The Development Exchange--for Windows Developers

June 9, 1997 10:00 AM ET

Fort Apache
Freeware's spirit outshines commercial products
By Michael Moeller

  Whose Web server is the most popular on the Internet? If you guessed Netscape Communications Corp. or Microsoft Corp., you're not even close.

The answer is a small group of dispersed Unix developers who maintain Apache, a freeware program that has won the trust of thousands of companies and organizations worldwide.

But Apache's main draw isn't that it's free; proponents say they're swayed more by the software's power and manageability.

In fact, when IBM put up a Web site to track the recent chess match between Deep Blue and Gary Kasparov, it passed over Lotus Development Corp.'s Domino and chose Apache and its own OS/2-based Internet Connection Server.

And when Digital Equipment Corp. moved its main Web site to the East Coast from Palo Alto, Calif., it went with Apache, even though several of its satellite sites were running Netscape and Microsoft servers.

"It was the most natural fit, since we were using NCSA's [National Center for Supercomputing Applications'] server," said Mick Schonhut, corporate Webmaster for Digital, in Maynard, Mass. "I really like the stability and performance that it gives."

The software's band of developers, known as the Apache Group, last week posted Apache Version 1.2, which adds support for HTTP 1.1, new APIs, improved logging and Common Gateway Interface debugging.

And the server won't be just for Unix lovers for much longer: The developers plan to port Apache to Windows NT and add Java API support and a graphical configuration interface to Version 2.0, due in beta this year.

The birth and growth of Apache is a refreshing departure from the headline-grabbing, overhyped software industry and a throwback to the Internet's early days.

With no official leader, the Apache Group makes decisions by committee, with deliberations and voting on features done over E-mail. The dozen or so developers who make up the core team act as overseers, but product development is in the hands of thousands of users who work with Apache daily.

Contributions and fixes are accepted from anyone. The core team conducts tests, determines viability and integrates additions into a free upgrade -- source code and all -- on the Web site.

"Since there is no business justification, we're free to make the server cooler and cooler," said Ken Coar, a member of the Apache Group, whose day job is a principal at Process Software, in Framingham, Mass.

The group has nonprofit status, with all developer time donated. Turning Apache's success into cash has crossed the developers' minds, but for now the group is satisfied to have incorporated as a nonprofit for legal reasons.

That business-free attitude is paying great dividends. This month, a survey of more than 1 million Internet Web sites shows that 44 percent are running Apache.

Trailing far behind is Microsoft's Internet Information Server, at 16 percent, and Netscape Communications Corp.'s family of servers, at 12 percent.

The survey conducted by NetCraft Inc., of Bath, England, does not take into account servers hosting intranets behind firewalls. Nevertheless, Apache's user list is impressive. McDonald's, UUNet Technologies Inc., HotWired, Yahoo Inc., JavaSoft, CBS and the FBI are among the 400,000 sites running Apache.

Web servers: A sampling of users

Apache Digital, CBS, UUnet, HotWired, Yahoo, Reebok
Microsoft IIS 3.0 NFL, Nasdaq, Microsoft, Tesco
Netscape Commerce 1.1 General Motors, Ford, Toyota, Disney, Sony, Visa
Netscape FasTrack 2.0 Intel, Compaq, MasterCard
Netscape Communications 1.1 The White House, Silicon Graphics, BMW
Netscape Enterprise 2.01 Netscape, Sybase, Ferrari, CNN
Open Market Secure
Web Server 2.0.5
Pathfinder, HP, Ziff-Davis
O'Reilly WebSite
Pro 1.1
Lotus, Deutsche Telecom
CERN 3.0 Boeing, J.P. Morgan, Shell Oil, W3C

Source: NetCraft Inc.

Each site puts Apache through performance-intensive operations. In the process, it has won over some Netscape customers., a Web site consultant and provider, runs CBS' Web site and hosted this year's National Collegiate Athletic Association Final Four basketball tournament site on Apache.

"We had to get off [Netscape]. It didn't perform the way we had wanted," said President Malcolm Mead. "Portions of [Netscape] were good, but it started to unravel."

Service providers are as impressed as content suppliers. "[Apache] has never, ever crashed on me," said Patrick Ward, Webmaster at UUNet, in Fairfax, Va., which is running some corporate Web sites on Apache.

Users also are enamored with the server's flexibility.

Since the development group gives away Apache source code with each server, users can customize the software to its maximum potential (see analysis).

The source of Apache's power is no secret. The group formed in 1995 to add "patches" to the first free Web server developed by the NCSA. The resulting upgrade of NCSA's httpd 1.3 was thereafter known as A PAtCHy server.

"The whole motivation was to fix some bugs in NCSA," said Brian Behlendorf, an Apache coordinator and chief technology officer at Organic Online, in San Francisco. "We just found each other over the Internet."

While Apache has seen phenomenal success, even its biggest supporters admit that it's not for the faint of heart.

Anyone unfamiliar with hard-core Unix programming will not be able to get Apache running, said users.

And since there is no brick and mortar headquarters of Apache, there's also no 24-hour support system. But that doesn't mean support is lacking. Technical assistance is driven by users via or E-mail, and there are dozens of books and newsgroups devoted entirely to Apache.

That communal spirit is the reason why so many Apache developers devote their free time to coding and tweaking the software.

"It's like the older spirit of the Internet. We're giving something back," said Chuck Murcko, one of the core developers of Apache by night and a Web developer for Infonautics Corp., Wayne Pa., by day.

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