Main Features of Nginx

Nginx is a fantastic web server and a lot more. This section introduces some of its more important features.

More Than Just a Web Server

At its core, you can consider Nginx to be an event-based reverse proxy server . That may come as a surprise to many, because mostly Nginx is usually said to be a web server.

reverse proxy is a type of proxy server that retrieves resources from the servers on behalf of a client. It can be helpful to offload the number of requests that the actual web server ends up handling.

Modular Design

It has an extremely extensible architecture due to its support for plug-ins. Even basic things like SSL and compression are built as modules. The real power lies in the fact that you can rebuild Nginx from source and include or exclude the modules that you don’t need. This gives you a very focused executable that does precisely what you need. This approach has a downside too, though. If you decide to incorporate another module at a later point, you will need to recompile with appropriate switches. The good angle to this is, Nginx has a fairly robust way of upgrading its live processes and it can be done without interrupting the service levels.

As of this writing, www.nginx.org hosts as many as 62 modules for very specific purposes. There are plenty of other third-party Nginx modules available as well to make your job easier. The ecosystem is thriving and helping Nginx to become even more powerful as time passes. You will learn more about modules in the coming chapters in detail.

Asynchronous Web Server

Nginx gains much of its performance due to its asynchronous and event-based architecture whereas Apache and IIS like to spin new threads per connection, which are blocking in nature. Both IIS and Apache handle the threads using multithreaded programming techniques . Nginx differs in the approach completely. It does not create a separate thread for each request. Instead it relies on events.

Reverse Proxy and Load Balancing Capability

Nginx analyzes the request based on its URI and decides how to proceed with the request. In other words, it is not looking at the file system to decide what it has to do with it. Instead, it makes that decision based on the URI. This differentiation enables Nginx to act as a very fast front end that acts as a reverse proxy and helps balance the load on the application servers. It’s no exaggeration to say that Nginx is a reverse proxy first and a web server later.

Nginx can also fit very well in a hybrid setup. So, the front-end job is taken care of by Nginx , and everything else gets delegated to the back end (to Apache, for instance).

Low Resource Requirement and Consumption

Small things that go a long way, define Nginx. Where other web servers typically allow a simple plug-and-play architecture for plug-ins using configuration files, Nginx requires you to recompile the source with required modules. Every module that it requires is loaded directly inside of an Nginx process. Such tweaks along with smart architectural differences ensure that Nginx has a very small memory and CPU footprint on the server and yields a much better throughput than its competition. You will learn about the Nginx architecture with granular details in the coming chapters.

Unparalleled Performance

Nginx is probably the best server today when it comes to serving static files. There are situations where it cannot be considered the best (like dynamic files), but even then, the fact that it plays well as a reverse proxy ensures that you get the best of both worlds. If configured well, you can save a lot of cost that you typically incur on caching, SSL termination, hardware load balancing, zipping/unzipping on the fly, and completing many more web-related tasks.

Multiple Protocol Support: HTTP(S), WebSocket , IMAP , POP3 , SMTP

As a proxy server, Nginx can handle not only HTTP and HTTPS requests, but also mail protocols with equal grace. There are modules available that you can use while compiling your build and Nginx will proxy your mail-related traffic too.

SSL Termination

Secure Sockets Layer is a necessity for any website that deals with sensitive data. And, just like any other necessity, there is a cost involved. When it comes to web traffic, SSL also induces an extra processing overhead on the server side where it has to decrypt the request every time. There lies a catch-22 situation: If you remove the SSL, you are opening yourself up for attacks and if you use SSL, you end up losing a little bit on speed (or additional cost due to scaling out)!

Since Nginx has the capability of acting as a load balancer, you can give it additional work as well. Essentially, the idea of an SSL termination is that the request will come to the load balancer on a secure channel but will be sent to the other web servers without SSL. This way, your web server acts faster and eventually your requests go out to the clients in a secure manner as well.

HTTP Video Streaming Using MP4/FLV/HDS/HLS

You have already learned that the Input/Output (IO) in Nginx doesn’t block if the client is slow. Video streaming is typically a very IO-intensive process, and Nginx does a great job here. It has multiple modules that help you provide streaming services. To give a little perspective as to what is special about video streaming, imagine watching YouTube. You can easily skip the video from one position to another and it almost immediately starts serving the content. The key here is to not download the entire file at one shot. The request, hence, should be created in such a way that it has certain markers in the query string, like this:

http://www.yoursite.com/yourfile.mp4?start=120.12

The preceding request is asking the server to send the content of yourfile.mp4 starting from (notice the start query string) 120.12 seconds. This allows random seeking of a file in a very efficient way.

Extended Monitoring and Logging

Failure to log and finding the problems in production farm is extremely crucial if you are to run a successful web service. Monitoring a web server , however, on a regular basis is a challenging and time-consuming task for any IT pro.

The more servers you have, and the more traffic you get, the harder it becomes. There are all sorts of nasty people out there who have ulterior motives to bring the website down and disrupt your web service. The best way to ensure safety, hence, is to be cautious and alert. Log as much as possible and ensure that you react proactively.

Nginx writes information about issues it encounters to a file called an error log . Windows users may consider it similar to an event log . You can configure it to log based on its levels. For example, if you tell Nginx to write anything above error severity, it will not log warning logs at all.

It also has an access log that is similar to W3C logs created by other web servers. You can change the fields that you would like to log, and even configure it to ignore common status codes like 2xx and 3xx. This is a pretty neat feature, since it ends up creating much smaller log files instead of huge ones that may get created if you are managing busy servers.

Graceful Restarting

The way Nginx is designed, you can easily upgrade Nginx. You can also update its configuration while the server is running, without losing client connections. This allows you to test your troubleshooting approach , and if something doesn’t work as desired, you can simply revert the settings.

Nginx brings a very interesting way of controlling your processes. Instead of bringing the entire service down, you can send signal values to the master process by using an Nginx command with a switch . You will learn about it in detail in upcoming chapters, but for now you can imagine saying something like nginx -s reload , a command that will simply reload the configuration changes without recycling the worker processes. Simple, but effective!

Upgrades without Downtime Using Live Binaries

This is probably one of the most powerful features of Nginx. In the IIS or Apache worlds, you can’t upgrade your web server without bringing the service down. Nginx spawns a master process when the service starts. Its main purpose is to read and evaluate configuration files. Apart from that, the master process starts one or more worker processes that do the real work by handling the client connections.

If you need to upgrade the binary, there are simple steps and commands that you need to issue in order to make the new worker processes run at tandem with the older ones. The new requests will be sent to the newer worker processes that have the latest configuration loaded in it. If by any chance, you find out that the upgrade is causing issues, you can simply issue another set of commands that will gracefully return the requests to the older process that already has the previous working configuration loaded in it. How neat is that?

Enterprise Features of Nginx Plus

Nginx has two versions. The basic version is free, and the paid option is called Nginx Plus . Nginx Plus has quite a few important features that are very helpful for managing busy sites. Choosing Nginx Plus helps you save a lot of time. It has features like load balancing, session persistence, cache control, and even health checks out of the box. You will be learning about the overall differences shortly in this chapter.

Support Available with Nginx Plus

Community support is free for Nginx, but e-mail and phone support are not. Nginx Plus comes packaged with support options. You can buy different kinds of support options based on your need and criticality of the business. Nginx Plus contains many additional benefits as you will see in the next section.

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