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Microsoft gains on open-source Web server rival

Fans of Linux and open-source software have some unpleasant news to reckon with in their ongoing struggle to dethrone the software potentate.

NEW YORK--Fans of Linux and open-source software have some unpleasant news to reckon with in their ongoing struggle to dethrone Microsoft.

The open-source Apache software continues to be the most popular server software for sending out Web pages, but Microsoft's competing product dominates in the high-end financial transaction part of that market, an ongoing Web server study from U.K. research firm Netcraft shows.

Netcraft said use of Apache slipped slightly, from 60 percent of Internet-connected servers to 59 percent between December and January. Meanwhile, Microsoft's IIS (Internet Information Server) captured a bigger slice, rising from nearly 20 percent to just over 21 percent.

More telling, though, was the gain Microsoft made in Netcraft's survey of usage of SSL (Secure Sockets Layer), the encryption technology that lets Web servers scramble credit card numbers and other information to be kept secret from prying eyes.

With SSL, "Microsoft makes consistent gains month after month, and now accounts for 49 percent of the sites performing encrypted transactions on the Internet," Netcraft said in an analysis of the most recent statistics.

The monthly update happened to come Thursday, in the middle of the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo in New York.

One possible reason for the success, Netcraft said, was that there's no straightforward competition to Microsoft's Commerce Server software package for Unix computers.

However, Red Hat, the leading seller of Unix clone Linux, is hoping to make a unified collection of e-commerce software to better compete with Microsoft's offerings. To attain this goal, the company acquired C2Net, whose version of Apache includes SSL features; Akopia for its e-commerce software; and Hell's Kitchen Software for processing credit card payments.

Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer has declared Linux to be his company's top competitive challenge. "I'd put the Linux phenomenon really as threat No. 1," he said in a January speech.

The Netcraft study also showed that the scripting language PHP is growing in popularity. It's now installed with nearly a third of the copies of Apache on the Internet and is gathering a broad development community comparatively quickly.

PHP, like competing Active Server Pages software from Microsoft and Java Server Pages from Sun Microsystems, is used to generating Web pages on the fly based on information retrieved from a database--for example, creating a page with results from a search.

A start-up called Zend is working to commercialize PHP with products that make it easier to develop PHP software and that speed PHP transactions.

Apache combined with PHP and the open-source MySQL database server is growing to be a standard threesome similar to Microsoft's trio of IIS, ASP and SQL Server software, Netcraft said.