What is Web Server and Its Fundamentals?

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What is Web Server

A web server is an entity that helps in storing and delivering content of a website to clients when they ask for it. The content can be in the form of graphics, video, text, and application data. The program that resides in a web browser is a client that is most commonly found. Since your website contains links and documents, the program seeks data from the server when any link is clicked or a document is downloaded on a web page which the browser has put on display.

A web server sets up communication with the browser by using Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP). Encoding of most of the content housed in a web server is done using Hypertext Markup Language (HTML). Content can be of two types, namely static (for instance, images, texts) and dynamic (for instance, the calculated price of a list of items that a customer plans to purchase).

Even content can be put in a cache by a web server to expedite the delivery of frequently requested content – a process termed web acceleration.

A web server can bring about “virtual hosting”, which refers to a scenario where one or multiple websites are hosted using the same hardware and software resources. A web server is also capable of regulating the response speed to various clients. Thus, it prevents one particular client from fully using up resources that can be more suitably allocated to meet requests from lots of other clients.

Although a web server usually hosts websites available on the internet, it can likewise be used to establish communication between servers and web clients in a LAN, for example, the intranet of a company. Plus, you can embed a web server in a device, like a digital camera. This facilitates users to make contact with the device using any commonly used web browser.

Working Mechanism of Web Servers

Hosting files

You can know the software used by a web server with the help of the domain name used by the website. The software is responsible to deliver the content of the website to the user who asks for it.

Also, the software part consists of various components most important of which is the HTTP server. The HTTP server is required to get an understanding of HTTP and website URLs. As the name implies, HTTP gives an idea of the process involved in transferring hypertext or linked web documents from one computer to the other.

When it comes to the hardware part, a web server is formed of a computer that acts as a central location in which the software, data, and other files are stored and managed. These include HTML documents, CSS stylesheets, JavaScript files, images, videos, fonts, etc.

Main Operational Phase of a Web Server

Communicating through HTTP

When a browser needs a file or resource which a web server is hosting, it will send a request via HTTP.

To be more specific, when the user types the URL of the web page on the address bar of the browser, the web resources of that page are requested by a browser from the web server. The IP address of the domain name is obtained by the web browser. This is done either by the Domain Name System (DNS) through URL translation or by looking for it in the browser cache. This helps the browser identify the web server and set up communication with it. Keep in mind, more than one domain can also be hosted on a particular web server.

The web server receives the request and tries to find the requested file within its storage space. Once the server locates the file, it reads and processes it as per the need. The HTTP server accepts the processed file containing the content. Subsequently, the content is transferred to the browser using HTTP.

When it comes to software operations inside the web server, HTTP plays the role to process and answer incoming requests.

  1. When a request is received by the web server, it prompts the HTTP server to first check whether the resources associated with the URL requested by the browser matches with any file existing in its storage.
  2. If the file exists, the server returns to the browser with the file content.

If any of these two processes fail to take place, the web server sends the “404 Not Found” error message back to the browser. It is interesting to note the massive popularity of the 404 error. Even at times, web designers set aside substantial time and effort for uniquely designing pages that show the 404 error message.

Benefits of a Dedicated Web Server

Technically, it is possible to host all such files on your personal computer. However, storing files on a dedicated web server has its own set of advantages. These include:

  • Practically, no downtime as the server is almost always up and running.
  • Barring system downtime or other infrequent hitches, the server maintains a round-the-clock connection with the internet.
  • The server can retain the same IP address at all times. This is called the dedicated IP address. It may be noted that when it comes to providing home connections, not all internet service providers offer a dedicated IP address.
  • The maintenance and upgrades of the server are usually outsourced to a third party.

Because of all these factors, it is imperative that you look for a good hosting provider to build your website. Inquire into the different services offered by companies. Opt for the one that fully meets your requirements and budget.

What are Static and Dynamic Web Servers?

Static web server

Both static and dynamic content can avail of the functionalities of a web server. Content that is “served as is” goes by the name of static content. Ideally, the components of a static web server include:

  • Computer
  • HTTP software

The term static comes from the fact that the server sends hosted files to the browser as they are shown, devoid of any changes. It is always easier to create a static website. So, while planning to design and develop a website it is recommended you get going by first building a static one.

Dynamic web server

The term dynamic implies the server processes the content before serving it to clients. It may also generate the content from a database while a computer program is running.

The components of a dynamic web server include:

  • Computer
  • Application server
  • Database

The name dynamic is given since any files hosted by the web server can be updated by the application server before being sent to the browser. The generation of any web content is done only when it receives a request from the database. Even though this method offers added flexibility, still, there are more complexities involved on the technical side. This, in turn, makes building a dynamic website quite challenging.

For delivering dynamic content, the majority of web servers have recourse to server-side scripting languages, which helps in encoding business logic. Most commonly, a dynamic web server supports the following languages:

  • Active Server Pages (ASP)
  • JavaScript
  • PHP
  • Python
  • Ruby

Often, it becomes difficult to select a particular application server. This is because the application servers work on numerous technologies. You may find a few application servers catering to specific categories of a website such as e-commerce, blogs, wikis, etc. The others can be very generic. So, if you are planning to build a dynamic website, spare some time to choose the right technology that fulfills your unique needs.

Instances Where a Web Server is Used

Every so often, web servers are available as an integral part of a complete internet package or intranet programs that mainly function to:

  • Send and receive emails
  • Download requests meant for the transfer of FTP files
  • Develop and publish web pages

Many web servers also provide support to carry out server-side scripting operations. When you want customized responses to your clients, the scripts residing on the web server can be employed.

Server-side scripting has a broad-based set of features which also includes access to databases. The process will put a few scripting languages to use such as PHP, ASP, etc. It also permits the dynamic creation of HTML documents.

Benefits of a Web Server in a Web Development Environment

  1. A web server allows your local website to act as a live one. For instance, the security of the directory can be configured and the custom error pages can be verified. All these actions can be pulled off before you commit the changes to the production environment.
  2. You can benefit from using scripting languages like PHP or JavaScript on the server-side.
  3. A web server enables the coding to be standardized. For example, root-relative paths can be used to present hyperlinks or image references. That is to say, instead of representing your computer’s directory structure, the paths can bring out a proper representation of your website structure.
  4. When you start using a web server, you can gain in-depth knowledge of its functioning in a live environment. This helps to set up easy communication with a web hosting service provider. You gain the ability to use server-specific terms and jargon and conveniently put across your requests and issues.

Examples of a Web Server

The foundation of every website is a web server. It is always connected to the World Wide Web and is assigned a unique IP address. At the time of registration of a web address or domain name, you need to mention this IP address which the webserver will be used for hosting a website. You can fill up your repository with dedicated servers that can reinforce the web-based operations for your site.

The 5 most commonly used web servers include:

1. Apache HTTP Server

So far, Apache HTTP Server is the most sought-after web server software across the world. It is brought into being by the Apache Software Foundation. It is open-source software that can work on all the major operating systems such as UNIX, Windows, Linux, Mac OS X, and FreeBSD. Roughly 60 percent of the web infrastructure machines are operated by the Apache Web Server.

2. IIS Information Services

It is a high-yielding web server developed by Microsoft. It runs only on Windows-driven operating system platforms that include the following:

  • Windows NT 3.51
  • Windows NT 4.0
  • Windows NT 4.0 SP3
  • Windows NT 4.0 Options Pack
  • Windows 2000
  • Windows XP Professional x32
  • Windows Server 2003
  • Windows Server 2003 R2
  • Windows XP Professional x64
  • Windows Vista
  • Windows 7
  • Windows Server 2008
  • Windows Server 2008 R2

There is robust integration between the IIS web servers and Windows operating systems. This facilitates easy administration of the server.

3. lighttpd

It is also commonly known as lighty. This web server is offered by the FreeBSD operating system. It also runs in open-source architecture and is known for being extremely fast and secure. Moreover, its power consumption is lower when compared to its competitors. Apart from FreeBSD, lighttpd also performs well on other operating systems like Windows, Solaris, Linux, and Mac OS X.

4. Sun Java System Web Server

Offered by Sun Microsystems, this web server is most suitable for medium-scale and large-scale websites. Even though the server comes up with a free web hosting service, it does not support open-source architecture.

The operating system platforms on which the Sun server works are UNIX, Windows, and Linux. It is supported by several languages and technologies compatible with Web 2.0 websites that put more emphasis on ease of use, user-generated content, interoperability, and participative culture for end-users. The scripts, languages, and technologies supported by Sun Java System Web Server include:

  • ASP.NET
  • ColdFusion
  • Java Servlets
  • JSP
  • Perl
  • PHP
  • Python
  • Ruby on Rails

5. Jigsaw Server

This server is created by the World Wide Web Consortium. It offers website hosting services free of charge. This web server is also open-source. It can smoothly run on sundry operating systems such as UNIX, Linux, Windows, FreeBSD, and Mac OS X. The Jigsaw web server is written in Java language. It can seamlessly manage PHP programs and CGI scripts.

In addition to these 5 leading web servers, you will come across various other popular web servers in the market. However, they are very costly and that is their main drawback. A few notable ones among those web servers include:

  • iPlanet from Netscape
  • Web Logic from Bea
  • WebSphere from IBM

Security Practices Followed by a Web Server

There are several security practices that web servers can follow and implement. Users can avail of and set them as per their choice to safeguard their web servers

Some of the noteworthy security processes that a web server can utilize are as follows:

  • Reverse proxy

It is designed to camouflage the presence of an internal server. The internal server performs the function of a mediator for the traffic that originates from it.

  • Access restriction

It is accomplished by means of processes like restricting the access of the web host to infrastructure machines or by making use of Secure Socket Shell (SSH).

  • Patch updates

A web server needs to be regularly patched and kept up to date. This helps make sure the webserver is not at risk of potential vulnerabilities such as DoS and DDoS attacks, SQL injections, unpatched software, cross-site scripting, etc.

  • Network monitoring

This prevents the occurrences of unauthorized activities within the webserver.

  • Firewall deployment

You can use a Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) as a firewall and incorporate it into the webserver. This will help keep track of HTTP traffic besides maintaining absolute security of the data stored in the server.

Conclusion

Web servers are highly admired by development teams because of their ability to make the web functional and secure. More than just their fast speed, modern web servers bring in enterprise-grade features such as simple reverse proxy, high availability, DNS system discovery, active health checks, load balancer, advanced monitoring, API gateway, session persistence, and strong security controls.

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