Differences between Apache and Nginx

Nginx and Apache are both versatile and powerful web servers. Together they serve more than 70 percent of the top million websites. At times they compete, but often they are found complementing each other. One important thing to point out here is that they are not entirely interchangeable. You will need to pick them up carefully according to your workload.

History

Apache Software Foundation (ASF) is the umbrella under which Apache is developed. Apache has been around since 1995 and developed under ASF since 1999. It is the clear winner today in terms of overall market share. Apache has widespread support, and you will find plenty of expertise to hire and solve your hosting needs. Nginx is the new kid in the block and seen widespread adoption since 2008. Between June 2008 and June 2015, it has grown from 2 percent to 21 percent among the top million sites. For the top 10,000 websites, the story is even better. It has grown mostly at the cost of Apache, which saw its market share drop from 66 percent to 49 percent in the same time period.

Performance

For Apache users, there is a choice of multiprocessing modules (MPM) that control the way the requests are handled. You can choose between mpm_prefork, mpm_worker, mpm_event. Basically mpm_prefork spawns processes for every request, mpm_worker spawns processes , which in turn spawn threads and manages the threads, mpm_event is further optimization of mpm_worker where Apache juggles the keep alive connections using dedicated threads. If you haven’t already noted, these changes are all for the better and evolutionary.

Nginx was created to solve the concurrency problem and it did by using a new design altogether. It spawns multiple worker processes that can handle thousands of connections each! It is completely asynchronous, non-blocking, and event-driven. It consumes very little resources and helps in reducing cost of scaling out of a web server. The web server can be upgraded on the fly without losing the connected visitors and reduces downtime of your service.

Resource Requirements

Nginx needs fewer resources than Apache because of its new architecture. Fewer resources = Lower cost = More profit.

Availability

Apache is present more widely across operating systems whereas Nginx is not. Most of the famous Linux distros have Nginx, which can be downloaded using rpm, yum, or apt-get but it is almost always an extra step. Consider this, for installing Apache (on CentOS 7) , you can run the following command and everything is all set (there is a dedicated chapter for that coming up with all the details).

yum install httpd
For Nginx, you will need to do something like the following:

  1. 1.

    vi /etc/yum.repos.d/nginx.repo

  2. 2.

    Add the following text:

    [nginx]
    name=nginx repo
    baseurl=http://nginx.org/packages/centos/$releasever/$basearch/
    gpgcheck=0
    enabled=1
  3. 3.

    Use the following code:

    yum install nginx

It is not that it is hard; it is just that it needs some extra little steps to make it work. With more popularity, it is possible that in the coming time it will become more generally available .

Proxy and Load Balancing Server

Nginx was designed as a reverse proxy that doubles up as a web server. This is quite different than Apache since it was designed as a general purpose web server. This feature gives an edge to Nginx since it is more effective in dealing with a high volume of requests. It also has good load balancing capability. Quite often, Nginx acts as a web accelerator by handling the request in the front end and passing the request to the back-end servers when required. So, Nginx in the front end and Apache in the back end gives you the best of both worlds. They are more complementing than competing from this perspective.

Static vs. Dynamic Content

As mentioned earlier, Nginx has a clear advantage when serving static content. The dynamic content story is quite different though. Apache has a clear, early mover advantage here. It has built-in support for PHP, Python, Perl, and many other languages. Nginx almost always requires extra effort to make it work with these languages. If you are a Python or Ruby developer, Apache might be a better choice since it will not need CGI to execute it. Even though PHP has good support on Nginx, you still need to dedicate a little time to get PHP-based solutions that work directly on Nginx. For example, installing WordPress on LAMP stack is super easy, and even though it can be easily done on a LEMP stack, you will still need to configure some nuts here, and some bolts there. You get the idea!

Configuration

Apache’s basic configuration ideology is drastically different from Nginx. You can have a .htaccess file in every directory (if you like) using which you can provide additional directions to Apache about how to respond to the requests of that specific directory. Nginx on the other hand interprets the requests based on the URL, instead of a directory structure (more on this later). It doesn’t even process the .htaccess file. It has both merits (better performance) and demerits (lesser configuration flexibility). Although for static files the requests are eventually mapped to the file, the core power of parsing the URI comes to play when you use it for scenarios like mail and proxy server roles.

If you come from an Apache background, you will need to unlearn a lot of concepts while migrating to Nginx. The differences are many from a configuration perspective, but most people who migrate from either side say that once you learn the nuances, you will find the Nginx configuration quite simple and straightforward!

Modules (or Plug-Ins)

Both Apache and Nginx have a robust set of modules that extend the platform. There is still a stark difference in the way these extensions are added and configured. In Apache, you can dynamically load/unload the modules using configuration, but in Nginx you are supposed to build the binaries using different switches (more on this in the next chapter). It may sound limiting and less flexible (and it is), but it has its own advantages. For example, the binaries won’t have any unnecessary code inside it. It requires and forces you to have a prior understanding of what you need the specific web server to do.

It is also good in a way, because mostly it is seen that even though the modular software has modules, web administrators end up installing much more than what they need. Any unnecessary module that is loaded in the memory is extra CPU cycles getting wasted. Obviously, if you are wasting those cycles due to lack of planning, it all adds up eventually and you will get poorer performance from the same hardware!

Documentation

Due to the early mover advantage, Apache has a lot to offer when it comes to documentation. The web is full of solid advice, books, blogs, articles, trainings, tools, use cases, forum support, configuration suggestions, and pretty much everything you will need from an Apache web-administration perspective.

The documentation for Nginx has been evolving and getting better rapidly but is still way less compared to Apache. That doesn’t mean it is bad, it just means that it is competing in this area; and most likely, it will become better as more and more people join in.

Support

The support system for Apache is very mature. There are a lot of tools available to help you maintain your web server well. There are plenty of third-party companies that support Apache by providing different support levels. There are IRC channels available as well, which makes community support easier.

Nginx does have support as mentioned earlier, but lacks the richness and maturity because of its late entry. The fact that it is straightforward, simple to configure, and robust helps Nginx to a great extent. In a way, simplicity is where Nginx wins and with time and adoption, it can only get better!

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