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Comments on Using an existing web server vs writing your own

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Using an existing web server vs writing your own

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When writing a dynamic web service, you broadly speaking have two paths:

  1. Use an existing web server (e.g. Apache, Nginx or Lighttpd) to handle the "raw" web requests and implement your own code as a separate process that communicates with the server using a gateway protocol (e.g. FastCGI). A typical PHP service is a great example of this.

  2. Skip the general purpose web server altogether and write your program to handle the requests directly. Typically you would use some web framework which takes care of most technicalities. Services written in Rust tend to take this path.

My question is that if you are using a language that is generally suitable for implementing a standalone web server (such as Rust), is there any advantage with the first path? General pros and cons of both architectures are also welcome.

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3rd Option: You put a web server like Nginx, etc in front of your application server which can also handle 'raw' network traffic. Even in the PHP scenario this is common.

There are a few reason I do this:

  • Something like Nginx is more tested than your framework's internal networking code. So it's safer to be exposed to the internet. Its scope is more limited (ie it only does networking) which means there's less to be exploited. This security applies strictly to the handling of network requests, obviously your application can still be exploited in other ways even behind a proxy.
  • There are more 'network transport' level features that are going to be available because that's all those those products are designed to do.
  • There are some tasks that don't make sense to include in your application code at all. For example load balancing between several copies of your application server.
  • You can hand off your application server to a devops/sysadmin and let them manage the network traffic. If the application is designed to solely handle its own traffic, those teammates will now need to know how to code in your language to configure it.
  • Simplifies your application server code. For example, handling HTTPS can require extra configuration specific to your framework. You'll still require that configuration if you put an existing web server in front of you application server but there is likely to be much more resources available for figuring out how to do that.

I'm not familiar with Rust, but in ASP.net there's Kestrel which is a webserver built into the framework. But typically you would not deploy it facing the internet.

Their reasoning (reverse proxy being the 'existing web server'):

Even if a reverse proxy server isn't required, using a reverse proxy server might be a good choice. A reverse proxy:

  • Can limit the exposed public surface area of the apps that it hosts.
  • Provides an additional layer of configuration and defense.
  • Might integrate better with existing infrastructure.
  • Simplifies load balancing and secure communication (HTTPS) configuration. Only the reverse proxy server requires the X.509 certificate for the public domain(s). That server can communicate with the app's servers on the internal network using plain HTTP or HTTPS with locally managed certificates. Internal HTTPS increases security but adds significant overhead.

The only case where I wouldn't care to put a proxy in front of my application server would be for proofs of concept and application servers that don't face the internet.

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Yes, a reverse proxy is a good idea, but this doesn't really address the architectural dilemma of the... (4 comments)
Yes, a reverse proxy is a good idea, but this doesn't really address the architectural dilemma of the...
Iizuki‭ wrote 4 months ago

Yes, a reverse proxy is a good idea, but this doesn't really address the architectural dilemma of the service behind it.

An interesting thought: A reverse proxy can be remarkably similar to the web server in path 1. You could say that it's just a difference of protocol (HTTP or e.g. CGI). But as you say, there are features like load balancing which definitely break the symmetry.

jmathew‭ wrote 4 months ago

I think your thought answers the architectural dilemma if I'm understanding what you mean by dilemma correctly.

Your application server needs to communicate somehow and why not HTTP? It creates a nice developer experience locally since you can talk to it using HTTP tools which are abundant and when things get too serious its easy enough to put it behind something more capable. There's overlap, but in the way a chef's services overlap a home cook's.

As another example, pgpool sits in front of postgres servers even though postgres can handle direct connections; except its very easy to exhaust the total number of connections if you connect directly without your applications being careful. Pgpool removes that burden from applications. Not being able to connect at all without Pgpool would be a bad experience, but fully baking in pgpool wouldnt make sense when you have multiple dbs behind the same pgpool instance.

Iizuki‭ wrote 4 months ago

So you hold that there's no point in working with gateway protocols (CGI etc.), if you anyway have a reverse proxy in front (and your tooling doesn't force you to do so)?

jmathew‭ wrote 4 months ago

Yes, if you have alternatives, don't directly using gateway protocols. However, its not about the reverse proxy sitting in front so much as how limiting working with something like FastCGI in general will be compared to a framework that communicates via an HTTP server.