WebCom secrets: How we hosted 70,000 domains on one Apache instance

A chief virtue of time is that it provides distance. Time is the 4th dimension we live in and it gives us the opportunity to share what once was, without fear of reprisal. It has been 12 years since I was let go from Verio, almost as much time as I worked for WebCom/Verio/NTT. I feel there is enough distance between then and now to share some secrets without fear of reprisal.

WebCom did things differently, we pioneered name-based virtual hosting and we learned how to do more with less. Back when WebCom was starting to do name-based hosting it was common for many providers to put 2,000 IP addresses on an SGI machine running IRIX. I assume that the allure of SGI had to do with decent horsepower and a BSD derived OS that could host a lot of IP addresses per NIC. Back then the BSD network stack was considered to be one of the best.

When I started we had HP PA-RISC machines, a Sun 4/330, and a Windows NT 3.51 486 running MS SQL Server (Sybase). By the end of the year we’d signed a lease on a Sun Enterprise 1000 server, a piece of “big iron” at the time. I think we had 4 SuperSPARC processors and 512MB of RAM. We looked at offering IP based hosting on Sun, but their OS only allowed up to 255 IPs per NIC. We briefly considered an inexpensive array of SCO Unix boxes, but Linux was never in the running because Chris considered it an immature OS. I spent my entire career there championing Linux, and winning.

We decided to go the Big Ole Server route with Sun, first with the S1000E, then an Enterprise 4000 in 1997. Early on we ran Netscape Enterprise Server, a commercial web server product from Netscape, written by the same people who wrote NCSA httpd. This was a modular web server with a plugin architecture and it could be expanded by writing NSAPI modules to perform actions in the chain of operations. Apache wasn’t really on the radar at this point. Chris wrote the first name-based hosting plugin for Netscape, this solution lasted us until around 20,000 domains, then the underlying architecture of Netscape became a bottleneck.

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