Many Happy Returns, Apache

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We tend to think of free software as (mostly) new, so the fact that Apache celebrated its 15th birthday yesterday seems pretty extraordinary. We also typically think of free software as being the perennial plucky underdog, but as this post on the Apache Software Foundation Blog reminds us, Apache has been the leading Web server for almost its entire existence:

The Apache Server started as a fork (an independent development stream) of the NCSA httpd, a Web server created by Rob McCool at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. Further development to the server ceased after McCool's departure from NCSA in 1994, so an online community of individuals was formed to support and enhance its software via email collaboration. The founding members of that community (the Apache Group) included Brian Behlendorf, Roy Fielding, Rob Hartill, David Robinson, Cliff Skolnick, Randy Terbush, Robert Thau, and Andrew Wilson.

Within less than a year of the Apache Group's formation, the Apache server surpassed NCSA httpd as the #1 server on the Internet.

That was important for a host of reasons.

First, it ensured that the back-end of the Web was not locked into proprietary standards. Had Microsoft established its Internet Information Server (IIS) there, as might well have happened in the absence of Apache, it would have been able to control vast swathes of Web development through the tight linking between IIS and Internet Explorer on the client side.

As one of Apache's creators, Brian Behlendorf, told me ten years ago:

Had Apache not existed, I definitely think we would start seeing people having to build Microsoft-specific Web sites, hosted on Microsoft servers, to talk to Microsoft clients, and then Netscape servers to talk to Netscape clients, and have to maintain two different sets of Web sites essentially to talk to these two different clients.

In other words, Apache probably saved the early Web both from Microsoft's domination and also from fragmentation, which would have destroyed one of its key features: universality.

Secondly, well before people began taking GNU/Linux seriously, it established that free software was not only as good as proprietary equivalents, but better, and capable of handling mission-critical tasks like running enterprise-level Web servers. Even though it received little credit for this in the early years, this fact probably seeped through to the consciousness of computer professionals, and helped prepare the ground for increasing uptake of open source code.

That was given a further fillip by another major achievement of Apache: the fact that in June 1998 IBM announced that it would ship Apache as part of its flagship WebSphere Application Server offering. At a stroke, code whipped up by a bunch of hackers had been admitted into the inner sanctum of Big Blue's safe, enterprise computing.

Until then, IBM naturally had its own Web server, called Internet Connection Server, later branded as Domino Go. The problem was that its market share was around 0.2% at this time – with 90% of the market concentrated in three Web servers, from Microsoft, Netscape and Apache. Remarkably, IBM started talking to Netscape about acquiring the company, but that never came off. Buying Microsoft was hardly an option, so that left the unthinkable: that IBM should offer and support the free Apache.

Although convincing managers and engineers within the company was a non-trivial task, the hugely positive response that IBM received for the switch to open source probably pre-disposed it to moving further in this direction, and in January 2000, the company announced that it intended to “make all of its server platforms Linux-friendly”.

Apache played a big part in making that happen, and everything that flowed from it, and can thus be regarded as one of the principal causes of open source's success today. Another key contribution that it has made to this is through the Apache Foundation, and the “Apache Way”:

In March 1999, members of the Apache Group formed The Apache Software Foundation to provide organizational, legal, and financial support for the Apache HTTP Server. An additional goal for the Foundation was to serve as a neutral, trusted platform for the development of community-driven software.

Beyond the Apache HTTP Server, dozens of ASF projects – from build tools to Web services to cloud computing and more – lead the way in Open Source technology.

At the ASF, community plays a vital role in the collaborative development of consensus-driven, enterprise-grade solutions. The number of projects led by the Apache community has grown from the singular Apache HTTP Server at the ASF's inception in 1999 to nearly 140 projects today.

The ASF's commitment to fostering a collaborative approach to development has long served as a model for producing consistently high quality software and helping advance the future of open development. Through its leadership, robust community, and meritocratic process known as the "Apache Way", the ASF continues to gain recognition as one of the most successful influencers in Open Source.

Through the Apache Way, the ASF is able to spearhead new projects that meet the demands of the marketplace and help users achieve their business goals. With the Apache Incubator mentoring more projects than ever before, the ASF continues to meet the growing demand for quality Open Source products.

Apache has moved far beyond its roots to become a key player in the open source world in many areas. On the occasion of its 15th birthday, it's good to remember just how much it has done in that time, and to look forward to all the things it will do in the future. Many happy returns, indeed....

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