Reuven M. Lerner


README for form-mail.pl

README for form-mail.pl

This file comes with the form-mail package, a combination Perl program and HTML document that allow users of World-Wide Web browsers to submit comments to the maintainers of a WWW server.

Please send comments and questions regarding any part of form-mail to Reuven Lerner. I am particularly interested in finding out about potential security holes, although I certainly wouldn't mind receiving bug reports and feature ideas.

This package has been in use for some time at The Tech, MIT's student newspaper. You can access an on-line version of it at http://the-tech.mit.edu/Info/test-comment.html

Before I continue, a bit of legal hoopla:


This package is Copyright 1994 by The Tech.

Form-mail is free software; you can redistribute it and/or modify it under the terms of the GNU General Public License as published by the Free Software Foundation; either version 2, or (at your option) any later version.

Form-mail is distributed in the hope that it will be useful, but WITHOUT ANY WARRANTY; without even the implied warranty of MERCHANTABILITY or FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE. See the GNU General Public License for more details.

You should have received a copy of the GNU General Public License along with Form-mail; see the file COPYING. If not, write to the Free Software Foundation, 675 Mass Ave, Cambridge, MA 02139, USA.


A quick note: I realize that this isn't the most elegant or secure way to send comments to the webmasters at a site; at the very least, there is a tag that should do the job. But hey, that tag doesn't work on all browsers, and this seems to work well enough for our purposes. I hope that it works well enough for you, but as I said, there are certainly other solutions to this problem.

Installing form-mail is quite simple. You will need the following:

  1. Perl, a wonderful language for doing almost anything you would do with a shell script, and much of which you might do with C. Perl is freely available from a number of sites, including by anonymous ftp from prep.ai.mit.edu in ~ftp/pub/gnu. If you are new to Perl, I strongly suggest that you buy a copy of "Programming Perl," published by O'Reilly and Associates. Another book, "Learning Perl," has hit the markets in recent months; while I haven't read it myself, I have heard generally good things about it.

    If you have trouble installing Perl on your system, I suggest that you read the Perl FAQ (list of frequently asked questions), available by anonymous ftp from convex.com in ~ftp/pub/perl. If that's not enough help, try asking on the newsgroup comp.lang.perl.

  2. A World-Wide Web server. We use NCSA httpd at The Tech, which you can get by anonymous ftp from ftp.ncsa.uiuc.edu. I haven't tried form-mail with any other servers, but I wrote it to conform with CGI (common gateway interface) specifications, so it should work with recent versions of Plexus and CERN httpd. The CGI specs, by the way, are available on the Web at http://hoohoo.ncsa.uiuc.edu/cgi.

If you don't already read the newsgroup comp.infosystems.www, you probably should, especially if you are a Webmaster at your site.

Assuming all of that is in order,

  1. Edit form-mail.pl. This Perl program is executed whenever a user presses the "Send comments" button on comment-form.html. (If you use GNU Emacs, the funny -*-perl-*- at the top of the document will place Emacs in perl-mode even if .pl isn't in your auto-mode-alist. And if you didn't understand the previous sentence, don't worry about it.)

    There are several things that you will probably want to change in form-mail.pl:

    1. $mailprog. This can be any program that accepts mail sent to its standard input (i.e., if you can type `foomail < /etc/hosts', you can use foomail as $mailprog. I used to use /usr/ucb/mail (aka mailx) on our system until someone pointed out the potential security holes that could crop up in such cases. I have since switched to sendmail, which while infamous for being insecure, is still much better than plain ol' mail.

    2. $recipient. Please change this to the username or mailing list that you deem appropriate. Previous versions of form-mail set this to archive@the-tech.mit.edu; we got quite a number of spurious messages from users at other sites.

    3. You might want to change the mail message sent to $recipient. At the very least, you'll probably want to describe your WWW server as something other than "The Tech's."

    4. Last, but not least, you will probably want to change the end of the file, in which we print a message to the WWW user thanking him or her for sending comments. This can be as simple or elaborate as you want; you could even use a while loop to print out the contents of a file containing valid HTML.

  2. Place form-mail.pl in a directory that can be used for CGI programs. In NCSA httpd, this is done by adding a ScriptAlias directive to the srm.conf configuration file. On our system, this is /usr/local/etc/httpd/cgi-bin; our srm.conf has the following line:

        ScriptAlias /cgi-bin/ /usr/local/etc/httpd/cgi-bin/

  3. Edit comment-form.html to your taste. This is an HTML document, and should follow those specifications as closely as possible. Good documentation on HTML is available at http://www.ncsa.uiuc.edu/General/Internet/WWW/HTMLPrimer.html.

    Note that comemnt-form.html uses fill-out forms, a feature that is due to be in HTML+ (a forthcoming enhancement to HTML). Some good documentation on forms is available at http://www.ncsa.uiuc.edu/SDG/Software/Mosaic/Docs/fill-out-forms/overview.html

    (Yeah, that's a bit too long for my taste, too.)

    Be sure to change the "action=" setting in comment-form.html if you have changed the name or directory in which form-mail sits.

  4. You might have to send your server a `kill -1' to tell it to reread some of its configuration files. It can't hurt, in any event.

Things should now work! If you have problems, look at the checklist in the file called HELP that should have come with this distribution. If nothing there seems to solve your problem, send me mail.

Good luck, and happy Webbing!


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Reuven M. Lerner // Reuven's home page // Lerner Communications Consulting