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I was watching the funny server type from http://www.reddit.com with curl -I http://www.reddit.com when I guessed that curl -X HEAD http://www.reddit.com would do the same. But, in fact, it doesn't.

I'm curious about why.

This is what I observe running the two commands:

  • curl -I: works as expected, outputs the header and exists.

  • curl -X HEAD: does not show anything and seems to wait for user input.

But, sniffing with tshark I see the second command actually sends the same HTML query and receives the correct answer, but it does not show it and it doesn't close the connection.

curl -I

0.000000 333.33.33.33 -> 213.248.111.106 TCP 59675 > http [SYN] Seq=0 Win=5840 Len=0 MSS=1460 TSV=47267342 TSER=0 WS=6
0.045392 213.248.111.106 -> 333.33.33.33 TCP http > 59675 [SYN, ACK] Seq=0 Ack=1 Win=5792 Len=0 MSS=1460 TSV=2552532839 TSER=47267342 WS=1
0.045441 333.33.33.33 -> 213.248.111.106 TCP 59675 > http [ACK] Seq=1 Ack=1 Win=5888 Len=0 TSV=47267353 TSER=2552532839
0.045623 333.33.33.33 -> 213.248.111.106 HTTP HEAD / HTTP/1.1
0.091665 213.248.111.106 -> 333.33.33.33 TCP http > 59675 [ACK] Seq=1 Ack=155 Win=6432 Len=0 TSV=2552532886 TSER=47267353
0.861782 213.248.111.106 -> 333.33.33.33 HTTP HTTP/1.1 200 OK
0.861830 333.33.33.33 -> 213.248.111.106 TCP 59675 > http [ACK] Seq=155 Ack=321 Win=6912 Len=0 TSV=47267557 TSER=2552533656
0.862127 333.33.33.33 -> 213.248.111.106 TCP 59675 > http [FIN, ACK] Seq=155 Ack=321 Win=6912 Len=0 TSV=47267557 TSER=2552533656
0.910810 213.248.111.106 -> 333.33.33.33 TCP http > 59675 [FIN, ACK] Seq=321 Ack=156 Win=6432 Len=0 TSV=2552533705 TSER=47267557
0.910880 333.33.33.33 -> 213.248.111.106 TCP 59675 > http [ACK] Seq=156 Ack=322 Win=6912 Len=0 TSV=47267570 TSER=2552533705

curl -X HEAD

34.106389 333.33.33.33 -> 213.248.111.90 TCP 51690 > http [SYN] Seq=0 Win=5840 Len=0 MSS=1460 TSV=47275868 TSER=0 WS=6
34.149507 213.248.111.90 -> 333.33.33.33 TCP http > 51690 [SYN, ACK] Seq=0 Ack=1 Win=5792 Len=0 MSS=1460 TSV=3920268348 TSER=47275868 WS=1
34.149560 333.33.33.33 -> 213.248.111.90 TCP 51690 > http [ACK] Seq=1 Ack=1 Win=5888 Len=0 TSV=47275879 TSER=3920268348
34.149646 333.33.33.33 -> 213.248.111.90 HTTP HEAD / HTTP/1.1
34.191484 213.248.111.90 -> 333.33.33.33 TCP http > 51690 [ACK] Seq=1 Ack=155 Win=6432 Len=0 TSV=3920268390 TSER=47275879
34.192657 213.248.111.90 -> 333.33.33.33 TCP [TCP Dup ACK 15#1] http > 51690 [ACK] Seq=1 Ack=155 Win=6432 Len=0 TSV=3920268390 TSER=47275879
34.823399 213.248.111.90 -> 333.33.33.33 HTTP HTTP/1.1 200 OK
34.823453 333.33.33.33 -> 213.248.111.90 TCP 51690 > http [ACK] Seq=155 Ack=321 Win=6912 Len=0 TSV=47276048 TSER=3920269022

Any idea about why this difference in behaviour?

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2 Answers 2

up vote 11 down vote accepted

It seems the difference has to do with the Content-Length header and how it is treated by both commands.

But before going into that, curl -X HEAD does not give any output because, by default, curl does not print headers if switch -i is not provided (not needed on -I though).

In any case, curl -I is the proper way to fetch the headers. It just ask for the header and close the connection.

On the other hand curl -X HEAD -i will wait for the transmission of the number of bytes stated by Content-Length. In the case no Content-Length is not specified, I guess it will wait for some data or for that particular header.

Some examples that shows this behaviour:

$ curl -X HEAD -i http://www.elpais.es
HTTP/1.1 301 Moved Permanently
Server: AkamaiGHost
Content-Length: 0
Location: http://www.elpais.com/
Date: Wed, 12 May 2010 06:35:57 GMT
Connection: keep-alive

Because Content-Length is 0, in this case both commands behave the same. And the connection is closed afterwards.

$ curl -X HEAD -i http://slashdot.org
HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Server: Apache/1.3.41 (Unix) mod_perl/1.31-rc4
SLASH_LOG_DATA: shtml
X-Powered-By: Slash 2.005001296
X-Bender: Since I love you all so much, I'd like to give everyone hugs.
X-XRDS-Location: http://slashdot.org/slashdot.xrds
Cache-Control: no-cache
Pragma: no-cache
Content-Type: text/html; charset=iso-8859-1
Content-Length: 115224
Date: Wed, 12 May 2010 06:37:20 GMT
X-Varnish: 1649060825 1649060810
Age: 1
Connection: keep-alive

curl: (18) transfer closed with 115224 bytes remaining to read

In this case, there seems to be a timeout (probably by Varnish), so curl protests that the connection was closed before having received the Content-Length number of bytes.

By the way, look at the funny X-Bender (shown in the example) and X-Fry (try it for yourself) headers :).

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In case anyone else comes looking for this: the option to set in PHP's curl library is CURLOPT_NOBODY. –  Matt Jul 13 '12 at 14:39

I think this is a bug in curl. If I specify a method with -X, curl should handle the response according to the RFC. Unfortunately, the maintainer of curl does not agree. Someone filed a bug and even submitted a patch:

http://sourceforge.net/tracker/?func=detail&atid=100976&aid=1810273&group_id=976

but the curl maintainer rejected it. Apparently a broken "-X HEAD" option is "working as designed".

--Jamshid

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To be fair, I can follow the logic of the ticket response: --head does provide us with a valid implementation of a HEAD request, and -X <method> simply overrides the HTTP method in the request. –  Hank Feb 20 at 11:07

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