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Now that more websites are switching to a set-up with nginx in the front and Apache in the back (or a different webserver doing a better job at serving static media than Apache), I was wondering the following:

Would it make sense to put static media on a dedicated server (running nginx), instead of running nginx in front of Apache?

I'm not talking about budget, maintenance, etc. (I know that running 2 servers is more expensive than running 1). What I mean is:

How would you fully optimize a system dedicated to serving static files? What things can be done on the hardware and software level to optimize for static files that can't be done on a system that's also running Apache?

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You are right. Installing two servers instead of one should provide some advantage.

To be honest for serving static files I cannot see any advantage. For load balancing you can use either a dedicated load balancer or use DNS round robin. For fail-over you need some HA setup (see Pacemaker for more details).

So for serving static files I would take care on other elements like big bandwith of the Internet connection, fast HDD (or maybe a SDD) and more cores instead of much RAM (I wouldn't deny it). I would avoid virtualized server solutions and would take care to have sendfile installed and configured.

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