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How to Map Multiple Headers to the Same Variable in Nginx

May 2020

The nginx map module is a nifty tool that allows you to programmatically change behavior based on things like http headers that come in.

In this post, I'll show how to choose a different file to serve based on a custom header that comes in, then how to check multiple headers to make a final decision on where to go.

Setting up the Playground

I'm going to use docker compose to walk us through this. If you make a docker-compose.yml file and set it up like so:

version: "3.3"
    image: nginx:latest
      - 9000:80
      - ./nginx/nginx.conf:/etc/nginx/nginx.conf
      - ./nginx/default.conf:/etc/nginx/conf.d/default.conf
      - ./nginx/primary.html:/usr/share/nginx/html/primary.html
      - ./nginx/secondary.html:/usr/share/nginx/html/secondary.html

We'll then create an nginx directory and throw four files in it: nginx.conf, default.conf, primary.html, and secondary.html.


user  nginx;
worker_processes 1;

error_log /var/log/nginx/error.log warn;
pid /var/run/nginx.pid;

events {
worker_connections 1024;

http {

include /etc/nginx/mime.types;
default_type application/octet-stream;

log_format main '$remote_addr - $remote_user [$time_local] "$request" '
'$status $body_bytes_sent "$http_referer" '
'"$http_user_agent" "$http_x_forwarded_for"';

access_log /var/log/nginx/access.log main;

sendfile on;
#tcp_nopush on;

keepalive_timeout 65;

#gzip on;

include /etc/nginx/conf.d/*.conf;


server {
listen 80;
server_name localhost;

#charset koi8-r;
#access_log /var/log/nginx/host.access.log main;
root /usr/share/nginx/html;

location / {
try_files '' /primary.html =404;

#error_page 404 /404.html;

# redirect server error pages to the static page /50x.html
error_page 500 502 503 504 /50x.html;
location = /50x.html {
root /usr/share/nginx/html;


<h1>The primary html page</h1>


<h1>The secondary, as in NOT primary, html page</h1>

Working with maps

Right now, if you run:

docker-compose up

You can hit any endpoint on localhost:9000 and get back the primary.html file. E.g.

$ curl localhost:9000/one
<h1>The primary html page</h1>
$ curl localhost:9000/two
<h1>The primary html page</h1>

What if we want to serve up the secondary html page based only on a certain custom header coming in? Well, then we can use variables. If we modify:

    location / {
try_files '' /$actual_variable =404;

Then we can use a map variable to serve up whatever file we want. Place this block of code outside the server block and restart the docker container:

map $http_x_new_header $actual_variable {
~secondary "secondary.html";
default "primary.html";

Then you can still hit any endpoint like normal and get the primary.html page, but you can also specify a our x-new-header with the value of "secondary" and get the secondary.html page:

$ curl localhost:9000/something
<h1>The primary html page</h1>
$ curl -H "X-New-Header: secondary" localhost:9000/something
<h1>The secondary, as in NOT primary, html page</h1>

Pretty interesting. But one follow up question: what if we want two different headers to determine the outcome of this variable. For example, what if we have some legacy clients calling us with a legacy header, and we want to check the value of the legacy header as well as the new header? Well, we can nest maps:

map $http_x_legacy_header $default_variable {
~secondary "secondary.html";
default "primary.html";

map $http_x_new_header $actual_variable {
~secondary "secondary.html";
default $default_variable;

If you restart nginx now (docker-compose down && docker-compose up -d), you can see it in action:

# regular call
$ curl localhost:9000/endpoint
<h1>The primary html page</h1>

# using the new header like before
$ curl -H "X-New-Header: secondary" localhost:9000/something
<h1>The secondary, as in NOT primary, html page</h1>

# using the legacy header
$ curl -H "X-Legacy-Header: secondary" localhost:9000/something
<h1>The secondary, as in NOT primary, html page</h1>

# using both headers cause why not
$ curl -H "X-Legacy-Header: secondary" -H "X-New-Header: secondary" localhost:9000/something~
<h1>The secondary, as in NOT primary, html page</h1>

# notice what happens when the value is changed
$ curl -H "X-Legacy-Header: idk" -H "X-New-Header: huh" localhost:9000/something~
<h1>The primary html page</h1>

Nick Fisher is a software engineer in the Pacific Northwest. He focuses on building highly scalable and maintainable backend systems.