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Nginx is a reverse proxy web server that is used to serve dynamic website content and control server load. It is open source and currently holds the title of second most used web server, mainly due to the fact that it can handle extremely high amounts of traffic. Nginx is bundled with OpenBSD and distributed under a simple 2-clause licence. Note: Nginx is pronounced 'engine X'.

History of Nginx

Development on Nginx commenced in 2002, and the founder was Igor Sysoev, a Russian developer who later took on the title of Chief Architect. Sysoev was born in 1970 and studied at Bauman Moscow State Technical University, and still works on the project today.

The company behind Nginx, Nginx Inc, was not founded until nine years after development began. It has offices in Moscow, Russia (where Sysoev still resides) and San Francisco, USA and offers paid technical support and consultancy. According to Nginx Inc, the technology is responsible for serving up 40 per cent of the top 10,000 sites in the world, measured in terms of traffic.

Many high-profile companies have invested in the Nginx project, from Automattic (the company behind WordPress) to MaxCDN. It has been used in Russia for many years to facilitate speedy service on some of the country's biggest websites.

What Nginx Does Best

Nginx is a reverse proxy server. It supports the following protocols:

  • HTTP and HTTPS
  • SMTP, POP3 and IMAP

The reverse proxy helps to balance load by distributing requests and caching certain types of content. Like Apache, Nginx has a modular architecture.

The tool also:

  • Caches HTTP requests
  • Rewrites URIs using regex
  • Tracks and geolocates users
  • Acts as a web server
  • Provides fault tolerance
  • Supports TLS/SSL, FastCGI and similar
  • Lets users stream FLV and MP4
  • Offers gzip compression
  • Supports the incoming IPv6 system
  • Provides a mail proxy with SMTP, POP3 and IMAP
  • Supports virtual servers

Why Use Nginx?

While Apache uses a process-oriented approach for handling requests, Nginx uses an event-driven approach. This makes it more scalable, and more able to handle very high load or spikes.

Essentially, developers use Nginx because it's easy on resources, making it less volatile in a web hosting environment. There are working examples of Nginx successfully handling tens of millions of requests every day, and it can handle more than 10,000 simultaneous requests without consuming large amounts of server RAM. The trade-off is a reduced number of features.

The majority of Nginx users are working on the world's top websites, including Wikipedia, Netflix, Dropbox, Groupon and WordPress.com.

Nginx vs Apache

Virtually every web host in the world offers the Apache web server, so Nginx may seem like an exotic choice for a website owner. However, there are a number of reasons to choose Nginx over Apache when selecting your new web host:

  • If your website gets busier, Nginx will probably scale up more efficiently than Apache
  • When Apache gets overloaded, it runs out of RAM and starts using swapfiles, slowing everything down. You won't get that slowdown with Nginx
  • Apache refuses requests when it starts to struggle
  • Nginx is tailor-made for making virtual private servers (VPS) run faster

There are also some valid reasons to stick with Apache:

  • The LAMP stack is almost industry standard among low cost web hosts
  • There's lots of support and help available
  • PHP, Python and Perl support is built in to Apache, so it's much easier to get started with coding
  • Ruby runs faster in Apache
  • Apache has a vast number of modules available to extend it, so it's compatible with far more third party technologies
  • Nginz does not support .htaccess

Many customers choose to get the best of both worlds. They use Apache to serve up web pages, while placing Nginx in front of it as a proxy server. This gets around many of the problems with Apache, while benefiting from the best of Nginx.

Server Requirements

Nginx runs on Linux, BSD, OS X and a variety of other operating systems. However, you'll rarely see it offered on a shared hosting plan because users need to interact with Nginx directly for it to work. On a shared server, this would mean granting access to everyone, which would clearly be a security risk.

Assuming you find a host that offers Nginx, your next step is to find out if it's offered from day one. The majority of hosts will leave you to install it on your VPS or dedicated server by yourself.

While you can run applications like WordPress on Nginx, this kind of thing is not well supported, and you might be giving yourself more hard work than you need.

Nginx Frequently Asked Questions

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