Easily managing ACLs in Varnish

Varnish is a popular caching HTTP reverse proxy, used by organisations large and smaller to reduce load on their canonical origins, to speed up page response times, and to tamper with HTTP requests and responses which pass through it. It’s easily one of my favourite tools to use when building infrastructure, given how extensible it is, and for how many use cases it can be an answer.

I want to focus on a little trick I try regularly to tidy up my VCL (the Varnish Configuration Language). Let’s say we have a specific snippet that I want to use across multiple VCL files, but I don’t want to have to update the snippet everywhere every time a change is made. A good example might be an access control list, or ACL.

Creating the ACL

Firstly, we need to define the ACL. We can do this in a new file - you might wish to separate your files to include, like this one, in to a separate directory - with this content:

acl restrict_purge {

The restrict_purge section is simply a descriptive name: call it whatever you wish, although I find it easier to name snippets as I would functions when programming, in that their purpose is clear and they aren’t too finely scoped. Make sure, howver, that you keep acl at the start, since that’s what Varnish is using here to work out that this section is an ACL. You’ll end up in a sticky place if that’s not there.

Using the ACL

Now that we’ve got our ACL defined, we can start to use it. Head in to your main VCL (where you’ve got your Varnish functions defined), and add the following lines to vcl_recv:

if (req.request == "PURGE" && !(client.ip ~ purge_whitelist)) {
  error 403 "Forbidden";

Here, we’re saying that if the HTTP request is sent with the PURGE method, and the source IP isn’t contained in the purge_whitelist ACL we defined earlier, Varnish should route the request to vcl_error and return a 403 without processing the request further at all.

Using include

At this stage, the logic in our main VCL to check the client IP against the ACL we created earlier doesn’t yet do exactly what we’re after since we’ve not included the ACL. That’s a one-liner:

include restrict_purge.vcl

And there you have it: a reusable snippet of VCL with an ACL inside that you can use across VCL files. That should keep your VCL a little cleaner when you have shared dependencies of data.