Start-up Profile: Nginx Accelerates Web Traffic

A rising star is changing the Web server world

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Web servers are the wellsprings of the World Wide Web, providing pages and other content to browsers and other Web-savvy applications on demand. The pecking order in the Web server world hasn’t changed much in years, with the open-source Apache Web server typically responsible for over 50 percent of all active sites and Microsoft’s server coming in second, at a little over 10 percent of active sites. Now, an upstart project has overtaken Microsoft and is poised to threaten Apache’s dominance.

The software, and its San Francisco–based parent company, is called Nginx (pronounced “engine x”). Like Apache, Nginx is an open-source server. But unlike Apache, Nginx wasn’t formed in the Web’s earliest days, when websites were relatively simple. It appeared during the 2000s as the Web matured and mobile platforms, social media, and bandwidth-choking Web streaming had emerged as new challenges for server design. Nginx at its best, in other words, is something of a 21st-century host for 21st-century Internet traffic.

Through 2011 Apache powered about 65 percent of the million busiest websites. Today it’s fallen to about 57 percent—nearly 8 points. It’s not merely coincidence that Nginx grew by the same amount over that period.

The Boston-based digital development firm One Mighty Roar (OMR) says that Nginx was the clear choice for its projects. In a September blog post, OMR developer Eli Perkins says the firm had bottled lightning with a wildly popular social game called You Rather. Based on the “Would you rather x or y” game and built around both a website and iOS/Android app, the You Rather sitehas spiked at as much as 1 million page views per day, according to the company.

“At the end of this summer, it became our goal to give You Rather a breath of new life,” Perkins writes. “The first step was to axe the aged Apache HTTP server in favor of Nginx. We’ve been using Nginx for 99 percent of our work over the last year and haven’t looked back since.” Among other attractions, Perkins says, Nginx (which OMR runs on the Amazon Web Services cloud) enables a faster and cleaner interface for PHP scripting as well as simpler and quicker ways of balancing server workload. Other third-party testimonials tell similar tales of Nginx’s trim efficiency compared to Apache.

But Andrew Alexeev, one of Nginx’s founders, says the choice between Nginx and Apache shouldn’t just be seen as an either-or question.

“You can still use Apache just fine, especially if you have legacy applications that you can’t migrate,” he says. “At the same time you may need to get more efficiency in handling users…with lower latency and higher performance. So you can put Nginx in front of [your Apache setup] and off-load the tasks that we do better to Nginx.”

Netcraft analyst Michael Tremante says the underlying architecture reveals how Nginx achieves speedups. “Every time you connect to Apache, it will start a new process [a stand-alone copy of a piece of code]…Nginx uses a limited number of processes, and it ends up using a lot less memory.”

Nginx’s growth spurt has been helped so far by its $0 price tag. But in August, Nginx launched a paid version, Nginx Plus, which offers proprietary advanced features such as activity monitoring and load-balancing tools. According to the company’s website, annual Nginx Plus subscriptions go for US $1350 to $2700 per server, depending on the customer service plan a subscriber chooses.

An Nginx spokesman says via e-mail that as of October, the company had more than 100 Nginx Plus subscribers. “The response has been energizing,” he says.

Tremante believes that enterprise customers will most likely want to pay for the Nginx Plus extras. “Setting up Nginx on a small website is pretty straightforward,” he says. “But I can see it being more of a challenge on websites for large corporate customers. That’s when the professional support from their team could really help.”

About the Author

Mark Anderson is a frequent contributor to IEEE Spectrum. He has covered other digital-efficiency-boosting efforts for Spectrum, including a new green supercomputer center in Massachusetts and the chip that launched the iPad, Apple’s A4.

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