Nginx vs. Apache: What Is the Difference and Which Is the Best Server for You?

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If you have been engaged with online hosting in some way you’ve likely heard of NGINX and Apache and probably had to pick between them.

Typically, people tend to go on a whim and select one based on what’s recommended, but the key to making the right choice involves knowing how all of it works. 

When put together, Apache and Nginx are responsible for over 50% of the traffic on the internet, and both of them can handle diverse workloads and work alongside other software with ease.

Each of these options has its own specialty, and each excels in its own way. The main thing you need to figure out is in what situation you need to use them. 

Before we dive too deep into this comparison, let us see what a Web Server actually is so that we can compare NGINX vs. Apache.

nginx vs apcahe

Web Server Explained

Briefly explained, a web server is this computer, which is dedicated to run server software. The most common ones are Apache and NGINX. It stores as well as processes incoming requests in order to access them.

The software in this web server is essential, as, through it, tasks are performed, and for popular websites, the software you would need to handle such a massive number of requests in a small time frame certainly matters. 

Keep in mind that web server software works alongside other components to serve modern websites and applications.

On WordPress, for example, you’ll need a web server with HTTPS support such as Apache or NGINX, PHP, which is built on the PHP language, and you’ll need it to run the Content Management System or CMS, and the database software behind all of this, which will typically be MySQL.

Today we’ll be exploring the first layer in all of this, the software that supports HTTPS.

So, should you pick Apache or NGINX? Let's compare Apache vs. NGINX to find out.

Apache Explained

When it comes to comparing NGINX vs. Apache performance, we first need to understand how both of them work.

This is an HTTP server, which Robert McCool created in 1995. Ever since 1999, it has been under development from the Apache Software Foundation. It has become one of the most popular options, and as such, it has amazing documentation and integrated support from other software projects. 

Administrators tend to pick it due to its power, widespread support, and flexibility. This module system is dynamically loadable and can process a larger quantity of integrated languages without external software. 

The interesting part is that it is developed and maintained by an open community of developers under ASF, and it mostly runs on Linux. It’s one of the key competitors of the LAMP stack. The LAMP stack consists of Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP.

Historical Trend Diagram of the Usage of Apache as of 13 April 2021 from W3Techs.com  (expressed as a percentage)

A fun fact about Apache is that it is also integrated with Linux in a way where the operating system itself even uses the HTTPS command for its server process.

Nginx Explained

As you will now see, the difference between Apache and NGINX is large. Nginx was created by Igor Sysoev, as an answer to a problem known as C10K. This was a challenge in which web servers needed to begin handling ten thousand concurrent connections as a requirement for the modern web infrastructure. While work began in 2002, the initial release was in 2004. 

It was achieved through an asynchronous, event-driven architecture and, as such, has grown to popularity due to its low impact on resources and its ability to scale easily. It specialized in serving static content quickly and is designed to pass dynamic requests off to other software, which is better suited for handling that type of workload. 

Historical Trend Diagram of the Usage of NGINX as of 13 April 2021 from W3Techs.com (expressed as a percentage)

You will see administrators pick it due to its efficiency, responsiveness, and traffic support. NGINX's unique aspect is that it can work as a reverse proxy or a load balancer if you do not want to use it as a web server and fulfills more roles than Apache.

Which is Better NGINX or Apache?

Request Management

Apache uses Multi-Processing Modules or MPMs to handle the connections, and you can choose three types of MPMs. 

These are the MPM-prefork, which is a module that creates single-threaded processes to handle each request. Here, each “child” can only handle a single connection. 

Then you have the mpm_worker, a module that can launch a multi-threaded process, with the exact tread capable of managing one connection. 

Last but not least, you have mpm_event, a module that works similarly to the mpm_worker except that it is optimized to keep the connections alive. 

Apache essentially enables you to choose which module you want to use, and as such, swap them on a need-to basis. 

On the other end of the spectrum, we need to discuss NGINX, which deals with incoming requests asynchronously. 

It can manage more requests with fewer resources, and as such, it is a lot more efficient. To do this uses an event-driven approach, which means that it uses multi-threaded processes, where each thread can handle multiple connections.

Server Configuration

Let’s see how Apache works first. You see, Apache uses .htaccess files to set specific rules. These rules are a fundamental part of how it handles incoming requests. These files include everything from redirection rules to memory limits and much more. 

Through Apache’s usage, you can set up individual .htaccess files, which is the case for every directory on the server tree. Every .htaccess file you run into a request path needs to be interpreted separately, and as such, they take longer to execute. Keep in mind that the server provider typically picks these for you.

NGINX does not really provide you with such flexibility, and you have a single file that governs the entire process, making it a lot quicker in this regard, albeit a lot less flexible.

Modules

To give you a bit of context, modules are these add-ons that you can use alongside your server software in order to extend the default functionality. Obviously, since Apache is a lot older than NGINX, it has a larger module selection.

Apache also makes it easier for you to find documentation and tutorials on how to use them, and you can install, enable and disable modules whenever you want to. 

On the NGINX side of things, you can’t really disable modules once they are compiled, and to use them, you have to compile them into the NGINX core. 

Now, both NGINX and Apache can be extended through the usage of modules, however, the way they do so is different in the way it is implemented.

In fact, Apache's module system works in a way through which it allows you to dynamically load and upload modules when you need to. The core is always there, and the modules can easily be switched on or off. This will highly be dependent on the use-case scenario and requirement for functionality.

NGINX implements modules differently, and they are not dynamically loadable. In fact, once selected, they have to compile in the core software itself in order for them to work at all. This provides NGINX with almost no flexibility, however, you can dictate exactly what you want out of your server by only including the functionality that you need.

Loading Static And Dynamic Content

If you decide to pick one over the other, what will ultimately help you decide which one to choose will be its real-world performance. This means that you will ideally want a server that handles requests both for static as well as dynamic content well.

Apache servers have the ability to handle static content by using conventional, file-based methods, and the performance of these operations relies on the function of the MPM method.

Apache HTTP server also has the ability to process dynamic content, and this is achieved through embedding a processor of the language that you will be used to each of the instances that will end up being used. This is essentially what allows it to execute the dynamic content in the webserver without the need to rely on external components.

Where apache specifically specializes is in the fact that it can handle dynamic content internally, which means that the configuration process is streamlined, however, the communication doesn't even need to be coordinated with any other software, as modules can be swapped easily at any point in time, specifically when you require such changes.

Why NGINX is Faster Than Apache?

As we move along the web servers list, we need to discuss NGINX. On this end of the spectrum, it does not really have the ability to actually process dynamic content, not natively. In order to handle all of the PHP requests for dynamic content, it has to pass that task to an external processor so it can execute it and wait for the rendered content to be sent back to it. This results in a higher processing time.

The communication itself has to be pre-configured between NGINX and the protocols that it talks to, these protocols include wUSGI, SCGI, FastCGI, and memecache.

However, the main reason NGINX is faster than apache is due to the fact that it takes advantage of the quick processing speeds and its capabilities to handle many connections simultaneously. When it comes to static content, here is where it shines, as the files can be served to the client directly, and quickly. If you have a Dedicated Hosting service, you can pick whichever one you like. Keep in mind that you can always learn How to Use the NGINX RTMP Module to Setup a Streaming Server.

Distributed and Centralised Configurations

When it comes to server administrators, the most important aspect they typically look at is the difference in the directory-level configuration, and how it is permitted within the content directories themselves. Apache includes this option that allows additional configuration on a per-directory basis, and can even interpret directives in hidden files on the content directories. These are the .htaccess files that we previously discussed.

Now, these files are located within the content directors, and each time they handle a request, Apache needs to check each component along the path to the requested file and find a .htaccess file that applies to it.

This means that you can configure the web server itself in a decentralized way and is often used for the implementation of the URL rewrites, authorization, access restriction, and authentication.

NGINX doesn't interpret .htaccess files, and neither does it provide a mechanism for evaluating any per-directory configuration outside of the main configuration file.  As such, it is a lot less flexible than the Apache model, and this provides it with advantages that aren't present in Apache.

.htaccess provides the server with increased performance due to the fact that the Apache setup allows .htaccess files to be placed in any directory, and the server, in turn, can check for each of the files in the directories that lead up to the requested file.

If a single, or multiple .htaccess files are found throughout this search, they can be read and interpreted as a result. By allowing directory overrides, however, NGINX can serve requests far faster by only needing to do a single check and file read for each request.

When to Pick Apache

  • Apache is a lot easier to configure, and the setup process flows smoothly.

  • You get a larger level of control and flexibility with the .htaccess files.

  • You have a larger module selection, and you can enable or disable modules whenever you want to.

  • You can decide how to handle the requests.

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When to Pick NGINX

  • NGINX can handle a larger number of concurrent requests, making it a lot more scalable as a result.

  • You can get better performance with lower-end hardware as a result of this.

  • Serving static content to your visitors flows a lot more smoothly through NGINX.

  • It can be used as a reverse proxy or load balancer.

So, picking between Apache NGINX should be easy now, as you know exactly what to look for, and if you decide to use both of them for whatever reason, as long as they do not point to the same ports, you can take advantage of both of them, and in turn, get the best of both worlds. However, before you make the final decision, ensure that you do an in-depth analysis of both.

Using Apache and NGINX at The Same Time

Throughout this article, you've probably wondered, these both serve certain functions better than the other, so why not combine them? You're absolutely right for making that assumption, and it is, by all means, a possibility.

Through a combination of both of them, you are getting the advantages of both Apache and NGINX, however, you need to ensure that you give them different ports to listen to, as otherwise, you'd have a lot of complications.

NGINX is used as a reverse proxy, and as such, it allows it to handle all of the requests from the clients. This is due to the fact that it has a quick processing speed and the ability to handle concurrent connections with ease. NGINX specializes in static content, as the files can quickly be served. When it comes to dynamic content, this is where Apache shines. This is due to the fact that it can process the results and return the rendered page back to NGINX, and this is just one example of how you can combine them efficiently.

Is NGINX Easier Than Apache?

Another thing you need to consider when picking one over the other is the level of support they have as well as their ease of use.

Apache has been on the market for a lot longer than NGINX, and as such, it has amazing support in terms of documentation, tutorials, and other things that can assist administrators fully. It has a lot more support from third parties and module functionality. In other words, since many people have managed to use it throughout the years, they feel a lot more comfortable with it.

Now, NGINX has increased its level of support over time, and this only improves as the years go on. Originally, its instructions were in Russian until we got translations into English on all of the documentation, and the third-party support is also growing on a daily basis.

In terms of support, Apache has the ability to keep your website safe through offering DDoS attack handling, with the mod_evasive module that you can easily implement. This can respond to DDoS, DoS, brute force attacks, and HTTP.

You then have NGINX, which has a smaller codebase, and this means that there are fewer points of impact that can be compromised by potential hackers with malicious intentions.

Overall, both NGINX and apache have a high enough level of support and security to make them worthwhile choices.

Why is NGINX So Popular?

NGINX has grown in popularity due to its lightweight when it comes to resource utilization, as well as its ability to scale high with ease on even the most barebones hardware. It excels at serving static content quickly, and it is designed to pass dynamic requests to other software that can handle them better. This is why so many server administrators tend to pick it over the competition.

The Bottom Line

Now that we have successfully seen Apache versus NGINX, the decision can be difficult when it comes to switching servers or server software. You will want to use one that works for you, and you’ll be using it for years to come.

If you haven’t noticed by now, choosing between Apache and NGINX is not easy, and the decision is typically made by the web hosting provider that you end up using. Whatever the case may be, the clear winner will be the one that works better for your specific needs. Overall, the Apache vs. NGINX performance depends on your need

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