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About php : How-can-I-debug-exec-problems

Question Detail

The exec command doesn’t work on my server, it does not do anything, I’ve had safe_mode off, and verified that all the console commands are working, I’ve tried with absolute paths. I’ve checked the permissions on the applications and all the applications I need have execution permissions. I don’t know what else to do, here are the rundown of the codes I’ve tried.

echo exec('/usr/bin/whoami');

echo exec('whoami');

exec('whoami 2>&1',$output,$return_val);
if($return_val !== 0) {
    echo 'Error<br>';

exec('/usr/bin/whoami 2>&1',$output,$return_val);
if($return_val !== 0) {
    echo 'Error<br>';

The last two codes display:

Array ( )

I’ve contacted the server service and they can’t help me, they don’t know why the exec command isn’t working.

Question Answer

have a look at /etc/php.ini , there under:

; This directive allows you to disable certain functions for security reasons.
; It receives a comma-delimited list of function names. This directive is
; *NOT* affected by whether Safe Mode is turned On or Off.
; http://www.php.net/manual/en/ini.sect.safe-mode.php#ini.disable-functions
disable_functions =

make sure that exec is not listed like this:


If so, remove it and restart the apache.

For easy debugging I usually like to execute the php file manually (Can request more errors without setting it in the main ini). to do so add the header:

ini_set("display_errors", 1);
ini_set("track_errors", 1);
ini_set("html_errors", 1);

to the beginning of the file, give it permissions using chmod +x myscript.php and execute it ./myscript.php. It’s very heedful especially on a busy server that write a lot to the log file.


Sounds like a permissions issue. Create a bash script that does something simple as echo "helo world" and try to run it. Make sure you have permissions for the file and for the folder containing the file. you chould just do chmod 755 just for testing.

A few more notes

  • For debugging always wrap your exec/shell_exec function in var_dump().

  • error_reporting(-1); should be on, as should be display_errors, as last resort even set_error_handler("var_dump"); – if only to see if PHP itself didn’t invoke execvp or else.

  • Use 2>&1 (merge the shells STDERR to STDOUT stream) to see why an invocation fails.
    For some cases you may need to wrap your command in an additional shell invocation:

    // capture STDERR stream via standard shell
    echo shell_exec("/bin/sh -c 'ffmpeg -opts 2>&1' ");

    Else the log file redirect as advised by @Mike is the most recommendable approach.

  • Alternate between the various exec functions to uncover error messages otherwise. While they mostly do the same thing, the output return paths vary:

    1. exec() → either returns the output as function result, or through the optional $output paramater.
      Also provides a $return_var parameter, which contains the errno / exit code of the run application or shell. You might get:

      • ENOENT (2) – No such file
      • EIO (127) – IO error: file not found
      // run command, conjoined stderr, output + error number
      var_dump(exec("ffmpeg -h 2>&1", $output, $errno), $output, $errno));
    2. shell_exec() → is what you want to run mostly for shell-style expressions.
      Be sure to assign/print the return value with e.g. var_dump(shell_exec("..."));

    3. `` inline backticks → are identical to shell_exec.

    4. system() → is similar to exec, but always returns the output as function result (print it out!). Additionally allows to capture the result code.

    5. passthru() → is another exec alternative, but always sends any STDOUT results to PHPs output buffer. Which oftentimes makes it the most fitting exec wrapper.

    6. popen() or better proc_open() → allow to individually capture STDOUT and STDERR.

  • Most shell errors wind up in PHPs or Apaches error.log when not redirected. Check your syslog or Apache log if nothing yields useful error messages.

Most common issues

  • As mentioned by @Kuf: for outdated webhosting plans, you could still find safe_mode or disable_functions enabled. None of the PHP exec functions will work. (Best to find a better provider, else investigate “CGI” – but do not install your own PHP interpreter while unversed.)

  • Likewise can AppArmor / SELinux / Firejail sometimes be in place. Those limit each applications ability to spawn new processes.

  • The intended binary does not exist. Pretty much no webhost does have tools like ffmpeg preinstalled. You can’t just run arbitrary shell commands without preparation. Some things need to be installed!

    // Check if `ffmpeg` is actually there:
    var_dump(shell_exec("which ffmpeg"));
  • The PATH is off. If you installed custom tools, you will need to ensure they’re reachable. Using var_dump(shell_exec("ffmpeg -opts")) will search all common paths – or as Apache has been told/constrained (often just /bin:/usr/bin).

    Check with print_r($_SERVER); what your PATH contains and if that covers the tool you wanted to run. Else you may need to adapt the server settings (/etc/apache2/envvars), or use full paths:

    // run with absolute paths to binary
    var_dump(shell_exec("/bin/sh -c '/usr/local/bin/ffmpeg -opts 2>&1'"));

This is somewhat subverting the shell concept. Personally I don’t think this preferrable. It does make sense for security purposes though; moreover for utilizing a custom installation of course.

  • Permissions

    1. In order to run a binary on BSD/Linux system, it needs to be made “executable”. This is what chmod a+x ffmpeg does.

    2. Furthermode the path to such custom binaries needs to be readable by the Apache user, which your PHP scripts run under.

    3. More contemporary setups use PHPs builtin FPM mode (suexec+FastCGI), where your webhosting account equals what PHP runs with.

  • Test with SSH. It should go without saying, but before running commands through PHP, testing it in a real shell would be highly sensible. Probe with e.g. ldd ffmpeg if all lib dependencies are there, and if it works otherwise.

  • Use namei -m /Usr/local/bin/ffmpeg to probe the whole path, if unsure where any access permission issues might arise from.

  • Input values (GET, POST, FILE names, user data) that get passed as command arguments in exec strings need to be escaped with escapeshellarg().

    $q = "escapeshellarg";
    var_dump(shell_exec("echo {$q($_GET['text'])} | wc"));

    Otherwise you’ll get shell syntax errors easily; and probably exploit code installed later on…

  • Take care not to combine backticks with any of the *exec() functions:

    $null = shell_exec(`wc file.txt`);
                       ↑           ↑

    Backticks would run the command, and leave shell_exec with the output of the already ran command. Use normal quotes for wrapping the command parameter.

  • Also check in a shell session how the intended program works with a different account:

    sudo -u www-data gpg -k

    Notably for PHP-FPM setups test with the according user id. www-data/apache are mostly just used by olden mod_php setups.

    Many cmdline tools depend on some per-user configuration. This test will often reveal what’s missing.

  • You cannot get output for background-run processes started with … & or nohup …. In such cases you definitely need to use a log file redirect exec("cmd > log.txt 2>&1 &");

On Windows

  • CMD invocations will not play nice with STDERR streams often.

  • Definitely try a Powershell script to run any CLI apps else, or use a command line like:

     system("powershell -Command 'pandoc 2>&1'");
  • Use full paths, and prefer forward slashes always ("C:/Program Files/Whatevs/run.exe" with additional quotes if paths contain spaces).

    Forward slashes work on Windows too, ever since they were introduced in MS-DOS 2.0

  • Figure out which service and SAM account IIS/Apache and PHP runs as. Verify it has execute permissions.

  • You can’t run GUI apps usually. (Typical workaround is the taskscheduler or WMI invocations.)

PHP → Python, Perl

If you’re invoking another scripting interpreter from PHP, then utilize any available debugging means in case of failures:

passthru("PYTHONDEBUG=2 python -vvv script.py 2>&1");
passthru("perl -w script.pl 2>&1");
passthru("ruby -wT1 script.rb 2>&1");

Or perhaps even run with any syntax -c check option first.

Since you are dropping out of the PHP context into the native shell, you are going to have a lot of issues debugging.

The best and most foolproof I have used in the past is writing the output of the script to a log file and tailing it during PHP execution.

shell_exec("filename > ~/debug.log 2>&1");

Then in a separate shell:

tail -200f ~/debug.log

When you execute your PHP script, your errors and output from your shell call will display in your debug.log file.

You can retreive the outputs and return code of the exec commands, thoses might contains informations that would explain the problem…

exec('my command', $output, $return);

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