What Is a Web Server? How It Works and More

In simple terms, a web server is a computer that stores, processes, and delivers website files to web browsers.

Web servers consist of hardware and software that use Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) to respond to web users’ requests made via the World Wide Web.

Through this process, web servers load and deliver the requested page to the user’s browser – Google Chrome, for example.

Web servers also use Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) and File Transfer Protocol (FTP) to process files for email or storage.

So, what is a web server made of? On the hardware side, a web server connects to the internet, which enables it to exchange data or files between other devices that are likewise connected. This data can come in different forms, such as HTML files, images, JavaScript files, or CSS stylesheets. Web server hardware also stores web server software.

Web server software controls how web users access hosted files. It consists of several components, housing at least an HTTP server. An HTTP server is software that can understand HTTP requests and URLs.

Keep reading as this article will explain how a web server works, why we need them, and list some popular examples.

How Does a Web Server Work?

A scheme showing how a web server works

Web servers follow a client-server model. In this structure, one program, also known as the client, requests a resource or service from another program, the server.

To process web clients’ requests, web servers follow a few steps:

  1. When a web user wants to load a website’s content, their web browser requests access through the internet. This is called an HTTP request.
    The web browser looks for the requested website’s IP address by translating the URL of the web pages via the Domain Name System (DNS) or by searching through its cache. This process locates the web server where the site’s files are hosted.
  1. The web server receives the HTTP request and processes it through its HTTP server.
    Once its HTTP server accepts the request, it will search through server files to obtain the relevant data.
  1. After that, the web server returns the site files to the web browser that sent the request. Then, the web user sees the website content.

However, if the HTTP server fails to find or process the requested files, it responds to the web browser with an error message. One of the most common is a 404 error, but a 403 error may also appear if there are permission issues.

On the other hand, if a web server fails to receive a timely response from another server acting as a proxy or gateway, a 504 error occurs.

404 error page

Static vs. Dynamic Web Server

Web servers can serve static or dynamic content. A static web server consists of a computer and HTTP software. Static web servers send a website’s files back to a web browser without any changes.

A dynamic web server consists of a static web server plus extra software. This additional software most commonly consists of an application server and databases.

Dynamic web servers essentially update hosted files before delivering them via an HTTP server. This enables it to generate and send dynamic content to a web browser.

Web Server Features

Aside from supporting HTTP protocols to process incoming requests and responses, most web servers offer the following standard features:

File logging. Log files document any events or activities web servers perform, such as requests, security, and error logs. Each time a web server receives a new request, a line of text is added to the log.

Authentication. Many servers offer this feature before permitting partial or complete access to a website’s resources. Authentication features often involve authorization requests – when a username and password are required.

Bandwidth limiting. A web server’s bandwidth is the amount of data it can transfer or process at any given time. Bandwidth limiting controls the speed of responses to ensure that a network is not oversaturated and can deliver files smoothly.

Storage space. It refers to the amount of disk space available to store files, which determines whether a web server can host a website.

A web server includes other essential elements, such as:

Programming language. A web server’s programming language is the type of code used to develop programs executed by a server. Also known as server-side scripting languages, examples of popular programming languages include PHP and Python.

Uptime. Server uptime tracks the amount of time a web server is functional and can process requests or deliver files. A server’s uptime also affects when a hosted website is operational, known as website uptime. The industry standard is a 99.9% guarantee.

Why Do We Use a Web Server?

Web servers have three primary uses:

  1. Host multiple websites or web applications.
  2. Process File Transfer Protocol (FTP) requests.
  3. Send and receive emails.

Web servers host websites so that they are accessible on the internet. This is why a web server’s features and functions focus on creating and maintaining a hosting environment.

If you want to create and publish a website, you’ll need access to a web server. The most convenient way to do this is through web hosting.

Web hosting is a service that provides your website with server space to store its files, assets, and databases.

Not only that, but a web hosting provider’s role is also to ensure servers run seamlessly. It involves performing backups, caching, security monitoring, and general maintenance.

Some of the main benefits to having a web host monitor and maintain the web server where your website is hosted include:

  • Optimal uptime and performance. A web host takes care of hardware maintenance and software updates, which helps improve website performance and uptime.
  • Secure servers. Web hosts implement effective security protocols to reduce vulnerabilities and protect hosted websites against malware or cyberattacks.
  • Various hosting plan options. Site owners can choose a hosting plan with different features and functions depending on their needs.
  • Cost-effective. Site owners don’t have to maintain a dedicated server and can instead choose a hosting plan that provides the necessary amount of server resources.
  • Flexibility. Web hosts offer scalable plans, so website owners can obtain additional hosting resources like storage or bandwidth as needed.

Web Servers in the Market

Some of the most popular examples of web servers include:

  • Apache HTTP Server. A free and open-source web server used for many operating systems, including Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X. Apache is the oldest web server software and one of the go-to’s for website owners, developers, and hosting providers, with a market share of over 31%.
  • NGINX. A famous open source web server software that initially only functioned for HTTP web serving. It is now also used as a reverse proxy, HTTP load balancer, and email proxy. NGINX is known for its speed and ability to handle multiple connections, which is why many high-traffic websites use its services.
  • Microsoft Internet Information Services (IIS). IIS is a closed web server software developed by Microsoft widely used in Windows operating systems.
  • Lighttpd. A free and open-source web server software that’s known for its speed while requiring less CPU power. Lighttpd is also popular for having a small memory footprint.

In web hosting, different web hosts support different types of servers. For example, Hostinger supports both Apache and NGINX, the two leading web servers in the market.

Conclusion

A web server is a computer that stores, processes, and delivers website files. It consists of a hardware and a software side, with each playing a distinct role in processing files.

Moreover, different types of web servers can deliver dynamic content or static content to a browser. Regardless of the type, web servers come with some standard features, including:

  • File logging
  • Authentication
  • Bandwidth limiting
  • Storage space

Their primary function is to host websites, process HTTP requests, and deliver web content to users. Thus, to have your website accessible online, you either need your own server or web hosting.

Having chosen the latter, a web host will be responsible for the server, guaranteeing its security and performance. Doing so gives you more time to focus on other business and website growth aspects.

Author
The author

Tamara Junor

Tamara is a Digital Content Writer at Hostinger. As a digital marketing enthusiast and an avid WordPress user, she loves sharing tips and tricks to help others navigate the online sphere. In her spare time, Tamara enjoys exploring new cities.