Every day, we come across or use various websites for one or the other reasons. But have you ever thought about how these websites run or provide you with the information you require? Well, this becomes possible because of a web server.
A webserver makes it possible for the websites to run and provide content as requested by the users. It is both hardware and software that responds to the clients with the requested content using the HTTP (HyperText Transfer Protocol) protocol or its secure variant, HTTPS (HyperText Transfer Protocol Secure).
In general, HTTP is an application layer protocol in the Internet Protocol Suite that primarily enables the communication between web servers and web browsers.
Through this blog post, we will make you familiar with a web server.
So, let us begin our discussion!
What is a Web Server?
A web server is simply a computer that stores, processes, and provides website files to web browsers as and when a client makes a request over the World Wide Web (WWW). In simple terms, a web server displays the website content it hosts to the users as requested. This is what we refer to as website hosting.
Alternatively, we can also say that a server is a combination of hardware and software that makes it possible to run websites.
Besides website hosting, a server can also facilitate the sending and receiving of emails over the internet using the SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol) protocol. In addition, it uses the FTP (File Transfer Protocol) protocol to process file transfer requests.
Moreover, web server hardware stores web server software and all other files of a website. In general, web server software is responsible for controlling the way users access the files stored on the server. It also consists of various components, with at least an HTTP server, which is a software that understands HTTP requests and URLs.
The following are the standard features that most web servers provide:
- File Logging: A log file is a file responsible for recording each and every event or activity that the web server performs, such as error logs, requests, and security. Every time the web server receives a new request, a new line of text gets added to the log file.
- Authentication: Most servers provide the authentication feature before they permit a particular client to access a website’s resource either partially or completely. The client needs to enter a username and password to access the website’s resources.
- Bandwidth Limiting: The bandwidth of a web server implies the amount of data it can transfer or process in a given time period. Bandwidth limiting ensures that the network is not oversaturated by controlling the speed of responses.
- Storage Space: Storage space is the amount of disk space on a web server available to store files. Through this storage space, we can determine whether a particular server is capable of hosting a website or not.
- Uptime: Server uptime refers to the amount of time it is functioning and processing requests or delivering files. The industry standard for server uptime is 99.99%.
Why Do We Use a Web Server?
Web servers have three primary uses, as follows:
- Host multiple websites or web applications.
- Process File Transfer Protocol (FTP) requests.
- Send and receive emails.
There are many web servers that support server-side scripting for employing scripts on web servers to customize their responses to the client. The server-side scripting runs on the server computer and offers a wide range of features, such as database access. Also, server-side scripting allows us to create HTML documents dynamically by using Active Server Pages (ASP).
How Does a Web Server Work?
A web server follows the client-server model , where the server responds with the appropriate website content to the client’s request.
Let us understand the working of a web server in detail below.
Consider that a user wants to access the content of a particular website and enters the URL of that website in a web browser. The web browser then obtains the IP address by translating the website’s URL via the Domain Name System (DNS) or searching it in its cache. This process enables the web browser to locate the web server that hosts the required website.
Later, the web browser makes an HTTP request to the web server to get a specific file. On the receipt of the HTTP request, the web server uses the HTTP server to process that request. Once the HTTP server accepts the request, it searches for the requested file.
Finally, the web server responds with the required file to the web browser, and the user is able to see the content.
However, if the HTTP server does not find the required file or fails to process the HTTP request, the user encounters an error message displayed in the browser.
Static Web Servers vs Dynamic Web Servers
Web servers are capable of handling static as well as dynamic content, i.e., they can store, process, and deliver static and dynamic web pages. Static web servers send files as it is to a web browser, while dynamic web servers update or alter files before sending them to a web browser.
The following table highlights the key differences between static and dynamic web servers:
|Static Web Servers
|Dynamic Web Servers
|Static web servers are the servers that transmit files to a web browser as it is or without any modifications.
|Dynamic web servers are the servers that update or alter the hosted files before sending them to a web browser.
|This type of web server comprises a computer and HTTP software.
|Along with a computer and an HTTP software, dynamic web servers comprise an additional software, consisting of an application server and databases.
|Static web servers take less time to load the website content.
|Dynamic web servers take relatively more time to load the website content.
|Unless the user manually makes modifications to the files hosted on static web servers, they won’t change.
|An application server in dynamic web servers updates or alters the hosted files on every user request.
Popular Web Servers in the Market
The following are the top web servers available in the market:
Apache HTTP Server is a free and open-source HTTP server for all the modern operating systems, including Microsoft Windows, Unix-like, and OpenVMS operating systems. It is available under Apache License 2.0. The primary objective of this server is to provide HTTP services in synchronization with the current HTTP standards.
Moreover, this server provides a wide range of features, from authentication schemes to supporting server-side scripting languages, including PHP, Perl, Python, and Tcl.
NGINX is yet another popular web server that we can also use as a reverse proxy, mail proxy, load balancer, and HTTP cache. It is a free and open-source server available under the 2-clause BSD license. NGINX is extremely easy to configure to use as a proxy server or to serve static web content.
Moreover, you can also deploy this server to serve dynamic web content on the network using FastCGI, WSGI application servers, or SCGI handlers for scripts. This server is known for its speed and efficiency since it is capable of handling multiple connections.
The Internet Information Services (IIS) is a closed, extensible web server software that Microsoft specially designed to use with the Windows NT family of operating systems. It supports a wide range of protocols, including HTTP, HTTPS, SMTP, FTP, FTPS, and NNTP.
Moreover, IIS has a lightweight version named IIS Express. It is available as a standalone freeware server. The best part of IIS Express is that you can install it on Windows XP and all other subsequent versions of Windows with Service Pack 3.
Lighttpd is an open-source, secure, and reliable web server. It is optimized for high-performance environments, and it is available under the revised BSD license. Its name is the combination of ‘light’ and ‘httpd’. The interesting thing about this server is that it consumes lower resources and utilizes CPU and memory more efficiently than other servers.
A web server is simply a computer consisting of hardware and software that stores, processes, and displays website content to the clients as and when requested. The primary functions of web servers are to host websites or web applications, facilitate sending and receiving of emails, and process the FTP requests.
Most web servers, whether they are static or dynamic, come with some standard features. These features include authentication, file logging, storage space, and bandwidth limiting.
We hope that this article has helped you in expanding your knowledge of web servers. Still, if you have any questions or want to share any additional information regarding this topic, feel free to post in the comments section below.
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