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A new system for managing OBO PURLs
Makefile ApacheConf
Latest commit d8be6e2 @rlwalls2008 rlwalls2008 Update pco.yml


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The OBO community is transitioning away from for managing Persistent URLs.

This repository provides a new way to manage OBO Foundry PURLs. Like we use per-directory Apache configuration files (.htaccess files), each of which uses RedirectMatch directives to redirect PURL requests to their proper targets. Unlike, we do not edit the Apache configuration files by hand. Instead we have a simple YAML configuration format, and scripts to translate the YAML configuration into Apache configuration. The YAML files are easier to read and write, and allow us to validate and test PURLs automatically.


The new system is not yet handling PURLs, but is available for testing: see the next section.

During the transition period, both the new system and the old system will be used:

  1. The new system will try to match and handle every request. This allows us to update our PURLs and add new ones using the new system.
  2. If the new system cannot match a request, it will redirect to the old system, and the old system will handle the request. This provides a safety net.

The new system will log requests that it cannot match. We will review these logs and update the new system as required.


The following examples are NOT permanent URLs -- they are running on a test server that will soon be shut down. But they show how things work:

Adding and Updating PURLs

Please use one of these four options to make changes to the PURLs:

  1. Create a new issue describing the change you require.

  2. Browse to the configuration file you want to change and click the "pencil" icon to edit it.

  3. Add a new configuration file.

  4. Fork this repository and make a pull request.

Configuration Format

Each OBO project using this service gets a YAML configuration file in config/. That YAML configuration file is used to generate an Apache .htaccess file for that ontology. That Apache configuration will apply to all PURLs for that project.

Every YAML configuration file must have these fields:

  • idspace: the project's IDSPACE, case sensitive, usually uppercase
  • base_url: the part of a PURL that comes after the domain, usually lowercase
  • term_browser: usually ontobee but can be custom (see below)
  • products: a list of primary files for the ontology and the URLs to redirect them to; an .owl file is required, and an .obo file is optional

Optional fields include:

  • example_terms: a list of one or more term IDs for automated testing
  • base_redirect: If your project redirects its base_url, then you will need a base_redirect: entry. So base_redirect: will redirect to
  • entries: a list of other PURLs under the base_url, see below

Here's an example adapted from the config/obi.yml file:

idspace: OBI
base_url: /obo/obi

- obi.owl:

term_browser: ontobee
- OBI_0000070

- exact: /wiki

Most of these fields are straightforward, but the entries: need some more explanation.


Each YAML configuration file contains the keyword entries: followed by a list of entries. Each entry defines an Apache RedirectMatch directive for matching URLs and redirecting to new URLs. Every entry begins with a -, followed by keywords and values on indented lines. There are three types of entries:

  1. exact: The simplest entry matches an exact URL and returns an exact replacement
  2. prefix: These entries match the first part of a URL and replace just that prefix part
  3. regex: These entries use powerful regular expressions, and should be avoided unless absolutely necessary.

The # character indicates a comment, which is not considered part of the configuration.

See the tools/examples/test2.yml and tools/examples/test2.htaccess for examples.


In the most common case, your PURL should match a unique URL and redirect to a unique URL. Here's an example from the config/obi.yml file:

- exact: /obi.owl

This entry will match exactly the URL, and it will redirect to exactly The matched domain name is fixed; the next part is project-specific /obo/obi/; the final part is taken from the entry /obi.owl. The replacement is expected to be a valid, absolute URL, starting with http.

Behind the scenes, the entry is translated into a case insensitive Apache RedirectMatch directive in obo/obi/.htaccess by escaping special characters and "anchoring" with initial ^, the project's base URL, and final $:

RedirectMatch temp "(?i)^/2015\-09\-15/obi\.owl$" ""


You can also match and replace just the first part of a URL, leaving the rest unchanged. This allows you to define one entry that redirects many URLs matching a common prefix. Another example from config/obi.yml:

- prefix: /branches/

This entry will match the URL (for example), replace the first part with, resulting in Effectively, the obi.owl is appended to the replacement.

The translation is similar, with the addition of (.*) wildcard and a $1 "backreference" at the ends of the given strings:

RedirectMatch temp "(?i)^/branches/(.*)$" "$1"


Regular expression entries should only be needed very rarely, and should always be used very carefully.

For the regular expression type, the value of the regex: and replacement: keywords should contain regular expressions in exactly the format expected by Apache RedirectMatch. The values will be quoted, but no other changes will be made to them. Consider using (?i) to make the match case insensitive.


Every prefix or regex entry should also have a tests: keyword, with a list of additional URLs to check. Each test requires a from: value (like exact:) and a to: value (like replacement:). Here's an example:

- prefix: /branches/
  - from: /branches/obi.owl

Order of Entries

Apache RedirectMatch directives are processed in the order that they appear in the configuration file. Be careful that your prefix and regex entries do not conflict with your other entries. The YAML-to-Apache translation preserves the order of entries, so you can control the order of processing, but it's best to avoid conflicts.

Custom Term Browsers

If your project does not use Ontobee as a term browser, you must specify term_browser: custom in your project's YAML configuration file, and provide a regex entry in the config/obo.yml configuration file. Here's an example for ChEBI:

# Terms for CHEBI
- regex: ^/obo/CHEBI_(\d+)$
  - from: /CHEBI_15377

Note that term redirect rules are case sensitive.

Since these are regex entries, and could affect multiple projects, we prefer that OBO admins are the only ones to edit obo.yml. If you need a change to the term redirect entry for your project, please create a new issue.

Migrating Configuration

OBO projects currently use OCLC for managing PURLs. This project aims to replace OCLC in a straightforward way.

The Makefile contains some code for fetching the PURL records for a given ontology ID from OCLC in XML format, and converting the XML to YAML. This should be a one-time migration, and it requires some manual editing and checking. Going forward, the YAML configuration should be edited directly.

The order of the migrated entries is: exact first (should be in the order they were created), followed by prefix entries from longest prefix to shortest. This order avoids nasty conflicts and has been tested to preserve the OCLC behaviour.

You can run migration for a single ontology at a time, by its ID (usually lower case):

make migrate-obi

The tool will refuse to overwrite existing YAML configuration files. If you are running a test server (see next section) you can test the configuration as you are migrating:

make migrate-obi && make all test

Development and Testing

Developers can test their changes using a local virtual machine. First install VirtualBox and Vagrant. Then check out a copy of this repository and start a virtual machine like so:

git clone
vagrant up

This will download a Ubuntu Linux virtual machine, start it, and configure it as a web server. The /var/www/ directory of the VM is synced with your local directory. You can then log in and rebuild the .htaccess files:

vagrant ssh
cd /var/www/

Test your changes in your browser using URLs starting with, such as You can also run an automated test of all the configured URLs like so:

make all test

Test results will be listed in tests/development/*.tsv with their expected and actual values. If you are making changes to the project tools, you can test them against the tools/examples/ files with:

make clean test-examples

When you are done with the VM, log out with exit. Then you can choose to suspend the VM with

vagrant suspend

or delete the VM with

vagrant destroy

You can test against the production PURL server using make test-production. We only make one request per second, to avoid abusing the server, so this can take along time.


Deployment is automated using Ansible, and targets a stock Ubuntu Linux server. You should install on a fresh server, not one that's running other applications, unless you really know what you're doing.

Install Ansible on your local machine, add the IP address or hostname of your target server to tools/hosts, then run:

cd tools
ansible-playbook -i hosts site.yml

Ansible uses SSH to connect to the server an execute the tasks in tools/site.yml. If you have trouble connecting, you may have to adjust your SSH configuration to be more automatic, say by editing your .ssh/config.

You can re-run Ansible as you make changes. Once the system is running, it will fetch changes from the master Git repository every 10 minutes. From your local machine, you can test all URLs against any target server, e.g.:

export; make clean test-production

The make safe-update task will check Travis-CI to ensure that the latest build on the master branch passed all automated tests, and that it is newer than the last time safe-update completed. Then it will pull from the Git repository and rebuild the site. This should be safe for a cron task to synchronize PURLs with the repository.

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