PHP post_max_size issue

PHP’s ability to manage uploaded files has always left mixing feelings in me, on one hand it’s really trivial to implement file upload functionality on PHP scripts but in the other, managing big files uploads (just anything above a couple megabytes) is far from reliable.

Recently a couple solutions became popular to implement progressive uploads in PHP, PECL’s uploadprogress extension and recent APC versions. But anyway, the default PHP behaviour when uploading a file is to wait until it’s been fully transferred to the server before executing the php script.

This design decision from the PHP folks greatly simplifies the most common case, since you always get the full file when your PHP code runs, but also means that big files can cause some serious trouble. To defend itself, PHP has a few ini options that tune its ability to work with big files.

upload_max_filesize tells PHP the maximum size an uploaded file can have, files bigger will be reported as an error in the $_FILES array. max_input_time control the maximum time PHP can spend receiving data from the client, this is important because if you have many visitors with slow connections (or a malevolent attacker) a lot of PHP processes will be idling in memory collecting data slowly, consuming your server resources and potentially provoking your server to become unresponsive. Finally, we have post_max_size, which is a bit tricky, it limits the maximum amount of data a request from the client can hold. The tricky part is that if that limit is reached PHP won’t error out or signal the problem anyhow to your script, instead it will continue normal script execution but won’t populate $_POST or $_FILES superglobals, leaving them empty.

So if your post_max_size is set to 2Mb and a client uploads a 3Mb file, nor $_POST neither $_FILES will have any content. Even if you set your upload_max_filesize to 2Mb or below, if size of the file (or files) is bigger you will find yourself with those superglobals empty.

There is however a way to detect this condition, like shown in the following code snippet.


if (in_array($_SERVER['REQUEST_METHOD'], array('POST', 'PUT'))) {
  if (empty($_POST) && empty($_FILES)) {

    // Get maximum size and meassurement unit
    $max = ini_get('post_max_size');
    $unit = substr($max, -1);
    if (!is_numeric($unit)) {
      $max = substr($max, 0, -1);

    // Convert to bytes
    switch (strtoupper($unit)) {
      case 'G':
        $max *= 1024;
      case 'M':
        $max *= 1024;
      case 'K':
        $max *= 1024;

    // Assert the content length is within limits
    $length = $_SERVER['CONTENT_LENGTH'];
    if ($max < $length) {
      throw new Exception('Maximum content length size (' . $max . ') exceeded');

With that code in place you can gracely detect the issue and act accordingly by showing the user an error page explaining what just happened for example.