Automated Apache virtual hosts on Windows

Posted on 10th July, 2013 at 13:16

Generally all web development should take place on a local development environment. Often usually this includes an AMP-stack. One great feature of Apache is the ability to set up virtual hosts using configuration files. After setting the virtual host configuration, changing the system’s hosts file to point a certain domain name to will allow http://localhost/projectname (which could be pointing to /path/to/www/projectname/ on the system) to become projectname.local for example.

This might get a bit frustrating though, especially if you constantly need to create new local development projects and each should be able to be accessed via *.local or similar development development domain names.

On Windows there is a way to achieve automation for this process. All you need is an Apache installation with mod_vhost_alias module installed, Acrylic DNS Proxy and a few IP addresses from your internet service provider. There are guides for achieving the same results on Mac and Linux systems, though Acrylic should be replaced with an alternative such as dnsmasq

Please note: I use Windows 7 and XAMPP as my development environment. XAMPP is a prepackaged installation that handles each Apache, MySQL and PHP at the same time. You can install them separately in any way you want. MySQL and PHP are not even needed for this to work.

Setting up Apache virtual hosts

As mentioned, you need Apache and the mod_vhost_alias installed on your development system.

Often just a simple change to httpd.conf enables mod_vhost_alias for Apache. Just browse to the extensions list inside the configuration file and uncomment the correct line (LoadModule vhost_alias_module modules/ or similar), unless already uncommented.

If the module needs to be installed by hand, you will need to download and place it inside the apache/modules directory. After that create a new line (or uncomment if already present) to the httpd.conf file extension listing which reads LoadModule vhost_alias_module modules/

After this we need to decide where to keep our virtual hosts (in our case the directories that will be converted to virtual hosts). In this example we’ll just go with C:\localhost\[vhosts here].

We need to make an addition inside Apache’s extra-vhosts.conf (or where ever your installation holds virtual host declarations). There you should insert the following configuration block:

# Feel free to remove the empty lines to
# save space, I inserted them here to
# make the example look cleaner.
<Virtualhost *:80>

    VirtualDocumentRoot "C:/localhost/%-2+"

    ServerName %-2+.local
    ServerAlias %-2+.local

    UseCanonicalName Off

    <Directory "C:/localhost/%-2+">

        Options Indexes FollowSymLinks MultiViews
        AllowOverride All
        Order allow,deny
        Allow from all



I am not entirely certain of the low-level details on these configuration rules (I’m a web developer, not a server engineer), but I’ll try to explain. Correct me in the comments in case I say something outright wrong.

First we declare a new VirtualHost block, in which we type in our new rules. After opening the block, we use VirtualDocumentRoot to determine the directories which we want to be served using virtual hosts. In this case we want to serve all directories under C:\localhost as virtual hosts. The %-2+ determines which directory is mapped to each domain part. In this situation, requesting example.local would look for C:\localhost\example.

After setting the VirtualDocumentRoot, we set our server name and server alias rules. Set %-2+.local for both. You can replace .local with .dev or similar if you want to (but keep in mind this is what should be inserted to Acrylic’s hosts file later on).

Remember to turn off UseCanonicalName, as we are not setting named virtual hosts. Named virtual hosts use UseCanonicalName to set certain domain names properly. I’m not exactly sure how it does this, but it relates to request Host headers it seems. Set the value as Off.

Lastly we set Directory rules for all the virtual host directories. Remember to save the file before closing it.

Now we need to restart Apache to take the new configuration to use. Refer to the Apache manual or the AMP-stack provider’s documentation on how to do it. XAMPP has a little control panel which makes this simple.

That’s it, now we need to tell Windows to map the required types of domain names to reroute back to localhost for use with Apache.

Setup Acrylic DNS Proxy

Acrylic DNS Proxy takes care of mapping our *.local requests to our Apache installation (which in turn checks the requests and maps each to a dynamic virtual host if possible).

Download and install Acrylic as guided, I installed it under C:\Applications, as I usually do for my software. After installation the Acrylic service should start by itself.

Next we modify the custom hosts file that Acrylic offers. You can find it in the start menu under Acrylic DNS Proxy → Config → Edit Custom Hosts File. Insert the following line to the end of the file: *.local

You can add more on new lines, in case you want to use .dev or others. Be sure not to use any common TLDs such as .com and .net, as Acrylic may block all connectivity to those domains if you do so.

Save and close the custom hosts file. After the edit(s) we need to restart the Acrylic service. Inside start menu go to the Acrylic Config section and restart the service by using Restart Acrylic Service.

Using the Acrylic DNS Proxy server on Windows

When the Acrylic settings have been setup, our system needs to be told to look for domain name server data from the system itself. This happens by adding our own IP ( to our DNS address list for our network interface adapter.

I set the Acrylic server IP ( as the primary DNS address, with the two next DNS addresses as the DNS IP addresses provided by my internet service provider.

I’m not going to go through setting custom DNS addresses for Windows, as there a quite many guides for that on the internet already. Here’s two to get you started:

Now the local Acrylic server should be in use when resolving domain names. If you now try (and have content inside the VirtualDocumentRoot), your own dynamic domains and automated virtual hosts should be working. And on top of that, the regular http://localhost/site/ configuration should be working alongside dynamic virtual hosts just fine.

Please note: some developers have noticed that after setting this automation in place, their PHP global variable DOCUMENT_ROOT is not working properly, and instead points to the original Apache document root configuration variable instead. There are some guides and discussions on how to fix this. One option is to develop websites and applications without relying on the DOCUMENT_ROOT global.

Remember, I’m a web developer and not a server manager. This means I may have some mistakes here and there, but at least for me this setup seems to be working just fine. Please do correct me in the comments if you feel like it. I’ll gladly fix errors and maybe-maybe-nots in this tutorial.

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