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Apache HTTP Server Tutorial: .htaccess files
A .htaccess (hypertext access) file is a directory-level configuration file supported by several web servers, used for configuration of site-access issues, such as URL redirection, URL shortening, Access-security control (for different webpages and files), and more.
A site could have more than one .htaccess file, and the files are placed inside the web tree (i.e. inside directories and their sub-directories), and hence their other name distributed configuration files. .htaccess files acts as a subset of the server's global configuration file (like httpd.conf) for the directory that they are in, or all sub-directories.
The original purpose of .htaccess—reflected in its name—was to allow per-directory access control by, for example, requiring a password to access the content. More commonly, however, the .htaccess files define or override many other configuration settings such as content type, character set, CGI handlers, etc.