What's Up with Apache Web Server?

For most of free software's history, two projects have stood out: GNU/Linux and and the Apache Web server. Indeed, as far back as 2000, when I wrote Rebel Code, it was clear that Apache had already done something rather special: Apache played a...


For most of free software’s history, two projects have stood out: GNU/Linux and and the Apache Web server. Indeed, as far back as 2000, when I wrote Rebel Code, it was clear that Apache had already done something rather special:

Apache played a crucial role in preparing the ground for the later and continuing success of GNU/Linux, and for the dramatic uptake of open source programs and methods in the late 1990s. In one respect, Apache still leads the field among free software projects. Although the debate still rages fiercely about whether open source software such as GNU/Linux can ever hope to best Microsoft, Apache has already done it.

The most obvious demonstration of that fact is the Netcraft Web server survey. This has been tracking the market share of Web servers since 1995 – just about the time that Apache was first created. That means it provides perhaps the clearest demonstration of the rapid rise of Apache.

Already by 1997, it had 40% of the Web server market, while Microsoft had just 11%. Apache’s share continued to rise to a peak of 70%, achieved in October 2005. Immediately after that, Microsoft’s share rose to 36%, largely because of various deals with hosting companies; however, it soon fell back, and descended to a low of 14% in March 2012. But it has started to climb again, and the most recent market share analysis gives its 33%, while Apache has fallen to 38% - a figure last seen in September 1996. So what’s going on?

I spoke to Jim Jagielski, who has an impressive entry in Wikipedia that shows him to be well placed to comment on the Apache Web server project:

Jagielski is one of the founding members of The Apache Software Foundation after having been an almost charter member of the original 8-member Apache Group. Jagielski has served as Director on the ASF’s board since its incorporation in 1999. After having served 8 years as Executive Vice President and Secretary, and 3 years as Chairman, Jagielski served for several years as President of the ASF.

Jagielski was the first Chair of the Apache Incubator project, in which he is still involved to this day. He was one of the original co-Mentors for the Geronimo project, and he also Mentors the several Incubator podlings.

Jagielski still finds time to be a very active developer on many open source projects, ASF and otherwise. After doing some development on the NCSA HTTPd web server, he started with Apache in early-to-mid 1995, making him likely the longest active contributor within the ASF.

When I asked him whether he was worried that the long and glorious reign of the Apache Web server might be over, he pointed out that the graph where Microsoft had done well was the “Web server developers: Market share of all sites”. In other words, it simply counted every Web site it could find, whether or not that site was important or even active. Netcraft’s analysis confirms that the big jump in Microsoft’s market share was down to almost a single company:

Microsoft gained a staggering 48 million sites this month, increasing its total by 19% — most of this growth is attributable to new sites hosted by Nobis Technology Group.

As Jagielski notes, the second and third Netcraft graphs, “Web server developers: Market share of active sites” and “Web server developers: Market share of the top million busiest sites”, show a rather different story. In the former, Microsoft made a small gain of 0.18%, while in the latter its growth was negative - -0.10%. In fact, the real star of the latest Netcraft survey is the open source Web server Nginx: it gained an extra 0.60% of the total Web server market, 1.49% of the active sites, and 1.55% of the million busiest sites.

I wrote about Nginx back in October 2011, where I asked "Will Nginx Be to Apache What Chrome is to Firefox?" The latest Netcraft shows that is precisely what has happened: on the second and third graphs, which monitor real-world and heavy-duty use, Nginx is now the new number 2 in the Web server market.

So the latest Netcraft survey is not really about the end of an era, with Apache losing its crown to Microsoft, but the start of a new one, where open source not only dominates the world of Web servers, but now has strength in depth, just as it does in the world of browsers. The bid for world domination continues to go according to plan....

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