What is a web server and how does it work?


When you log in, whether it’s to check out social media or even read this article, you are using one or more web servers. These are an essential part of the modern Internet and function as the connecting link between you and the website you are visiting.

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

What is a web server for?

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 as the device’s operating system and web server software.

Web servers are near phones, not wires or the communications 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 have just one purpose. And like all computers, they need hardware to run.

The hardware part of a web server can be as large as the supercomputers used by Internet companies, like Google and Facebook, or as small and simple as a laptop. 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 a big server

Users can access web servers through the URL or domain names of websites that the server can communicate with. 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 into its internal database before sending the content to your browser. This includes rich media files, images and JavaScript files, as well as HTML web pages.

All you need to do is enter the correct “location” of the server or URL. 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 try to access a page that you are not authorized to access, the server will refrain from delivering the page. Instead, it responds 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 primarily 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 you plan to host your own website, you have the option of using remote servers or hosting your own locally. A remote web server, depending on the company you rent 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, keep it and maintain it locally.

Choose the right type of server

In the tech world, you can find multiple tools performing similar tasks without being interchangeable. Before committing to any type of server, make sure that it suits your needs.

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


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