Evolution occurs at such a lightning-fast pace on the World Wide Web that almost nothing maintains dominance for very long. Things like Google as a search engine and Flash as a primary video streaming service are the exception rather than the rule. Even then, Flash just took a severe body blow, as support for it is suddenly being abandoned in the wake of HTML 5’s emergence.
To have any sort of dominance on the World Wide Web for just a year or two is amazing. That is what makes the run that the Apache Web Server has had all the more breathtaking. They first hit the top spot in web server technology in early 1996. They haven’t given it up since.
They did come close recently, though. Microsoft finally took their gloves off and put real effort into their web server technology. This resulted in a surge in Microsoft web hosting that, at its peak, gave it a third of all web hosting serve technologies in 2008, just a step behind Apache.
So close, yet…
That surge ran out of fuel, though. By the time of its November 2011 web server survey, Netcraft showed that Apache’s share of web server software was back up to a dominant 65% of all web sites. Microsoft had fallen back down to just over 15%, and even Google so far is stuck in low also-ran single digits. Relative newcomer nginx was third with about 8%.
So why is this dominance so pervasive? What is it about the Apache web server that gives it such an unshakable place in the web hosting world? Is there any indication that this will change any time soon?
The flexibility of modules – especially open source modules
Through the use of modules, which are essentially plugins to the Apache web server, the web host is able to configure Apache to their specifications. These modules allow smooth cooperation with other applications, including other web hosting software packages. Several dozen modules have been released by the Apache Software Foundation, and several dozen more have been developed independently.
This hints at the thing that gives these modules that bit of extra power: Apache is open-source. This leads to the usual benefits that attend all open-source packages: individual flexibility, expansiveness of user support, rapid development and bug tracking and fixing, high efficiency, and so forth.
Another benefit to Apache’s open source nature is that it has been developed for a wide variety of operating systems. Naturally it works on just about every major UNIX and Linux variant. But it has also been ported over to Windows, Mac OS, AmigaOS, OS/2, and a few others that you’ve probably never even heard of. This alone should make it clear why, until they change their philosophy, Windows Server 2008 and whatever variants follow won’t even have a prayer at competing. It is even available in 10 spoken languages.
- Cost: We could have probably put this into the list of open-source advantages above, but it deserves reiteration in its own right. In addition to all of the obvious advantages that this entails, consider this also: this makes the barrier to entry so low that anyone so dedicated can run a web hosting service from their basement (Indeed, a lot of people do. Well, some of them probably use other rooms as well).
- Specific features: There are a few nicely built-in advantages to the Apache web server that only adds to the above list. Load balancing is one, which is why most Apache web hosts guarantee such high uptime percentages. Virtual hosts, meaning the ability to create subdomain.domain.com, is another, and a very popular one.
- Security: Again, this almost goes without saying. It bears asking though: 20 years into the World Wide Web, how many major Apache security incidents can you name? Can anyone name any at all? With some software packages and operating systems all but assuming that break-ins will happen, this is no mean feat.
What are the competitors up to?
All of this said, all empires eventually end. One can certainly not expect either Microsoft or Google to just roll over and play dead. So what are they doing instead?
Microsoft released this year Windows Home Server 2011, the latest in its own attempts to bring web hosting server technologies to home PCs (reference the basement web host above). Unfortunately, they shot themselves in the foot right from the start. Microsoft’s Home Server technology, starting from 2007, had included a feature called “Drive Extender”. This enabled a few key server abilities, namely multi-disk redundancy, a single folder name space, and the ability to extend storage to any type of hard disk in any combination.
Thus, it was with astonished incredulity from its user base that Microsoft suddenly removed this service, as it was considered one of the server’s main selling points. The outcry resulted in Microsoft promising to utilize RAID technology instead. This, however, has not much placated the masses, and third parties have worked to fill the vacuum. In short: don’t look to Microsoft’s fortunes in this area turning around any time soon.
And the others?
Google, to put it shortly, doesn’t look yet to be really putting that much effort into this yet. Their focus seems to be using web server technology to serve its own needs. Granted, these needs are growing with leaps and bounds, but it doesn’t look to be that of all-purpose web hosting anytime soon.
Nginx is the more interesting case. Most of its market share has been achieved in the last 3 years. There are specific reasons for this. nginx can support up to 10,000 simultaneous connections and MP4 streaming.
A hardening monopoly
Nginx has still not yet achieved the broad respect that Apache has. Then again, it itself is an Apache fork, meaning that most of the former’s advantages are already built into it. Though that being the case, some would say there’s no point really considering it a “competitor” so much. Combined, these two own ¾ of the market share, and growing.
In short, as amazing as it may seem, it appears that one of the main parameters of what makes the World Wide Web function, the underlying web hosting technology, is something that is not only not going to change anytime soon but, unless some really meteor of a competitor comes in out of nowhere, is going to solidify even harder. In a world where technologies change on an almost hourly basis, this is an astounding statement.