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Apache vs Nginx: Which Web Server You Should Choose


shane
(@shane)
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Apache versus Nginx is a well-deserved topic. If you are confused about which server is the better solution for you, let’s find out the answer in this article.

Apache and Nginx are the most popular web servers that power the internet  today. Together, they are responsible for serving over 50% of traffic on the internet. But Apache has seen a decline in recent years, in favor of Nginx. At a high level, both platforms do the same core thing: host and serve web content. Both of them have unique capabilities catering to particular computing requirements, therefore making one more suitable than the other in various scenarios.

Apache: A Feature-Rich Web Server

Apache is a modular, process-driven web server application that creates a new thread with each simultaneous connection. It supports a number of features. Many of them are compiled as separate modules and extend its core functionality. Apache’s modules can provide everything from server side programming language support to authentication mechanism. 

The Apache web server is a modular application where the administrator can choose the required functionality and install different modules according to the specific functionality required. All modules can be compiled as a Dynamic Shared Objects (DSO) that exists separately from the main Apache file. The DSO approach is highly recommended, because it makes the task of adding/removing/updating modules from the servers configuration very simple.

Another essential feature of Apache’s architecture are filters, which allow modules to interact with the content created by other modules. This interaction includes encryption, virus scans, and compression of both static and dynamic content.

Apache is often chosen by administrators for its flexibility, power, and widespread support.

Nginx: Designed for Performance and Scalability

Nginx was created by a Russian software developer named Igor Sysoev as an answer to a problem known as C10K – handling 10,000 simultaneous client connections to clients. It was written specifically to address the performance limitations of Apache web servers. The server was first created as a scaling tool for the website rambler.ru in 2002.

NGINX is an high-performance asynchronous web server. It uses event-driven architecture to handle massive amounts of connections. It is more popular than Apache Web Server now, due to various reasons we will see in this article.

Nginx was used mostly for serving static files, but today, it has evolved as a complete web server that deals with the full spectrum of server tasks. Today, Nginx is also used as a reverse proxy, load balancer, and for HTTP caching. In some use cases, Nginx also serves as a web accelerator or an SSL/TLS terminator.

Nginx is often selected by administrators for its resource efficiency and responsiveness under load.

Apache versus Nginx: Detailed Comparasion

Architecture

In the case of Apache versus Nginx, there is a core difference between the architectures of both web servers on which they operate.

Above all, the major difference between Apache and Nginx is how they handle the client request. Apache uses a process-driven approach and creates a new thread for each request. Whereas NGINX uses an event-driven architecture to handle multiple requests within one thread.

In Apache, single thread is associated with only one connection, whereas a single thread in Nginx can handle multiple connections. All the processes are put in an event loop along with other connections and are managed asynchronously. This process consumes less memory, thereby increasing performance.

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On top of this, because Nginx’s memory consumption is lower, it tends to be able to handle more connections simultaneously without overloading the host server. If Apache is faced with large volumes of requests, it may end up consuming all of the system memory and requiring data to be stored in swap, which slows performance significantly.

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Performance: Static / Dynamic Content

The performance of a web server is mostly judged by two parameters, i.e., its capability of handling static as well as dynamic content.

Static files require no processing, and so this is useful for measuring the servers’ response times. So, how quickly can each server deliver small static files? When it comes to static content, here is where the Nginx shines, as the files can be served to the client directly, and quickly. Nginx performs 2.5 times faster than Apache according to a benchmark test performed by running up to 1,000 simultaneous connections. At the same time, the RAM consumption is lower. In order to handle the load, Nginx used 5-6% less system memory. The difference comes mainly from the server architecture.

For displaying dynamic content, the test results revealed that Apache versus Nginx performance for both were exactly the same.

Nginx does not have any ability to process dynamic content natively. It is not designed for native processing of dynamic content. Nginx has to pass to an external processor to handle PHP and other dynamic content requests. This can complicate things slightly, especially when trying to anticipate the number of connections to allow.

Unlike Ngnix, Apache can process dynamic content by embedding a processor of a language like PHP into each of its worker instances. This allows it to execute dynamic content within the web server itself without having to rely on external components.

Customization

Apache features dynamically loaded modules that can be utilized whenever there is a need for them. The server supports many different modules, both official and 3rd party. This makes Apache a very customizable platform that users can tailor to suit their needs. The modules can be used for rewriting URLs, authenticating clients, logging, caching, hardening the server, compression, encrypting, and more. Dynamic modules can extend the core functionality considerably without much additional work.

Nginx modules need to be integrated into the core and cannot be dynamically loaded. To include non-standard modules, users must compile their server from the source.

The lack of this capability in Nginx web server, makes Apache more flexible in this regard.

Configuration

In addition to the main configuration file, Apache allows additional configuration on a per-directory basis via .htaccess files. Changes made in .htaccess files are immediately applied to the system. These files include everything from redirection rules to memory limits and much more, and effectively allows decentralized configuration of the web server. In addition to, this architecture allows non-privileged users to control certain aspects of their website without granting them permission to edit the main config.

This flexibility, however, comes at the expense of performance. Every time .htaccess files are enabled, Apache has to traverse the entire directory tree from the requested URL or file through all the higher levels up until the server’s root directory and then load them, for each and every request.

Nginx doesn’t allow additional configuration. Its configuration is centralized. You have a single file that governs the entire process, making it a lot quicker in this regard, albeit a lot less flexible. The central configuration of Nginx is less flexible than the concept used by the Apache, but it offers a clear security advantage: Changes to the configuration of the web server can only be made by users who are given root permissions.

Since there is no directory level configuration in Nginx, users perform all configuration changes by writing directives into the main configuration file.

Support

Apache and Nginx are both very well-documented platforms. It’s very unlikely that admins would ever run into an issue or have a question whose answer could not be found within their documentation.

Regarding OS support, Apache runs on all operating systems such as Linux and UNIX, and has full support for Microsoft Windows. Nginx also runs on several modern Unix-like systems and has support for Windows, but its performance on Windows is not as stable as that on UNIX platforms. Therefore, if you want to run a feature-rich open source web server on Microsoft Windows, Apache is really the only production-ready option.

Using Apache and Nginx Together

However, one thing to keep in mind when comparing Apache versus Nginx is that it doesn’t always have to be an either/or decision. Many administrators combine the two in a hybrid solution that takes advantage of each one’s strengths.

Apache and Nginx may be used side by side to create a workload-optimized server. You can use Nginx in front of Apache as a server proxy, which leverages Nginx’s processing speed and ability to handle large traffic volumes. Nginx processes and serves static content while forwarding dynamic content to Apache (as shown in the image below).

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Nginx performs the HTTP-related heavy lifting – serving static files, caching content, and offloading slow HTTP connections, so that the Apache server can run the application code in a safe and secure environment.

Conclusion

In the Apache versus Nginx contest, the decision can be difficult when it comes to switching servers or server software. Deciding which server is best for you is largely a function of evaluating your specific requirements and decide the best option. Both Apache and Nginx are open-source high-performance web servers capable of handling diverse workloads to satisfy the needs of modern web demands.

If you do not need a lot of web server features, Nginx is the way to go. In addition, for speed and performance, Nginx is also the clear winner. It is great for high traffic websites.

Nginx cannot compete against the feature-rich Apache on many fronts, but it asynchronous status and single-threaded lightning fast architecture makes it a smart choice over Apache.

On the other hand, Apache may be the preferred web server in other scenarios. Apache is better suited for shared hosting environments and can provide a control panel making it easier to make server side changes.

Therefore, before choosing between Apache and Nginx, you carefully need to analyze your requirements, which you must want your web server to serve.


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