What is a web server and how does it work?

When you log on, whether to check social media or even read this article, you are using one or more web servers. They are an essential part of the modern Internet and they serve as a link between you and the website you are visiting.

But what is a web server and how does it work?

What does a web server do?

A web server is the computer that receives and responds to user requests to access a website. It consists of both hardware, in the form of the device carrying the data, and software in the form of the device’s operating system and web server software.

Web servers are close to telephones, not wires or the communication system. Web servers use various communication protocols to respond to client requests. The most commonly used is HTTP, which stands for Hypertext Transfer Protocol – a secure variant is HTTPS.

Other protocols include Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) and File Transfer Protocol (FTP).

Web servers are computers. But instead of letting you use them for various tasks, they often serve a single purpose. And like all computers, they need hardware to function.

The hardware part of a web server can be as big as the supercomputers used by internet companies, like Google and Facebook, or as small and simple as a laptop computer. The operating system, which can be anything from Windows and macOS to Linux, is what allows you to communicate with the server.

The simplest web server contains an HTTP server, a database, and at least one scripting language. They all work in tandem, allowing the server to request web pages and communicate with other online servers as needed.


How does a web server work?

Man using laptop connected to big server

Users can access web servers through the URL or domain names of websites with which the server can communicate. The software components do all the necessary processing and translation. It uses one of its scripting languages, such as PHP, Python, Ruby, or Java, to request a web page.

The server then downloads all requested files and media to its internal database before sending the content to your browser. This includes rich media, images and JavaScript files, and HTML web pages.

All you need to do is enter the correct server or URL “location”. Using the URL, your browser retrieves the IP address of the domain using the Domain Name System (DNS). When the web server receives and approves the request, it sends the web page you are looking for.

But sometimes things go wrong. If you attempt to access a page that you are not authorized to access, the server will refrain from serving the page. It responds instead with an error message telling you what went wrong, usually via an error code.

Remote or local web servers

Representation of web servers in the cloud

Since web servers are mostly hardware, they must exist in a physical location, even remotely. The vast majority of web servers are hosted remotely. As the name suggests, a remote server is a server that is not in the same location as the user.

When considering hosting your own website, you have the option of using remote servers or hosting yours locally. A remote web server, depending on the company you hire it from, may contain just your website or multiple websites with different URLs.

Read more: What is a URL?

But using a local web server often means turning your own laptop, computer or tablet into a web server. Then it can receive requests from other people’s browsers and grant them access to your website. However, you can also buy a dedicated server and keep and maintain it locally.

Choose the right server type

In the world of technology, you can find several tools performing similar tasks without being interchangeable. Before choosing a server type, make sure it meets your needs.

For example, a file server does not give you access to a website but acts as a storage unit for files and documents. You can use a file server to store files alongside a web server, but you cannot use it to host an entire website for open or limited access.

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