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NGINX: Definition, Functions, Architecture & How It Works

Last updated: Jan 21, 2024

NGINX: Definition, Functions, Architecture & How It Works
Cover image: Illustration of NGINX.

What is NGINX?

NGINX (pronounced "engine-ex") is one of the open-source web server tools that operates as a reverse proxy server, load balancer, and HTTP cache.

NGINX web server was initially designed by Igor Sysoev as an efficient solution to address the C10k problem, where servers needed to handle 10,000 connections simultaneously.

Due to NGINX's outstanding scalability, many large websites leverage its services, including Google, WordPress, Netflix, Adobe, and many others.

Moreover, this web server also can integrate with various technologies and programming languages during the web development process.

Learn more about what is NGINX web server in the detailed discussion below.

NGINX vs Apache

After understanding what is NGINX, you might recall another type of web server, namely Apache.

Fundamentally, NGINX and Apache are two servers that have been widely used since the early 1990s. Some differences between NGINX vs Apache include:

  • Apache is an open-source HTTP server. NGINX serves asynchronously with high performance and functions as a reverse proxy server.
  • Support, maintenance, and bug fixes for Apache are managed by a global community. In contrast, the NGINX has been handled by a company of the same name since 2011.
  • NGINX is designed to handle many client requests simultaneously with minimal resources, while Apache provides a variety of multiprocessor modules to handle client requests.
  • Apache HTTP Server has a minimal multi-threaded architecture that lacks scalability. NGINX follows an event-driven asynchronous approach to handle many client requests.
  • Apache servers deliver static content using conventional methods, while NGINX cannot process dynamic content internally.
  • NGINX web server can process requests with 1000 static connections simultaneously, twice as fast as Apache.

NGINX Function

Fundamentally, the main function of NGINX is to create the fastest web server. In line with that, this tool can also serve as a proxy server and media streamer, to execute load balancing, and also perform content caching.

Furthermore, since its release, NGINX has continuously undergone significant development to support nearly all web components, such as HTTP/2, gRPC, WebSocket, RTMP, HLS, HDS, and more.

Other functions of NGINX include acting as an SSL/TLS terminator or web accelerator as it is responsible for handling tasks that have the potential to slow down a web server by negotiating SSL/TLS and compressing content.

NGINX Architecture

NGINX is a web server that implements an asynchronous, event-driven, and non-blocking model with a master-slave architecture.

In this context, the NGINX web server architecture consists of a "master" responsible for managing and coordinating processes and "slaves" responsible for handling client requests.

  • The master oversees all child processes (worker processes), manages and validates configurations, loads new configurations, and coordinates the activities of the entire server.
  • Workers/slaves are responsible for receiving new requests from sockets and running process loops to efficiently handle thousands of requests.
  • The cache proxy is responsible for loading the cache, checking each item, and supplementing the in-memory database with metadata cache so that the NGINX instance can process stored files in a structured manner.

How NGINX Works

To comprehensively understand what is NGINX, you should observe the illustration below.

When a user accesses a website or application hosted by NGINX, their request goes through several stages before generating the desired response.

Firstly, NGINX acts as a reverse proxy as it can receive requests from clients and forward them to the appropriate server.

In this process, NGINX performs various tasks, including load balancing, where traffic is evenly distributed among multiple backend servers to enhance performance.

Upon receiving a request from the client, NGINX decides which backend server to forward the request to based on the previously configured load balancing.

After forwarding the request to the backend server, NGINX then acts as an intermediary to collect the response from that server. Finally, NGINX sends this response back to the client.

In addition to the mentioned NGINX operations, this web server can also serve as a cache to store copies of static pages, speeding up response times and reducing the load on backend servers.

As NGINX is a web server implementing an event-driven connection handling model, it allows the server to manage numerous connections simultaneously without generating many threads.

The Advantages and Disadvantages of NGINX

When discussing types of web servers, there is no doubt that NGINX is one of the most popular options widely used by renowned brands.

Here are some advantages and disadvantages of NGINX.

NGINX Advantages

  • NGINX configuration is centralized in one application, making monitoring processes easier.
  • User-friendly for beginners with modules, tutorials, usage guides, and customer support.
  • Frequently innovates to meet the needs of the modern market.
  • Serves as a load balancer for software, API gateways, and web servers.
  • Helps expedite the development of applications and other technological infrastructure.

NGINX Disadvantages

  • The community support is narrower compared to Apache.
  • The number of add-ons in NGINX is considered less flexible.
  • NGINX web server performance on Windows is deemed less optimal compared to other platforms.
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