When to use an alternative web server

Everyone knows about Apache, Nginx, and Microsoft ISS, but sometimes a lesser-known web server is the better choice for your online application.

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Image: gorodenkoff, Getty Images/iStockphoto

It's easy for most people to choose a web server: Apache if your team prefers open-source flexibility, Nginx if you want open source but your hardware budget is tight, and Microsoft IIS if your company is a Windows shop.

Few people choose alternative web servers--this is reflected in the market share figures: W3Techs measures the web's top 10 million sites and said Apache has 43.4%, Nginx has 42.1%, and IIS is down to 8.5%. Netcraft's report of the top active sites in April 2019 puts the rankings at Apache with 30.30%, Nginx at 20.73%, and Google at 8.01%.

It gets interesting when looking at niche options. W3Techs said its current fourth-place web server is LiteSpeed at 4.2% market share, while Netcraft said Microsoft is fourth at 6.12%. LiteSpeed attributes its own traction to being event-based instead of using Apache's process-based approach, while still working with Apache-compatible configuration files. Netcraft shined its spotlight on Envoy and cPanel, in the 9th and 10th slots, respectively, mostly because they're easy to use for small businesses.

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Generally, when shouldn't your company use one of the popular systems? "What I can tell you is some of these web servers are indeed quite specific, like if you have a Java application, then use Tomcat or Jetty [which] natively support Java," explained Matthias Gelbmann, managing director at W3Techs.

Other big fish in the smaller web servers pond include Node.js for JavaScript sites, CherryPy for Python applications, along with IBM and Oracle's own servers for their business applications, Gelbmann noted.

"There might not be a real technical reason, just the fact that you have one provider for your infrastructure... In my opinion, there's rarely a purely technical reason to switch from one to another at least for average websites. If you're Facebook or Google, that is different," he continued. W3Techs itself uses Apache, he said.

Looking forward, "It really looks like Nginx is growing very fast, and we don't see any end of that trend. I can well imagine in a few years Nginx will be two-thirds or more of the web servers. Microsoft is losing. I don't see any of the smaller ones growing very quickly at the moment."

Obscure servers that showed at least 0.1% on W3Techs research include IdeaWebServer, Cowboy, Tengine, Kestrel, and Lighttpd. Netcraft said GoDaddy's DPS made a slight dent in the market. Never heard of these? Nor did we here at TechRepublic, but somebody uses them.

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Netcraft developer Paul Mutton agreed that most companies should play it safe. "I wouldn't recommend using a niche server if one of the more popular ones already does what you require," he said. "Popularity generally ensures good support and continual security updates, and it's always handy when there's a large established user community to seek advice from."

Wikipedia remains the best source for a thorough list of popular and niche web servers alike, plus their versions, chief developers, and latest release dates.

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