring it and displaying the first working URL. This meant that the site displayed /news/2015/apr/sites/all/modules/fwia/css/ exactly the same as /news/2015/apr, and the broken image URL was:


which also happily displayed the same, along with it's own broken image URL.

The crawler dutifully followed these broken links, and many others that lead from these pages3, until, presumably, the URLs got too long or it finally hit its, rather large, depth limit, all the while generating data for the Metatag module to cache.

The moral

Don't backup to the same disk as your data is on, that's just stupid.

The problems here are manifold, and we'll be working to fix as many as we can, but it amuses me that a single missing / could result in a perfect storm of small issues and take our website down for over two days.


There's some history to this setup, but this is the current state of things.
Probably tens or hundreds of thousands. I didn't take the time to try counting
The news pages are paginated.
t @flxzr
g alanthird
e Alan Third