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June 02, 1997, Issue: 633
Section: Trends:Web Servers

Web servers -- Apache:Freely Successful -- The Net's Web server sharewarecontinues to gain popularity

By Candee Wilde

The Apache Group has accomplished a feat that should make it the envy of commercial software developers everywhere. Without spending a cent on research, marketing, or advertising, this group of volunteer programmers created Apache-Web server software that may be the most widely used product on the Internet today.

Despite Apache's strong following, however, some still question whether the two-year-old Unix server shareware should be used to run business-critical applications. The software isn't vendor-supported, and it lacks a point-and-click interface that lets users easily customize and integrate the shareware into their existing systems.

Still, by word of mouth-and through newsgroups and E-mail-Apache's success stories have spread, and so has its use. According to the May results of a monthly Web server survey conducted by Netcraft, an Internet consulting company in Bath, England, Apache is used at 42% of more than 1 million Internet sites running Unix (see chart, p. 92). This compares to 14% using Microsoft's Unix server software, 11% using Netscape Communications' Unix server products, 7% using NCSA's Unix server, and 3% using other Unix server software.

About 23% of the Internet sites polled use server software based on Windows NT, which is steadily replacing Unix as the operating system of choice for Internet and intranet servers. While Apache is not yet available for Windows NT, the Apache Group plans to develop server software for the Microsoft operating system.

WebWeaving m/v Consultancy, a company in the Netherlands that specializes in turnkey Web solutions with security, database connections, and transaction-handling capabilities, uses Apache software for its four production servers, two development servers, and several test servers. "Tests of several Netscape servers so far have fallen short," says Dirk VanGulik, a consultant at WebWeaving. "We keep an eye on Windows NT [servers] and test everything we can get hold of, but Apache has proven easier to customize, has performed better, and offers HTTP 1.1 support," he says.

Forever Free

A big element of Apache's draw is that it's free, and developers say there are no plans to begin charging for the software. But Apache's shareware status alone cannot explain its high share of the Unix Internet server market, since Microsoft and Netscape also give away some server software. NCSA's server-on which Apache was originally based-is also free. In fact, of the 2.2 million servers shipped last year, only slightly more than 300,000 were paid for, according to Clay Ryder, director at Zona Research Inc., a Redwood City, Calif., consulting company.

Another reason for Apache's popularity:The software is continually updated. It has been completely rewritten since the first public version was released in late 1995. The newest version, Apache 1.2, will be released this month, and plans for a major rewrite to be released as Apache 2.0 are well under way, says Dean Gaudet, an Apache contributor and technical consultant at the Steam Tunnel Operations, a San Francisco group that designs, constructs, and maintains Internet sites.

Apache 1.2 incorporates HTTP 1.1, a new HTTP server protocol that makes downloading a Web page four to eight times faster than the current protocol, HTTP 1.0, according to the World Wide Web Consortium, a Web standards body. Microsoft and Netscape plan to incorporate HTTP 1.1 in their Unix server software this summer.

Users also choose Apache because the source code-the human-readable form of a program that makes adding features and fixing bugs much easier-is available. "The Apache Group consists of people who run Web servers for a living, and we try to give other server users what they want," says Rasmus Lerdorf, a member of the Apache Group and president of Lerdorf Consultants, a Toronto IT consultancy. "We have no outside sponsors to please and no institutional agendas of our own to pursue. Everyone is welcome to make suggestions to influence the direction we take."

Non-Stop Development

Since so many Apache Group members are Apache users who want the best for their own Internet sites, the development process never stops. "Fixes and features are released within hours or days, rather than the months or years it takes for commercial products," says Aram Mirzadeh, an Apache contributor and IS manager at Qosina Corp., an Edgewood, N.Y., plastics manufacturer and Apache user.

Also, where commercial vendors have priorities beyond server software, the Apache Group is totally devoted to making the best possible server. "Microsoft is trying to sell its BackOffice product for NT, which gives you everything with a couple of clicks, but it's not as configurable or as fast as Apache," Mirzadeh says.

The Apache Group itself is sizing up the Windows NT market, with plans to develop a version of Apache for NT. Paul Sutton, technical director of UK Web, a Leeds, England, group that provides Web server solutions and Apache support, applauds the group's plans to develop free server software for NT. He says this will ensure there is an alternative toMicrosoft's IIS server software. "There is a school of thought that says Microsoft is trying to make the server market for its Windows NT platform into a zero-revenue business," Sutton says. "By effectively giving away Microsoft IIS [as part of the NT operating system], they are trying to drive other businesses that depend on server revenue out of the market."

Despite its benefits, not all users find Apache shareware suits their server needs. The main drawbacks:no vendor support and lack of a point-and-click user interface.

John Swartzendruber, senior information consultant at Eli Lilly and Co. in Indianapolis, says the pharmaceutical giant uses Netscape Enterprise 2.0 and some older Netscape servers, both on Unix and Windows NT platforms, to ensure that it has vendor support for the software. "I wouldn't be worried about using Apache from a technical standpoint," Swartzendruber says. "The only concern would be the support issue. If I'm using a server for business, I'd go with a commercial package."

Others agree. "Business-critical environments don't lend themselves well to casually supported technologies," says Zona's Ryder. Apache is not supported by its volunteer developers in the same way a commercial product is supported-with a toll-free support line and a printed manual, Ryder says.

No Point-And-Click

Also, while Apache is configurable using various third-party programming languages, it doesn't have a point-and-click interface that makes server software from Microsoft and Netscape easier to customize and integrate into users' existing systems, according to Ted Julian, an Internet research manager at International Data Corp., a Framingham, Mass., consulting company. Web sites maintained by nontechnical people, such as marketing representatives, probably are better off choosing a commercial server, Julian says.

Oliver Daury, Webmaster for NewTech/R, an Internet-intranet consulting company in Toulouse, France, says his company chose Netscape Enterprise Unix server software over Apache because Enterprise supports passwords.Apache, by contrast, lacks the tools to easily create a password area on a site or to link it to database or credit-card authentication systems, although these features can be added using a programming language such as Perl. Netscape Enterprise's point-and-click graphical user interface makes configuring the software much easier than Apache, Daury says.

Steve Buffum, a senior systems analyst, Webmaster, and Unix administrator for administrative computing services at the University of Texas in Austin, says he decided against Apache in favor of Netscape Enterprise Unix server software two years ago because Apache lacked an API that would let him add custom security code to the server. Buffum also eliminated Microsoft's server because it would not support his department's production Unix environment. Buffum chose Netscape's server "not because the product is so superior, but rather because it does what I need it to do and has a large enough client base to be pretty well supported."

The lack of documentation for the Apache server can also be a problem, although Apache user VanGulik says "good books are available." Still, he says he has often wished that someone would donate the salaries for several people "to just document, monitor, and track the code and bug reports. The people now do a wonderful job, but can you base a corporate strategy on it?"

Finding Support

While it's true that Apache isn't vendor-supported, there is plenty of support for the server software. "Many people who use Apache and other free software would argue that the support you get for free products is often better than commercial ones whose companies, after all, have already got their money," says UK Web's Sutton.

Apache users can report problems to the Apache Group via the Web (, or they can post questions in a Unix server newsgroup (comp.infosystems.www. servers.unix). This usually elicits a prompt response from someone who can help, according to Apache users and members of the Apache Group.

Even though Apache's volunteer developers come and go, longtime members of the Apache Group say users need not worry that the software will be abandoned. "The team that works on Apache changes over time as new people become interested and longtime people find other things to do," says Steam Tunnel Operations' Gaudet. "But there has always been a critical mass necessary to keep the process moving."

As Windows NT continues to gain support as a platform for servers, experts say Unix-based Apache will probably lose some market share-until the Apache Group gives users an NT-based version of the server. And it's up for the challenge. The group plans to continue giving Microsoft and Netscape a run for their money for a long time-without charging users a cent.

Copyright (c) 1997 CMP Media Inc.

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