May 20, 2023

Nginx (pronounced “engine-x”) is an open-source web server software that also serves as a reverse proxy, load balancer, mail proxy, and HTTP cache. It was initially released in 2004 by Igor Sysoev, a Russian software engineer, as a response to the C10k problem, which refers to the difficulty faced by web servers when handling 10,000 simultaneous connections. Nginx has since gained popularity due to its high performance, stability, and low resource consumption. As of April 2023, Nginx is the most widely used web server across all domains, with a 34.4% market share.

Design and Architecture

Nginx’s architecture is designed to be event-driven, asynchronous, and non-blocking. This design allows it to efficiently handle a large number of simultaneous connections without consuming significant system resources. Nginx achieves this by employing a master-worker model, where a single master process manages multiple worker processes. The worker processes handle incoming client requests, while the master process oversees worker processes and handles tasks such as configuration and maintenance.

Unlike traditional web servers, which use a thread or process per connection, Nginx’s event-driven approach processes multiple connections within a single worker process. This eliminates the need for creating and managing a large number of threads or processes, thereby reducing the overhead and improving the server’s performance.

Core Features

Web Server

Nginx can be used as a standalone web server to host static and dynamic websites. It is capable of serving static files such as HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, as well as proxying requests to backend servers for dynamic content generation. Nginx’s ability to handle a large number of connections makes it a popular choice for serving static assets in high-traffic websites.

Reverse Proxy

A reverse proxy is a server that forwards client requests to one or more backend servers, effectively hiding the identity and characteristics of the origin server. Nginx can be configured as a reverse proxy to balance the load among multiple backend servers, providing increased reliability and performance. Reverse proxying can also be used for security purposes, as it allows separation of the publicly accessible server from the internal network where the backend servers reside.

Load Balancer

Load balancing is the process of distributing incoming network traffic across multiple servers to ensure that no single server is overwhelmed with too much traffic. Nginx features a built-in load balancer that supports various load balancing algorithms, including round-robin, least connections, and IP hash. Nginx can also perform health checks on backend servers and automatically remove any unresponsive servers from the load balancing pool.

HTTP Cache

Nginx can be configured as an HTTP cache, storing copies of responses from backend servers and serving those cached responses to clients. This can significantly decrease the load on the backend servers and improve the overall performance of the system. Nginx’s caching mechanism is highly configurable, allowing administrators to set cache lifetimes, storage locations, and cache keys according to their needs.

Mail Proxy

Nginx can act as a mail proxy server, handling incoming SMTP, POP3, and IMAP connections, and forwarding them to the appropriate backend mail server. This feature enables load balancing of mail traffic, as well as SSL/TLS encryption for secure email communication.

Use Cases and Adoption

Nginx is widely used by organizations of all sizes, ranging from small startups to large enterprises, due to its versatility and high performance. It is particularly popular among high-traffic websites, as its event-driven architecture allows it to efficiently handle a large number of simultaneous connections. Some notable companies using Nginx include Netflix, Dropbox, Airbnb, and

In addition to its use as a web server, Nginx is also commonly used in microservices architectures and containerized applications. Its lightweight nature and ability to act as a reverse proxy and load balancer make it an ideal component in these environments.

Licensing and Distribution

Nginx is distributed under a dual-licensing model. The open-source version, known as Nginx Open Source, is released under the terms of the 2-clause BSD-like license. This allows for free use, modification, and distribution of the software, with certain conditions.

There is also a commercial version called Nginx Plus, which is available under a subscription-based model. Nginx Plus includes additional features not found in the open-source version, such as advanced load balancing algorithms, active health checks, and dynamic configuration updates. It also comes with enterprise-level support and professional services.