A web server, a software application operating on a computer, interacts with web browsers by responding to requests, facilitating the delivery of web pages and various content across the internet.
This article delves into the historical narratives of both servers, elucidating their distinctions and exploring their contemporary applications in web development. Additionally, we scrutinize their adoption rates and conduct a performance comparison.
In 1995, a team of developers, led by Brian Behlendorf, created Apache—a web server that swiftly gained dominance on the internet. Apache, being open-source, allows anyone to view and modify its code. This openness led to widespread adoption, as developers added features and plugins to enhance its capabilities.
In 2002, Russian software engineer Igor Sysoev addressed the C10k problem by creating Nginx. This problem involves efficiently handling a large number of concurrent connections to a web server. Nginx’s innovative event-driven architecture enables it to manage numerous connections using fewer resources than Apache. Released as open-source software in 2004, Nginx quickly rose in popularity, especially for serving static content.
Distributed vs. Centralized Configuration
When it comes to configuration, Apache and Nginx take different approaches—Apache opts for a distributed setup, while Nginx leans towards a centralized one. Below, we delve into the distinctions between these two configuration types.
Apache employs an .htaccess file to facilitate distributed configuration. The .htaccess file, a directory-level configuration file supported by various web servers, handles an array of website-access issues. This includes tasks like URL redirection, URL shortening, access control for different web pages and files, and more.
The primary advantage of this approach is the immediacy of changes made in .htaccess—they are applied instantly to the system. However, modifications to the main configuration file necessitate a system restart for implementation. In multi-website hosting scenarios, .htaccess enables individual users to tweak their website’s configuration without impacting the server’s main configuration file.
Contrary to Apache, Nginx adopts a centralized configuration and doesn’t support .htaccess. Nginx interacts with the filesystem only when ready to serve a request, making it incapable of reading the configuration file during this process.
While .htaccess offers immediacy, it has notable drawbacks. There is a performance cost associated with checking all parent directories for an .htaccess file with each HTTP request. Additionally, allowing non-privileged users to modify server configuration via .htaccess can pose security risks if not implemented carefully.
In the absence of directory-level configuration, Nginx users make all adjustments by inserting directives into the main configuration file, nginx.conf. Changes take effect after the user reloads the server.
Static vs Dynamic Content
While both servers exhibit similar performance in dynamic content loading, Nginx outshines Apache by consuming significantly less memory and handling approximately four times more requests per second when serving static files.
Apache serves static content directly from the filesystem without involving server-side processing.
For dynamic content, modules such as mod_php and mod_python handle processing without relying on external components. The server can execute content processing independently.
Nginx takes a different approach for dynamic content, where the interpreter isn’t an integral part of the server. Instead, Nginx forwards dynamic web page requests to an external process, awaits content retrieval, and then serves it to the client. Although this complicates dynamic page processing, it streamlines the serving of static pages.
Caching, a method of temporarily storing frequently accessed content on the web server, enhances response times and optimizes server load. Below, we explore how Apache and Nginx manage caching.
Apache employs three types of caching to enhance performance:
- Three-state RFC2616 HTTP caching provides intelligent, HTTP-aware caching for proxied or locally stored dynamic content.
- Two-state key/value shared object caching establishes a shared object cache based on key/value pairs.
- Specialized file caching allows preloading files on start-up, improving access times for frequently needed files.
Nginx achieves faster load times and reduced server load by caching dynamic content for quick access. While caching proves beneficial for high-traffic websites with substantial content, it’s not recommended in all scenarios.
Basic caching in Nginx involves two directives:
- proxy_cache_path to set the cache path and configuration.
- proxy_cache to activate the cache.
An advantageous feature of Nginx is its ability to configure the server to display cached website content during server downtime or high activity.
How to Choose Between Apache and Nginx?
Choosing between Apache and Nginx depends on your specific use case and requirements. Both servers are robust and perform well, but their strengths make them suitable for different scenarios.
Choose Apache over Nginx if:
- Preference for User Control:
- Your use case requires non-privileged users to have control over their websites.
- This is particularly relevant in managing a shared hosting environment where Apache’s .htaccess file plays a crucial role. Apache’s support for .htaccess allows individual users to make configuration changes without affecting the main server configuration.
- Specific Module Requirements:
- You need specific modules that are not supported by Nginx. Apache’s modular architecture allows for a wide range of modules, both official and third-party, providing customization options based on your needs.
Choose Nginx over Apache if:
- Primarily or Exclusively Serving Static Content:
- Your use scenario revolves around serving primarily (or exclusively) static content. Nginx excels in efficiently handling static files with lower memory consumption and higher request-handling capacity.
- Expecting High Traffic Volume:
- Your website anticipates a high volume of traffic. Nginx’s asynchronous, event-driven architecture is well-suited for handling a large number of concurrent connections, making it ideal for scenarios with high traffic loads.
The choice between Apache and Nginx depends on the specific requirements of your use case. Consider factors such as user control, module support, content serving needs, and expected traffic volume to make an informed decision. Additionally, combining both servers strategically can provide a well-balanced and optimized solution for diverse workloads.