If you want to run a website, you’ll need to host it on a web server so that other people on the internet can visit it. In this post, we’ll explain what a web server is, how it functions and the different types of web servers you can choose.
What is a web server?
In simple terms, a web server is a computer on which you store your website software and all its content. What makes a web server different from a standard computer is that it needs to be online 24/7 and it requires the right software and hardware to transfer data between your website and the browsers on which people use to visit it. In particular, it needs to support HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol), FTP (File Transfer Protocol) and SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol) to store, process and transmit websites, files and emails.
By supporting those protocols, the web server can exchange data with other online devices, like other servers, computers and smartphones.
How does a web server function?
When someone clicks on a link to a website or types its URL into the address bar, a Webserver’s job is to send the page that has been called to the user’s browser. The protocol that is used to manage this process is called HTTP and this enables the web server and the browser to communicate with each other. To visit a website, its files are requested by the user’s browser (e.g., Chrome, Edge, Firefox, etc.) using HTTP. On receipt and acceptance of the request, the website files are found and transmitted back to the browser, again using HTTP.
Language vs numbers
One of the complex processes that need to be done during this procedure is to translate language into numbers. While a website’s domain name is written in language so that humans can understand it (e.g., mywebsite.com), web servers speak in numbers. For this reason, every domain name has a unique, corresponding IP address, (e.g., 18.104.22.168) comprising four numbers separated by dots. In order for communication between the browser and the server to take place, once a link has been clicked or a URL is typed in, the browser must first find the domain’s IP address. This is done by translating the URL through the DNS (Domain Name System). If the user has visited the site before, this information may already be stored in the browser’s cache.
Only once the IP address is obtained can the web server on which the website is stored be located. Once it has been found, the browser can then request the specific page of the website the user is looking for.
What can web servers be used for?
Web servers are not just for hosting a website, they can also be used to host other applications online or send and receive other types of information. Examples of these include:
hosting multiple domains on one server
sending and receiving emails
running customer-facing apps
running applications for remote working (e.g., remote workstations)
running smartphone apps
Types of web server
When discussing the different types of web servers, the conversation falls into two different categories. This is because you can define web servers by the technology they use and by the operating system software. Here we look at both.
Web servers by technology
At present, there are four types of web server technologies website owners can choose from. These are shared hosting, VPS, dedicated server and cloud.
The underlying technology in all of these is the dedicated server. This is a web server with large storage, powerful processors, high-speed SSD drives and significant memory (RAM). In a shared hosting solution, a dedicated server is shared by hundreds, sometimes thousands of different users, each with their own slice of the server’s storage and computing resources. In dedicated server hosting, a user gets the entire dedicated server to themselves.
With VPS (Virtual Private Server) and cloud hosting, the web host uses virtualisation technology to create a virtual server that runs on a physical server. With VPS, a single physical machine has multiple virtual servers running on it. The difference with shared hosting being that there are fewer VPS, so users have more storage and computing resources. Importantly, as each VPS is a virtual server, each user has their own operating system and this prevents the workloads of other users on the physical machine from impacting their own operations.
With the cloud, vast numbers of dedicated servers are linked together in what is called a hyper-converged infrastructure. Running across this infrastructure are even bigger numbers of virtual cloud servers. The scale at which cloud data centres operate means customers can have as much storage and computing resources as they need and they can scale up or down on demand if required.
The other advantage of virtualisation is that, if there is an issue with the hardware, the virtual server can quickly be moved to a different physical machine. With VPS, this requires a simple reboot, with the cloud, it happens automatically with no disruption to the website or other hosted applications.
Web servers by operating system
Aside from opting for shared hosting, VPS, dedicated server or cloud, web server plans can also be chosen by the operating system. The two main types are Windows and Linux, with various Linux distributions available, such as Centos, Debian and Fedora.
There are pros and cons to both Linux and Windows, but often the choice comes down to the type of software your business wants to use. Open-source software tends to be run on Linux, while anyone using Microsoft software generally uses Windows. Proprietary software developed by other companies will either be available for one or both.
If you are looking for a web hosting solution, you should now know what a web server is, how it works, what you can do with it and the different technologies and operating systems you can use.
At eukhost, we provide shared, VPS, dedicated server and cloud hosting, all of which can run either Linux or Windows operating systems. For more information, visit our homepage.