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What Is A Web Server And How Does It Work?

WRITTEN BY
Daren Low
UPDATED
May 25, 2024

 

Have you ever wondered where all of the information on the internet is stored? Think about it. When you make a search request for something on the internet… Where does the response come from? Where is the information you see on your device located before reaching you?

 

Well, you have web servers to thank for this. If you don’t know what they are, this article is for you.

 

 

In the following sections, We’ll tell you everything you need to know about web servers and explain how they form the backbone of the world wide web, and website hosting services.

 

What Is A Web Server?

 

The term “web server” refers to hardware and software that use HTTP (or Hyper Text Transfer Protocol) to respond to client requests over the internet.

 

On the hardware end, web servers are essentially specialized computers that store the data and files of different businesses and websites, along with web server software. These physical computers connect to each other to form the world wide web and allow for the physical exchange of data among all connected devices.

 

On the software end, web servers are responsible for processing the data stored in the server, understanding URLs, understanding HTTP requests, and responding to them by sending the relevant data to users’ IP addresses.

 

What is HTTP?

 

Well, in a nutshell, HTTP is a protocol that dictates how information is transferred between networked devices. This protocol lays the foundation for how most information is shared or transferred in the client-server model.

 

What is “client-server” model?

 

Well, when you (the client) search for something on your browser, you essentially send a request to the server that stores that information to release that information to your IP address. The server processes your request, searches for the appropriate response, and sends that information to you.

 

If the server does not have the information you requested, the server will send you an error 404 response.

 

404 error page on google

An example of a 404 error on Google.

 

This “client-server” model is the backbone of the world wide web, which means that web servers play a crucial role in how the internet functions today.

 

By the way, HTTP isn’t the only data transfer protocol that web servers support; In addition to HTTP, web servers also support SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol) and FTP (File Transfer Protocol); these protocols give email and other transfer support to web servers.

 

 

What Features Does A Web Server Offer?

 

Now that we know what web servers are, let’s look at some standard features you can expect to find in almost any web server:

 

Web server features Descriptions
File Logging Web servers keep track of the actions they perform i.e., the requests received, responses sent, and more.
Bandwidth Limiting This moderates the transfer speed of the responses sent to clients- this ensures that the network doesn’t get overloaded with data and that everything transfers smoothly.
Storage The amount of storage space available on each server varies, but the more storage space a server has, the more the number of websites or data it can host.
Authentication Servers’ authentication features allow website owners to set login credentials that limit people’s access to certain data on the website.
Programming Servers have their own programming language that can be used to create or develop different programs executed by the server.
Uptime This feature allows servers to track the amount of time they take to process and respond to requests. Additionally, this feature allows servers to track how much time users spend on the websites they host.

 

 

How Does A Web Server Work?

 

In this section, we’re going to move on to take a brief look at how a server works, so we can understand what they do better.

 

We mentioned how web servers use HTTP to communicate with other servers/ computers. But servers would be useless if there weren’t a way for humans to communicate with them.

 

This is where domain names come in. Put simply; domain names are the words that you type on your browser’s search bar to reach a particular website.

 

physical server

Servers connect to other servers/ computers to form the backbone of the World Wide Web.

 

Now, ideally, you’d want to have the website’s entire URL to reach it directly, but since URLs are complicated and long, the DNS (or the domain name system) had to be created to make it easier for us to reach websites.

 

When you enter a website’s domain name or URL on your browser’s search bar, your browser uses HTTP to send your request to the relevant server. The software HTTP server will then accept the request, find the website/ webpage you’re looking for, and send the information back to you through HTTP.

 

Here’s the process in detailed steps:

 

  1. You enter the URL or domain name of the website you want to visit and hit search.
  2. The browser will find the IP address of the requested domain name.
  3. This IP address will help your browser reach the server it wants to communicate with and get the information from.
  4. Now, the browser will request the relevant files from the web server (using HTTP).
  5. The server will use HTTP to either send that information to the requesting browser or use it to send a 404 error (in case the content does not exist or has been relocated).

 

For more info on this process – check our guide on DNS records.

 

 

What Is A Web Server Used For?

 

We’ve already discussed some of the basic functions of web servers in the sections above, but now we’re going to take a look at each of them in a bit more detail.

 

Web servers have three primary uses:

 

  1. Sending and receiving emails
  2. Processing FTP (or File Transfer Protocol) requests, and
  3. Hosting websites and web applications

 

Among these three, the most well-known use of servers is in the domain of website creation and hosting. Typically, when someone wants to host a website on a server, they don’t go ahead and buy their own dedicated server (this would be too costly and inefficient).

 

Instead, they would turn to web hosting companies (aka web hosts) that buy physical servers and rent space on those servers to different website owners. Many web hosts offer shared web hosting plans which allow several users to share server resources.

 

This way, website owners can host their websites on servers without worrying about the high up-front cost and the maintenance of physical web servers.

 

Other uses of web servers are rooted directly in their features. We’ve discussed these features above in detail, but here’s the list once again for your reference:

 

  • File logging
  • Bandwidth limiting
  • Storage
  • Programming
  • Time tracking (Uptime)
  • Authentication

 

 

Static Vs Dynamic Web Servers

 

To understand what static and dynamic web servers are, you first need to understand what static and dynamic content is.

 

Static content is any content that is served in its “as is” condition to any user at any point in time. For example, web pages that don’t display any real-time statistics are all examples of static content; any client requesting that page at any point in time will be delivered the same content.

 

Bitcatcha About Us page

Bitcatcha’s about does not change with time. Therefore, it is an example of static content.

 

On the flip side, dynamic content is content that is changed or updated over time. This means that two users accessing the same webpage at different times will be shown different content (updated). A good example of this is any website that displays live information about the stock prices of different companies.

 

Servers that host static content are called static web servers, and servers that host dynamic (or changing) content are called dynamic servers.

 

Coinbase.com shows updated figures of the prices and performance of different cryptocurrencies

Coinbase.com shows updated figures of the prices and performance of different cryptocurrencies. Therefore, it is an example of dynamic content.

 

Both have HTTP software, but dynamic servers also have access to databases and additional applications server software responsible for sending updated responses to client requests.

 

 

Common Types Of Web Servers

 

So far, you should have a decent grasp of web servers, how they work, and what they’re used for.

 

In this section, we will tell you about some popular servers you can check out to understand everything we’ve discussed so far.

 

  • Apache Web Server
    (AKA Apache HTTP server) this is an open-source server developed by Apache Software Foundation that is used to process and respond to client requests using HTTP. Additionally, this server uses the PHP programming language to create, store, and deliver dynamic content.
     
    The Apache Web Server is compatible with Windows, Mac OS, Linux, and many other operating systems.
  • Sun Java System Web Server
    This is a free web server owned by Sun Microsystems, and it is compatible with Windows, Unix, and Linux.
  • Linux Web Server
    Linux web servers are known for their high-performance speeds and data security features. This server is built on the Linux OS, allowing you to reliably deliver web content in different file forms to users.
  • Microsoft Internet Information Services (IIS)
    (AKA windows web server) This versatile web server is most commonly used in Windows OS to host web applications (ASP.NET and PHP) and WCF services.

 

 

Web Servers Vs Web Hosting – What’s The Difference?

 

The terms “web servers” and “web hosting” are related but not the same. Usually, when one of these terms is being discussed, the other term is almost always discussed.

 

For this reason, it is important to understand the difference between these terms (otherwise, you will risk incorrectly using them interchangeably).

 

Person standing on front of server room

Web hosting refers to the act of storing and maintaining website content on a server.

 

Put simply, web servers are software and hardware that physically connect to the internet to exchange data and transfer files. In relation to websites, web servers are essentially storage spaces where websites’ data is stored and maintained. This storing and maintenance function of web servers is called “web hosting,” i.e. when a website is hosted on a web server.

 

So, web servers are essentially storage spaces for websites, and the act of storing and maintaining websites on a web server is called web hosting. Read on for what is web hosting.

 

 

Web Servers Help Store & Distribute Data Across The Internet

 

To sum up, the term “web server” refers to software and hardware that uses HTTP and other protocols to store and process content. Servers connect to the internet and deliver the content they’re hosting to clients on request.

 

This content can either be static (constant) or dynamic (ever-changing or frequently updated).

 

The three primary uses of servers are:

 

  1. Sending and receiving emails
  2. Processing FTP (or File Transfer Protocol) requests, and
  3. Hosting websites and web applications

 

Lastly, it is important to understand that web servers and web hosting are different yet related terminologies. Web hosting describes the action of storing and maintaining website data in a server; web hosting is simply one of the functions of a web server.

 

 

 

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