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Open-source Apache encroaches on Microsoft

Although Microsoft firmly believes its own Web server software is better than the Apache program, it turns out that the software giant has become one of many firms using Apache.

A development at Microsoft Network shows once again that the Web makes for some strange software bedfellows.

Although Microsoft firmly believes its own Web server software is better than the open-source Apache program, it turns out that the software giant has become one of many firms using Apache.

While the main Microsoft Network Web site uses Web server software based on Microsoft's Windows NT operating system, the personal home pages now offered as an MSN service are delivered by Apache.

The reason: The home page service, though carrying the MSN brand, is actually controlled by Talk City, a Microsoft spokesman said. Talk City, a company devoted to online communities, uses Apache Web servers to deliver Web pages to Internet browsers such as Netscape Navigator.

MSN began offering personal Web pages to its subscribers June 30 under an agreement with Talk City, Microsoft said. Terms of the agreement weren't disclosed.

Apache is an increasingly popular open-source project, meaning that the software's original programming instructions may be freely shared, used, or modified by anyone. Apache is used in 56 percent of Web servers, according to the ongoing NetCraft study of Web server use. That far exceeds the second-place software, Microsoft's Internet Information Server or IIS, which is used by 22 percent.

The presence of Apache at the MSN home page site is indicated by messages from the server. For example, pointing a Web browser to an invalid address results in an error message that reads: "Apache/1.3.6 Server at homepages.msn.com."

The use of Apache at an MSN-branded site is reminiscent of Microsoft's efforts to convert its problematic Hotmail site from Sun servers to Windows NT servers. With 40 million Hotmail users, the changeover is a huge undertaking and still is expected to take another two years, a Microsoft spokesperson said.

The use of non-Microsoft software is interesting in light of the issues that high-tech companies face as they try to persuade others to buy their products. Some customers, for instance, may be left scratching their heads if a software behemoth with many products begins using outside methods to get the job done.

In an example of this perception issue from the chip realm, Intel still has not yet switched its own chip design methods completely over to Intel-based computers.

Use of Apache instead of IIS is revealing for other reasons as well, one being a Microsoft-sponsored study conducted by Mindcraft that found better performance from Microsoft Web server software.

According to the Mindcraft study, IIS on a Windows NT server outperformed Apache on a server running Red Hat's Linux. In response to widespread criticism from Linux advocates, Mindcraft re-ran the test with Red Hat and Microsoft representatives on hand, reaffirming its earlier results.