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Jenna Inouye | 26 Jan, 2024

What is a Web Server and How Do They Work? Ultimate Guide [2024]

A web server is a computer system that stores and serves files for a website. Every website you've ever visited is hosted on a web server. When you type in a web address like www.example.com, your computer contacts the example.com server and requests the webpage stored there. The server then sends the requested web page to your computer, and your browser displays it.

Web servers are either hardware or software. Hardware web servers are physical computers that store website files and handle requests for those files from other computers. Software web servers are programs that run on physical computers and mimic the functionality of a hardware server. By the same token, "web server" can denote the hardware itself (the physical server) or the software architecture that runs the server.

What is a Web Server?

Web server definition: Hardware or software internet server that serves users with both static and dynamic websites.

What Does a Web Server Do? How Do Web Servers Work?

A web server stores a website’s files in its file system. When a user requests a page from the website, the web server looks up the file in its file system and serves it to the user. If it cannot find the requested file, the web server will return a 404 error. If the file is found but cannot be rendered, the server will produce a different error (such as a runtime error).

You would traditionally use a domain name to access a web server. For example, you would type in "Google.com." This "Google.com" request then goes to a domain name server. Next, the domain name server queries itself and asks: 

What is the internet server associated with that address? 

It then redirects the requests to that server.

In the old days, a server was often a single computer. Now, servers are dense networks of computers hosted in server farms.

What is a Server Farm?

So, imagine a server farm as a big group of computers (called servers) all hanging out together, working as a team. Instead of one computer doing all the hard work, these buddies split the tasks among them. It's like a group project where everyone shares the load.

Here are the benefits of a server farm.

  • Backup Buddies: If one computer needs a break (or crashes), another one's got its back.
  • Teamwork: They spread out the tasks, so no single computer gets too stressed out. Faster results!
  • More the Merrier: If they need more help, they just invite more computer pals to the party.
  • Easier to Manage: Think of it like organizing one big party instead of lots of small ones.

These computer parties are often thrown in special places called data centers, which are like super-secure clubhouses with air conditioning, power backups, and tight security.

And fun fact, companies like Amazon, Google, and Microsoft have some of the biggest computer parties (server farms) that power a lot of the internet.

Why Would You Need a Web Server?

You need web servers to create websites, like Google or Amazon. For this, you can use AWS. They manage the hosting for you.  Otherwise, you'll need to find another solution.

Without one, you’d have to store website files on your personal computer. Then, you could only access your website when your computer was turned on. 

Things get confusing when you remember web servers can either be hardware or software. For instance, the Apache Web Server is a software solution installed on a hardware computer to make the computer into a server.

Types of Web Servers: Dedicated, Shared, and Virtual

There are three primary web server types: dedicated, shared, and virtual. Virtual web servers (software-only web servers) can make the distinctions a little confusing.

  • Dedicated web servers are single servers leased to or owned by a single customer. Server software is installed on a physical server, and the physical server serves the website.
  • Shared web servers are single software servers that provide a server for multiple customer websites. Shared servers can save a bunch of money over dedicated servers.
  • Virtual web servers are created by partitioning a physical server’s resources into multiple virtual servers. Virtual servers differ from shared servers because each “instance” acts as though it’s a separate hardware server, and each has a separate software server installation.

Dedicated servers are expensive but robust. Shared web servers are more affordable but generally have fewer resources available. They may be slower and unable to manage higher-capacity websites. Managed hosting services like Amazon's can also help with this, if you aren't looking to manage the servers yourself.

What is a Server on the Internet?

What is an internet server? You may have noticed we're talking about "web" servers. But another common type of server is a "mail" server, which only serves emails. Another type of server is a "file" server, which only serves files. All these servers work similarly; a web server is simply a server that serves web-based content.

What is a Virtual Web Server?

Imagine a big, spacious room. That's your computer server. Now imagine there's only one person hanging out there. That's a website.

Seems like a waste of space, right?

Well, what if you could throw multiple parties (websites) in that same room, each having its own separate space, without any of the parties knowing about the others? That's what a virtual web server does!

A virtual web server is like a magical room divider inside our big room (the computer). It allows you to host multiple mini-parties (websites) separately, and each one thinks it's got the whole room to itself! 🎉

This means you can have a birthday bash, a karaoke night, and a taco Tuesday all happening at the same time in the same room, but each one is in its own bubble, not bothering the others. In computer-terminology, each website thinks it's on its own server, but really, they're sharing the big server room, thanks to this virtual divider magic!

So, a virtual web server is a cool way to make the most out of our computer's space and resources, allowing many websites to coexist happily! 

Dynamic vs. Static Web Servers

Dynamic web servers serve dynamic content: content that changes based on user input or other factors. On the other hand, static web servers only serve static content (content that doesn't change).

Dynamic content is typically generated by a server-side scripting language like PHP, Ruby on Rails, or ASP.NET. Static content is simply any content that doesn't need to be generated by a server-side scripting language. This includes HTML pages, images, CSS files, and JavaScript files. 

Nearly all of today’s web servers are dynamic. 

Static web servers are most frequently found as CDNs — content delivery networks that facilitate the faster recovery of certain forms of static content.

Web Servers vs. Web Hosts

In the old days, people could host a web server from their house or apartment. Today, people expect web services to be online all the time. Consequently, most people outsource their web services to a web host.

A web host is a company that owns or leases web servers and makes them available to customers. When you buy hosting for your website, you're simply renting space on a web server from a web host.

Some web hosts offer additional services like email hosting, domain name registration, and site builder tools. These services are usually optional; you don't need to buy them from your web host to have a functioning website. However, they can be convenient, and some website owners prefer to purchase all services from a single provider.

Web Servers vs. Cloud Servers

In recent years, a new type of server has become popular: the cloud server. Cloud servers are hosted on a "cloud computing" platform. These platforms allow customers to rent access to various resources, including web servers.

Cloud servers have many advantages over traditional web servers. They're usually more scalable, meaning they’re better equipped to handle traffic spikes. They're also more reliable since cloud servers are typically hosted on clusters of physical servers.

But cloud servers can be more expensive than traditional web servers because you pay based on the resources you use. 

Top Web Server Software on the Market

Now you know the basics of web servers, let’s look at some of the most popular web server software on the market.

  • Apache HTTP Server. The Apache HTTP Server is the world’s most popular web server software. It's used by over half of all websites and is available for free. It’s part of the popular LAMP stack (Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP) for web development.
  • Microsoft IIS. The Microsoft IIS web server is likely the second most popular web server software. Unlike Apache, it's a proprietary solution, but it's included in some Windows packages.
  • nginx. Nginx is a popular alternative to Apache. It's known for its high performance and low resource usage.
  • Lighttpd. Lighttpd is another popular alternative to Apache and IIS. It's designed for high-traffic websites like Wikipedia and Flickr.

While web server software is important, the hardware you use is also critical. A powerful processor and plenty of RAM are essential for a high-traffic website.

Top Web Hosting Services on the Market

Basics of web servers and web server software? Check. Now, let’s look at popular web hosting services. Web hosting services provide all of a web server’s benefits without having to manage a web server on your own.

  • Bluehost: Bluehost is one of the world’s largest and most popular web hosts. It offers various hosting plans at different price points.
  • HostGator: HostGator is another well-known web host. It offers many hosting plans, including shared, VPS, and dedicated plans.
  • InMotion Hosting: InMotion Hosting is known for its fast speeds and excellent customer service.
  • A2 Hosting: A2 Hosting offers a variety of hosting plans, including shared, VPS, and dedicated plans.
  • SiteGround: SiteGround is a popular web host known for fast speeds, excellent customer service, and affordable prices.

Why Use a Managed Web Hosting Service?

So, imagine you're throwing a big party at a venue. Now, you have two choices:

  1. DIY (Do It Yourself): You bring your own food, drinks, decorations, sound system, and then clean up the mess afterwards. More work for you, but hey, it might be cheaper and you have full control.
  2. Full-Service Party Package: The venue does it all! They set up, cater, provide the music, and clean up afterwards. All you gotta do is show up and have fun!

Managed web hosting is like that full-service party package. Instead of managing all the server stuff yourself (like security, backups, software updates), you let the hosting company take care of it.

So why would you use managed web hosting? 

  • Less Stress: Like not having to worry about the nitty-gritty of party planning, you don't need to fret about server hiccups.
  • Expert Help: If the sound system goes wonky during the party, there's a crew to fix it. Similarly, if there's a server issue, there's a tech team on standby.
  • Up-to-Date: Just as the venue might have the latest party gadgets and lights, managed hosting ensures your server software is always updated.
  • Security: Managed hosts are like venue bouncers. They keep an eye on things and fend off any unwanted party crashers (hackers).
  • Backups: Ever wish you could rewind a party gone wrong? Managed hosting often includes regular backups, letting you restore your website if things go south.

Now, it might cost a bit more than DIY hosting, just like a full-service party package might cost more than a potluck. But many folks find it worth the cost for peace of mind and more time to focus on their actual website (or, in our analogy, just dancing the night away!).

Web Server Security Practices

Security is always a top concern for web servers. Here are a few best practices to keep in mind:

  • Keep your software up to date. One of the easiest ways to secure your web server is to keep your software up to date. This includes the operating system, web server software, and any plugins or modules that you use. As vulnerabilities are discovered, they are swiftly patched. If you don’t download the patches, you remain a target.
  • Use strong passwords. Another simple way to increase security is to use strong passwords for all accounts. This includes the root account, administrator account, and any other user accounts.
  • Disable unnecessary services. Disable any services that aren’t absolutely necessary. The fewer services running, the less likely one will be exploited.
  • Restrict access. Restrict access to your web server only to those who need it. This includes using a firewall to block unwanted traffic.
  • Turn on SSL. An SSL certificate encrypts traffic to and from your web server, protecting it from intrusion.

Luckily, most web hosting companies also provide security services. Not only could your site be taken down and your files deleted, but users who visit your site could have their own computers compromised.

Conclusion

Signing up for a web server is the first step toward creating your own web applications. While you can use a dev kit to create websites on your computer, no one will be able to visit it until you have a web server setup.

Want to learn more about web servers? Sign up for a web hosting account. Of course, there's also a way to do it yourself. We recently discussed How to Create a Python Web Server.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is a Web Server (Simple Definition)?

A web server is any computer or software that stores websites and serves them to users on the internet. “Web server” can refer to the physical computer or the software on the computer that enables the service.

2. What is a Web Server Used For?

A web server is used to store websites and serve them to users on the internet. Web servers drive the vast majority of the visible internet. Web servers can also be used to enable some types of mobile applications.

3. What is an Example of a Web Server?

Amazon's "Amazon Web Services" include a web service called Amazon Lightsail. There are also virtual private servers (VPS), which mimic a complete hardware server—but they're really multiple virtual servers on a single machine.

4. Is Google a Web Server?

Google is not a web server, but Google runs on a server. The server for website properties such as Google needs to be extraordinarily robust, as Google serves many copies of its website daily.

5. What is the difference between a Server and a Web Server?

A server is any computer that stores data and serves it to users. A web server stores websites and serves them to users on the internet.

6. How Does a Web Server Work?

A web server is connected to the internet. When someone wants to connect to the web server, the web server is sent a list of files that the user wants to view. Those files are then rendered on the server and then sent to the user's browser, where it is rendered in the user's browser.

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By Jenna Inouye

Jenna Inouye currently works at Google and has been a full-stack developer for two decades, specializing in web application design and development. She is a tech expert with a B.S. in Information & Computer Science and MCITP certification. For the last eight years, she has worked as a news and feature writer focusing on technology and finance, with bylines in Udemy, SVG, The Gamer, Productivity Spot, and Spreadsheet Point.

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