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Kicking the Windows habit: Apache vs. IIS

IT departments are thinking beyond Windows and looking at alternatives for cost's sake, security's sake, or even variety's sake. SearchWin2000 spotlights some of those alternatives -- today we scout Apache, the IIS antagonist.

Ryan Bloom, manager of core engineering, Covalent Technologies, has been a member of the Apache Software Foundation since 1999. Bloom has played a leading role in the development of Apache 2.0, which became available in April. Bloom is also the author of Apache Server 2.0: The Complete Reference.

Ryan Bloom, Covalent Technologies

   SearchWin2000: What technical advantages does Apache have over IIS?

Ryan Bloom: Apache's model uses a parent and child process. The parent does nothing. It doesn't serve requests. Its only job is to make sure there is one child to serve a request. So if something happens to the one child process serving the request, another child process is brought up as quickly as possible. Previous to IIS 6.0 there was no multi-process model. If the Web server died, you didn't get it back until you started it up again. When you are doing complex stuff like Web serving, you take the chance that the process serving the request will fail. With IIS, if that third party code falls, that's it. It's done. With Apache, we just recreate the process. IIS 6.0 has gone to this model but it is moving a lot of the Web server down into the kernel. I want the kernel to be small and tight with as little code as possible. The more you put in the kernel the greater chance your operating system will fail. There are companies that have created Web servers for Unix that are in the kernel, but they are optional. Apache is also easy to extend. There is a whole community that is built up around Apache so if you need to do something that isn't out of the box, chances are you can find someone who has done it and you can download their model. And finally, security is a reality of life. There continue to be viruses and worms that target IIS. Apache issues security warnings occasionally, but they tend to be limited in scope. If there is a security hole in Apache, often you can work around it with a code fix, or you can change your configuration to work around the problem, depending on what the problem is, of course.

SearchWin2000: What are the disadvantages?

Ryan Bloom: Most Windows administrators want to see a nice graphical configuration program, and they want it integrated into the operating system. [With Apache] the configuration is done through a text file. Unix administrators consider this an advantage, but Windows administrators consider it a disadvantage. Apache is open source. That's good if you are a programmer but bad if you are a major company looking for a supported Web server. Big companies need someone to point their finger at, so if something goes wrong you can say, "fix it." You need the talent on staff or find a company that is willing to support Apache. IBM will, so will Covalent and maybe Red Hat. There were some performance problems running Apache on Windows, but that problem was solved with Apache 2.0.

SearchWin2000: Is there an average cost of setting up an Apache?

Ryan Bloom: [On the outset] costs between the two differ because IIS is bundled with Windows. If you are talking about IIS, you are talking about Microsoft Windows, and if you buy it as a server platform you are buying a high-end version of Windows. There is that cost, plus the cost of hiring an administrator to keep up with the patches. With Apache, if you are going for the open source version, the software is free. Most major Unix versions distribute a copy of Apache with their operating system bundled. There are administration costs, and how much they are depends on the [administrator's] familiarity with Apache. Usually with Apache, you can set it up once and forget about it. You have to monitor [Apache], but you can write tools and scripts. One of the major costs of a Web server is development costs. If you have people paid to create Web sites, then they need a way to test those sites. There are only two ways to do that. Every Web developer needs a copy of IIS to test things properly. You have to upload to a test server and surf the site. It's a major cost for IIS. For Apache, each developer can have a free copy.

Big companies need someone to point their finger at, so if something goes wrong you can say, "fix it." --Ryan Bloom

SearchWin2000: How do you deflect concerns that Apache might go away?

Ryan Bloom: It can't go away. There is no company to go out of business. Apache was started by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications which stopped developing the server. The guys using the NCSA server decided to fix the software, and over time it grew into Apache. If the Apache Software Foundation said it would no longer work on Apache, someone would pick it up. We can continue to get new blood, and new developers can improve the server over time.

SearchWin2000: Do you try to win over Windows administrators?

Ryan Bloom: No. The Apache Software Foundation has one goal, and that is to make the best Web server we can. If our user base dropped to almost to zero, we would write it for ourselves.

If the Apache Software Foundation said it would no longer work on Apache, someone would pick it up. We can continue to get new blood, and new developers can improve the server over time. -- Ryan Bloom

SearchWin2000: What reason do customers give for choosing IIS over Apache?

Ryan Bloom: It goes back to the disadvantages. If you have a Microsoft shop, that's a difficult place to sell into. They like the Microsoft way. But even Microsoft shops are looking at all the security holes, and they are scared.

Microsoft declined an interview for this story.

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