5 Lightweight Alternatives to Apache and IIS Web Servers

Nearly everybody has heard of Apache and IIS web servers. They are the top two web servers in terms of popularity. But Apache and IIS are not the only capable web servers around.

There are many excellent web servers available that provide a high-performance alternative to either of the top dogs.

But what should a capable web server provide? Here are some essential criteria:

  • High level of scalability
  • Stability
  • Easy configuration
  • Lightweight: Low CPU load, small resource usage, low memory footprint

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5 Realistic Alternatives to Apache and IIS

Many of these alternative web servers are free to use. Nearly all offer a lightweight, highly scalable server solution. Some even outperform both Apache and IIS in terms of overall speed. The 5 web servers we will be looking at as real alternatives to Apache and IIS are:

  • Nginx
  • LiteSpeed
  • Lighttpd
  • Hiawatha
  • Cherokee


Developed by Igor Sysoev in 2002, Nginx was finally released to the public in 2004 and continues to grow in popularity every year. Nginx is an open-sourced, free HTTP server and reverse proxy. It can also act as an IMAP/POP3 server. Benefiting from being fully scalable, Nginx combines the use of a predictable small amount of memory with asynchronous architecture, resulting in a small memory footprint and low resource consumption. Nginx offers a high-performance, stable environment and is currently the chosen web server for WordPress, SourceForge, and TorrentReactor. Nginx is currently the 3rd most popular web server (behind Apache and IIS) with a market share of 7.65% (according to Netcraft’s March 2011 survey).


Another highly popular web server, LiteSpeed is owned by LiteSpeed Technologies Inc. and was created in 2002. LiteSpeed is alleged to be:

  • 6 times faster overall than Apache
  • 50% faster in PHP content delivery than Apache (with mod_php)
  • 3 times faster than Apache in SSL

LiteSpeed is a highly scalable web server providing a high-performance service. LiteSpeed is completely interchangeable with Apache and is designed to work with the most popular control panels, including cPanel and DirectAdmin.


Lighttpd (pronounced ‘lighty’) is another low memory footprint server that offers high-performance with stability, flexibility, and speed. Developed by Jan Kneschke and released in 2003, Lighttpd uses a light CPU load and features speed optimizing technology – making it perfect for servers currently suffering from load problems. Currently 5th on Netcrafts March 2011 web server survey, Lighttpd is the web server software of choice for sites like YouTube, The Pirate Bay, and Meebo.


Hiawatha a Unix web server with advanced security features. Created in 2002 by Hugo Leisink, Hiawatha is still being actively developed. The last stable upgrade was v7.0 released in February 2010. Although optimized for a PHP framework, Hiawatha has the ability to run any CGI/Fast CGI application. Hiawatha’s many security features include:

  • Preventing SQL-injections
  • CSRF prevention
  • Denial of Service (DoS) protection
  • Banning of potential hackers
  • Limiting the run-time of CGI applications

The Hiawatha web server can run on Linux, BSD, MacOS X and Windows.


Cherokee is a fast, easy-to-configure web server that supports the latest technologies such as: FastCGI, SCGI, SSI, PHP, TLS, and SSL. It offers a flexible solution and is free to use. Cherokee web server comes complete with the cherokee-admin interface and Cherokee Market making it a great option for anyone looking for a simple, scalable, fast web server that is easy to set up and maintain.

Can These Web Servers Replace Apache or IIS?

In a word, yes. Many of the web servers described above are faster and more efficient than either Apache or IIS. Just because Apache and IIS have the lion’s share of the market does not necessarily infer they are superior in performance. In particular, Nginx, Lighttpd, and LiteSpeed are technologically superior to Apache and IIS in certain aspects and often out-perform both in field tests.

So why would you make the switch? Well if you have any speed-related issues with your Apache or IIS server (bottle-necking for example) it may be time to consider changing to one of the faster, lightweight web servers mentioned above. Compatibility is less of an issue nowadays and most web servers are cross-platform compatible (if you’re planning to run .NET applications on these servers, do check out Mono Project). Switching from Apache or IIS to another web server is no longer the headache it used to be.

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