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Alternative web servers compared: Lighttpd, Nginx, LiteSpeed and Zeus

Apache and IIS are the most common web servers in use today, but they are far from alone. There is a huge amount of web server software out there, both free and commercial.

In this article we present four popular alternative web servers: Lighttpd, Nginx, LiteSpeed and Zeus. The first two are free and open source while the other two are commercial, closed-source alternatives. What they all have in common is that they focus on high performance.

We will also take a look at how many websites are actually using these web servers.

But first a brief presentation of each of one:

Lighttpd
  • Brief info: Pronounced “Lighty”, Lighttpd is as the name implies a small, lightweight web server which has a low memory footprint and light CPU load. Lighttpd is a good alternative to serve static content but it has also gained recognition in the Ruby on Rails and PHP communities.
  • Used by: Wikimedia (Wikipedia), Sourceforge, YouTube, The Pirate Bay, Meebo, Imageshack, Sendspace, Mininova.
  • Cost: Free
  • Open Source: Yes
  • OS platforms: Linux, freeBSD, Solaris, MacOS X, Windows (under Cygwin)
  • Homepage: www.lighttpd.net
Nginx
  • Brief info: Pronounced “engine X”, Nginx is a lightweight web server and reverse proxy. Originally written by Igor Sysoev for Rambler.ru (Russia’s second most visited website). Nginx is known for stability and simple configuration in addition to its low resource consumption. It can also act as an IMAP/POP3 proxy.
  • Used by: Yellow Pages, Hulu, Zimbra, the Friends for Sale Facebook app, Rambler, and it also seems that WordPress.com just started using it instead of LiteSpeed.
  • Cost: Free
  • Open Source: Yes
  • OS platforms: Linux, FreeBSD, Solaris, MacOS X
  • Homepage: www.nginx.net
LiteSpeed
  • Brief info: LiteSpeed is a commercial web server designed specifically for large websites. One of LiteSpeed’s advantages is that it can read Apache configurations directly which makes it easy to integrate with existing products to replace Apache. The server is lightweight and as the name implies very fast.
  • Used by: WordPress (until recently at least, but now WordPress.com appears to be using nginx), Twitter, GigaOm, Bravenet.
  • Cost: Free to $1,299 depending on the edition.
  • Open Source: No
  • OS platforms: Linux, FreeBSD, Solaris, MacOS X
  • Homepage: www.litespeedtech.com
Zeus
  • Brief info: Zeus web server is a high performance web server. It has received PC Magazine Editors’ Choice award and also the eWeek/PC Magazine Innovation in Infrastructure award. Zeus is a highly flexible enterprise product.
  • Used by: Sony, Telefónica, Virgin media, phpBB.
  • Cost: $1,700 up to two physical CPUs; $850 per additional CPU.
  • Open Source: No
  • OS platforms: Linux, FreeBSD, Solaris, HP-UX
  • Homepage: www.zeus.com/products/zws

How many websites are using these web servers?

According to Netcraft, Lighttpd is currently the most common of these four web servers. On April 1, the numbers of websites for each were as follows:

Lighttpd: 1,495,308
Nginx: 1,018,503
LiteSpeed: 668,030
Zeus: 420,477

These positions were not always the same, though. As you can see by the following graph, which shows the numbers from January 2006 to April 2008, the situation has changed significantly over time.

Web server growth
The graph is based on data from Netcraft (their web server survey archives).

The huge leap for Lighttpd in January-March of 2007 is most likely due to one or more web hosting or domain registration companies switching over to Lighttpd either for their regular pages, or for parked pages, or both. If anyone knows what happened there in more detail, please feel free to let us know in the comments.

Interestingly, the number of servers using the Zeus web server has remained quite constant over the last two years, and even decreased a little. That said, it is mainly an enterprise solution, so this is perhaps not so surprising.

The two web servers that have been growing the fastest lately are Nginx and LiteSpeed. Nginx recently passed the one-million-websites mark.

These numbers of course still pale next to Apache’s roughly 83 million websites, but there is no doubt that these alternative web servers are gaining in popularity. Who knows, one of them may be just right for you?

As always, let us know what you think in the comments.



26 Comments

I’m using lighttpd to serve static files and it’s handles pretty much requests as a joke where apache wastes a dozens of RAM and CPU.

nginx kicks lighty’s ass big time.
Not to mention that the nginx developer takes care of the vital bugs rightaway, while the lighty one is stuck on many bugs (ie. memory leak) for years.

we’re using nginx for a huge community now. we used lighttpd before, but in our case it had memory leaks. nginx seems to work more stable and its easy to config… unfortunately most of documentation is russian… i hope this will change when the community around nginx grows.

nginx and lighttpd seem like interesting tools. But if you have to do mod_perl over SSL with virtual hosts and safely serve thousands of requests per minute with legacy configuration, you’re most likely going to use apache.

I know that Zeus was/is used by a certain portion of the newspaper industry to run certain out-of-box web CMS products. That might explain its popularity.

Yours was the first article that made me aware of nginx. I have read more since and since our Apache HTTPD based web servers were being overloaded, I had two options – either to load balance between multiple (obviously dedicated) servers or use Nginx. I have started to move my websites to nginx and I owe you a thanks for it :)

we moved from apache to nginx about 1 year ago – the differnce is amazing.
why have I kept apache so long???
I’m hosting big community – forum and gallery with about 60k pictures inside and trafic more over 1TB monthly with big resources using seo module

I’m running several Drupal based sites with nginx and php_fcgi. I’m very impressed with the performance compared to Apache – which I have used for many years, but now try and stay away from.

@alex

You must have missed the Nginx wiki:

http://wiki.codemongers.com/

It’s been up for around 2 years now and is considered the main documentation by most Nginx users. The English documentation is quite complete (and even has more than the original Russian docs) and there are ongoing translations into several other languages.

@Cliff Thank you for this really usefull link!

We use nginx in our test environment and it’s really fast with load values around zero!!! Till now it’s really fast and reliable.

Greets from Germany!

The current issue of Linux Journal magazine (as of September 2008) has an article by Will Reese on nginx, with configuration examples.

We are about to launch a site, which will use nginx.

We host more than 700 websites using lighttpd. Everything works great!

nginx is the AK47 of webservers.. why?

you don’t need a manual the design is so elegant and simple…
you can drag it through mud, desert and even DoS attacks and it’ll still be sitting there, firing away that content at every mother who asks it a question..
it doesnt jam… its like a Range Rover breaking a crankshaft.. it just doesn’t happen (ok ok, i manually managed to break it once, but that 2 seconds downtime was my own fault)

I liked apache, i liked lighttpd but then i also used to like some now appaling overpaid and overweight pop stars… their time has come… out with the old in with the new….

I will still offer apache/lighttpd as daemons for my customers but theres no reason NOT to cache such hogs even internally via nginx, the stats speak for themselves :)

Since the development of Lighttpd is stuck (it’s mainly maintained by one person) Nginx seems to be first choice for future-proof setups.

thanks for all this information

I use apache currently but looks like I’ll try to switch to nginx now! Hope mod_rails catches up to it quickly (which it just did).

That’s not fair you don’t even mention Cherokee, I haven’t used it but it should fall under the category of alternative webservers. It deserves comparison :)

i thig lighthttp is the best one..

Really very informative info given above. I have used lighty but not had a good experience with nginx. Though will definately give it a try for nginx as well. :-)

Speaking of nginx, it’s by far the best I’ve used.
Try NGINX + APC + MEMCACHED *wink*

NginX vs LiteSpeed: Magento Benchmark Tests

http://turnkeye.com/blog/2010/04/nginx-vs-litespeed-test-magento/