Wow, where to begin on this messy subject? Nginx vs. Litespeed vs. Apache…
If you haven’t heard of Litespeed, it is a web server application created by a company called Litespeed Technologies in 2006. Their goal from the beginning (and still today) is to directly compete with the open-source Apache web server — they do this by supporting very similar configuration features, such as .htaccess files, and in fact Litespeed is considered a “drop-in” replacement solution to Apache.
“Every good cause is worth some inefficiency.”
— Paul Samuelson
This means, for example, if you ran a web hosting company using Apache with the PHP-FPM handler for PHP processing, you could simply swap out Apache for Litespeed and pretty much everything else would continue working (at least, that’s the idea).
Of course, their feature-set doesn’t end there. They also began development of an entirely new PHP handler called LSPHP (a.k.a. LSAPI) which can replace whatever other PHP handler you were using with Apache, such as Apache’s own mod_PHP module (or suPHP, CGI, PHP-FPM, etc).
In the web dev world, this was historic. Litespeed Tech was the first time a private company had successfully developed not only a web server, but an accompanying PHP handler too (keep in mind that Apache is a non-profit organization, based on community contributions).
And boy, did Litespeed make sure everyone knew.
Over the ensuing decade or so, Litespeed engaged in evermore aggressive marketing, striking partnership after partnership with web hosting companies to make the switch to Litespeed. Not only were the products able to do the same thing that Apache’s did, but as a private company they promised customer support and better receptiveness to feature requests, and thus, a faster development cycle. To many web hosts tired of the slow-moving “open source community” and Apache, this sounded like music to their ears.
To many others, however, the aggressive growth of Litespeed has been a big red flag, and their business model is perceive to be just as evil as it is genius.
Imagine if a rich real estate developer moved into New York City, built a private hotel right next door to the United Nations, and began courting various diplomats from around the world telling them that the U.N. building was a bit old-fashioned and inefficient, and that hosting meetings in their private hotel would be more comfortable and lot more expedient than the goofy “committee hearings” going on next door full of arguments and discussions-galore…
Well, that is kind of what Litespeed was doing — trying to replace one of the only “neutral” watering holes on the internet where billion-dollar companies all met to work on and improve the Apache software (not to mention, Nginx, which had since turned into a large open source application of its own).
Add in the fact that their very ambitious (and talented) founder, George Wang, is a Chinese citizen, and that Litespeed’s Vice President is apparently his wife (also a Chinese citizen), and that his entire board of directors are Chinese businessmen despite claiming to have their headquarters in New Jersey, and well… the politics of the situation just get more suspect in this tech-war era between the Western world and China.
One of Litespeed’s favorite responses to criticism they are trying to “privatize” the Apache server’s marketshare is something like this: “Well, but Nginx also has a premium (paid) option! And look, we finally open sourced part of our software, it’s called OpenLiteSpeed!”
Of course, both of these points are rather intellectually dishonest propaganda (it gets worse in a moment).
Firstly, the entire history of Nginx was that like many incredibly popular FOSS projects, it was founded by a geeky Russian guy who was primarily passionate about the code, and not a business. It took years and years before Nginx Plus became a thing, let alone a serious thing. And even to this day, most web developers have never heard about it, since the free version of Nginx has all the features they would ever need. And that’s exactly how most FOSS projects thrive, because they are making a bit of money with a premium support service, but the vast majority of marketing/effort goes into the “free” side of the project.
The exact opposite is true for Litespeed. It took years, MANY years, before they finally released OpenLiteSpeed due to public pressure. And for the last few years of OLS existence, its reputation has been less-than-stellar, with sysadmins complaining that it is unstable and randomly crashes (unheard of in Apache/Nginx) and that so many features are locked away in Litespeed’s premium application and protected behind clever licenses than OLS is largely just a sales tool to make companies upgrade to Litespeed (or managed Litespeed hosting).
To make matters worse, they have spent the last few years aggressively distributing completely fraudulent benchmark graphics purporting to show that Litespeed is much, MUCH faster than both Apache and Nginx. Well-known Litespeed shills like Johnny Nguyen, and even some web hosts desperate to relaunch their dwindling relevance (like LiquidWeb) have jumped at the opportunity to spread this propaganda on behalf of Litespeed in some coordinated mafia-esque effort aimed at low-IQ website owners.
Phew! So, with all the political and dramatic background summarized, what is the real difference between Litespeed and Apache? Well, whether you like it not, one of the major things to consider will always be your political stance.
Do you want to support and improve a neutral open source project, or do you want to help a private company come one step closer to creating a shared web hosting software monopoly with their best friends (cPanel/Plesk and CloudLinux). For me, the decision is an easy one, if I ran a shared hosting company at least.
Technically speaking, as I have discussed on a few Stack Exchange threads, Litespeed can certainly claim (for the time being) that their software scales insanely high-traffic and high-load better than Apache. With their optimized LSAPI handler, LSCACHE (server-level caching), and faster development cycle that has already embraced HTTP/3 over UDP, Litespeed premium (not OpenLiteSpeed) is certainly a fantastic stack for web hosts looking to launch a shared hosting server that has a ton of RAM/CPU and can be overloaded with hundreds if not thousands of users. I must assume that for the foreseable future, Litespeed is going to continue outperforming Apache when benchmarking raw performance at insanely high traffic levels.
Why then, besides politics, do so many web hosts continue to use Apache?
And that’s the thing: Apache 2.4 is much, MUCH more powerful now than it used to be, and just like Litespeed, it is now event-driven architecture with multiple caching levels. Many people are simply not aware of this because a non-profit project like Apache just does not spend much time doing online marketing.
A web host that knows what its doing, and knows how many users/accounts are appropriate for the hardware resources of any given server, can achieve just as much stability and speed as a Litespeed server. And that’s not even getting into things like CDNs, remote MySQL databases, and other things that drastically reduce origin server load these days (meaning that more than ever, your origin server’s ability to scale matters less and less).
Attempting to compare Litespeed to Nginx is where us sysadmins have to crack a smile. Seriously? The folks at Litespeed were just asking for backlash the moment they decided to start spamming the internet with these claims that Litespeed is a better choice for CMS websites like WordPress than a standalone Nginx server…
And here’s why:
The vast, vast majority of high-traffic WordPress (and PHP-based CMS websites) are using Nginx, and that’s not going to change for a very long time. Server management companies like LittleBizzy don’t care whatsoever about Litespeed’s claim that they can scale a billion hits per second better than Nginx, because we are never going to switch to using Apache-ish servers… and because Nginx users nearly always fall into 2 different categories:
In both of these cases, bloated control panel software like cPanel/Plesk is not being used. Either a custom premium panel is designed for customers (e.g. WP Engine, Kinsta, Pagely, etc) or no control panel is used whatsever for ultimate simplicity/security (e.g. LittleBizzy or any other LEMP stack script you’ll find on GitHub). In other cases, a remote panel is used to manage all of your LEMP servers (e.g. ServerPilot, Runcloud, etc).
As you can see, it’s rather pointless and counter-intuitive to compare Litespeed (nearly always used with cPanel/shared hosting) and Nginx (never used with cPanel/shared hosting). Which is just another reason why Litespeed is annoying the entire web dev community with their “gotcha” spam, since it’s clearly aimed at confusing users who don’t know much about web servers but may have read one time that Nginx is a lighter/faster/secure solution than traditional shared hosting.
At the end of the day, whether you’re a non-tech-savvy website owner, or a web developer with a lot of experience, we should all keep in mind that technology changes constantly. What is true today literally might not be true tomorrow, so making grandiose claims (or steadfast conclusions) is usually not a very good idea.
This is precisely why keeping an open mind, and keeping discussions going, is so important.
Ultimately, it’s my opinion that Litespeed deserves tremendous credit for finding a way to improve upon the traditional Apache stack, but they also deserve tremendous criticism for their dishonest propaganda campaigns. (Perhaps if they had a few more culturally-aware Americans on their Board of Directors, they could have avoided the embarrassment.) I believe the web hosting industry and government agencies like the SEC should also remain skeptical and vigilant against any moves between cPanel and Litespeed to move toward a merger of any sort (remember, cPanel already acquired it’s biggest competitor, Plesk… yet another acqui-kill that the U.S. government allowed to happen without question).
It’s also my opinion that FOSS web servers are one of the most critical, if not THE most critical part of maintaining an open internet. A few years ago, the rush for “serverless” hosting quickly made developers realize it was actually more complicated than old-school web servers, and it also meant putting all your trust in a single CDN sometimes (such as GitHub pages, Cloudflare Pages, Amazon S3, etc). Thankfully that trend calmed down, and PHP and origin servers continue their widespread popularity.
But for those of us who cherish free speech, competition, community collaboration, and the open web… we should (and must) continue to support open source web servers. I’m glad that newer projects like Caddy and others are also shaking things up.
freelancinggig.com/blog/2018/04/25/apache-php-fpm-vs-nginx-php-fpm-performance-considerations/Last modified: 9 Nov, 2021
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