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12 Oct 11 Will Nginx Be to Apache What Chrome is to Firefox?

The Netcraft Web Server Survey, which appears each month, is usually viewed as offering the spectacle of a two-player fight between the open source Apache and Microsoft’s IIS. Actually, that’s giving Microsoft too much credit, since it’s never really been a fight: IIS has occasionally tried to claw its way closer to Apache’s market share, failed dismally, and then started sinking back again. But there’s another story in these graphs.

Starting from around 2007, a little (green) line has been steadily creeping up, and has now attained the very respectable level of 8% – over half of Microsoft’s. It belongs to the nearly unpronounceable Nginx (“engine-x”), which is really beginning to make a name for itself. Last week I spoke to Andrew Alexeev from a similarly-named startup based around that open source code.

He told me about the origin of Nginx in 2002, when Igor Sysoev, a Russian system and software engineer, working at Rambler, which runs some of the biggest Web sites in Russia, hit some problems with serving up Web pages. In typical hacker fashion, he just sat down and started coding a solution of his own (probably muttering “it can’t be that hard” in Russian…)

Since this wasn’t an official project, it took a while to complete, but in 2004 the Nginx Web server was released under the BSD licence. Interestingly, the first operating system it ran on was FreeBSD: according to Alexeev, FreeBSD has always been much more popular in Russia than elsewhere.

Alexeev says that Nginx’s key advantage is scalability – during its design, it was influenced by discussions centred on what was called the “C10K problem”:

It’s time for web servers to handle ten thousand clients simultaneously, don’t you think? After all, the web is a big place now.

An example of the kind of scaling Nginx can achieve is WordPress, which has moved all of its 24 million blogs to the platform. And it’s that kind of high-end customer that the new company hopes to interest in its forthcoming add-ons – it will be adopting a standard Open Core strategy, with the main codeline continuing to be available as open source.

The company is still quite small – just three developers, all in Russia, where Nginx holds an impressive 52% of the Web server market according to Alexeev – although a recent investment round should allow it to expand that number.

In a way, it’s amazing the Nginx has managed to garner 8% of the larger Web server market, since the coding has always been something that happened alongside other work. Given Apache’s long-standing dominance of this sector, it’s not likely that Nginx will be making the market leader quake in its digital boots much. But I think the real point is rather different.

It’s striking how Firefox has really tried much harder since the open source Chrome/Chromium browser has started snapping at its heels. It’s no secret that competition is good – even, or maybe especially, competition from other open source projects. This is not to suggest that the people behind Apache are getting complacent, but it must be a little boring being the unchallenged champ for 15 years: I’m sure they’d welcome a little friendly rivalry, and maybe Nginx can provide it.

After all, one of the things that Microsoft has taught us is that monocultures are really bad for everyone. The dominance of Apache in the Web server sector doesn’t seem to have led to the atrocious malware problems experienced with Windows, but as the rising number of attacks on Android show, just because the code is open source doesn’t mean that it is immune to this kind of problem.

As well as being good for Apache, I think the emergence of Nginx as a strong number 2 in the Web server market would be good for the whole Web ecosystem. And by pushing Microsoft’s IIS back into third place, it would provide inarguable proof that Apache’s success was not just some one-off, but rater a foretaste of future open source victories.

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