What Is a Web Server and How Does It Work?

When you go online, whether to check social media or even read this article, you’re using one or more web servers. These are an essential component of the modern internet and work as the connecting link between you and the website you’re 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 users’ 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 OS and the web server software.

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

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

Web servers are computers. But instead of allowing you to use them for various tasks, they often have a single purpose. And just like all computers, they need hardware to run on.

The hardware portion of a web server can be as grand as super computers used by internet companies, like Google and Facebook, or as small and simple as a laptop. The OS, which could 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 servers online as needed.

How Does a Web Server Work?

Man using a laptop connected to a big server

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

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

All you have to do is input the right ‘location’ of the server or URL. Using the URL, your browser fetches the domain’s IP address using the Domain Name System (DNS). When the web server receives and approves the request, it sends the web page you’re looking for.

But things sometimes go wrong. If you’re attempting to access a page that you don’t have permission to access, the server would abstain from delivering the page. It responds instead with an error message informing you of what went wrong, usually through an error code.

Remote vs. Local Web Servers

Depiction of web servers in the cloud

Since web servers are mainly hardware, they need to exist somewhere physical, even if remotely. The vast majority of web servers are hosted remotely. As the name suggests, a remote server is a server that isn’t in the same location as the user.

When you’re planning 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 that you rent it from—may contain only your website, or multiple websites with different URLs.

Read More: What Is a URL?

But using a local web server often means transforming 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 purchase a dedicated server, and keep and maintain it locally.

Choose the Right Type of Server

In the world of tech, you may find multiple tools doing similar tasks without being interchangeable. Before committing to a server type, ensure it suits your needs.

For instance, a file server doesn’t grant you access to a website but poses as 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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