Thanks to a web server, web content can be stored and made accessible to users in a secure manner. When you load an Internet address into your web browser, the items you see on a page are always sent to your computer from a web server. In order for a website to be accessible at all times, the webserver on which it is hosted must be permanently connected to the Internet.
If you want to launch a website on the Internet, you must, therefore, use a web server. Large companies and organizations often have their own web servers for their Intranet and Internet content. Most website administrators, however, use data centres hosted by Internet service providers. It doesn’t matter if you have a dedicated server or if you rent one externally, you always need software to manage the data on a website and keep it available to Internet users. For this, you have the choice between many webserver management programs designed for different operating systems and application areas.
- Web server: definition and history
- Web server: how does this technology work?
- Additional tasks of a web server
- Definitions: webserver vs. Web hosting
- Common web server management software (free)
Web server: definition and history
By web server (also called HTTP server), we mean any type of server that allows web content to be broadcast on the Internet or Intranet. As part of a computer network, a web server transmits documents (from a web page to a browser, for example) to what is called a client.
The term web server can generally refer to two different things: either the software of a web server or the machine on which the program is running. When it comes to the second definition, we generally speak of a host or host (such a host can host several Web server programs). In the rest of this guide, we will talk about Web server software (or programs) or web hosts (hosts) to distinguish these two definitions.
Web server: how does this technology work?
Web server software is primarily used to represent data in web content. For this purpose, the program communicates with a web client (usually a web browser or a search engine).
If you want to visit a website, you must enter the corresponding Internet address in a browser. In other words, the browser sends a request to the webserver and the latter sends it response in the form of an HTML page. Such an HTML document can be saved on the host statically or dynamically. This means that the web server must execute program codes (PHP or Java) before the response. The browser interprets the response, which causes new requests to the server which aim to integrate, for example, the images or associated CSS data.
The transmission is carried out via the HTTP communication protocol (and its secure variant HTTPS), which is based on the IP and TCP network protocol (also UDP in rare exceptions). A web server is capable of delivering content from a website to many different computers and browsers at the same time. The number and speed of processing user requests depend, among other things, on the hardware and the data flow load of the host. The complexity of web content also plays a role: the processes of intensive computing tasks logically require more resources than simpler processes.
Choosing the appropriate server (host) (between a virtual, dedicated or cloud server) helps prevent your server from being overloaded. However, even if you use a server that meets your resource requirements, failures are still likely. These breakdowns or errors can be caused by a power failure or another technical problem in the data centre of the host used. Even if such failure is only very rarely repeated, this results in a total network cut-off and therefore the cessation of operation of the website. A system such as the Content Delivery Network (CDN) makes it possible to remedy these technical problems via a better load distribution and a replica system making it possible to avoid data loss.
Additional tasks of a web server
Even though the transmission of web content is the main mission of web server software, many programs offer additional functions:
- security Encryption of communications between server and web client via HTTPS
- User identification HTTP authentication allowing access to specific areas of the web
- Redirects URL Rewriting and Redirection with Rewrite-Engine
- Caching (cache memory) Intermediate saving of dynamic documents to respond more quickly to requests and prevent overload of the Web server
- Assignment of Cookies Sending and processing HTTP cookies
A web host can be linked to programs other than web server software. For example, an FTP client can be used to load data or as a server database for dynamic content (for which professionals generally use different additional materials). In addition, there are many forms of various servers for different purposes of use, such as an email server, a game server or a proxy server.
Definitions: webserver vs. Web hosting
What roles do web servers play in web hosting? And what exactly is web hosting? A web server is by definition a fundamental component of web hosting. The distinction between the two concepts is not always easy, however, especially for the more novice. This guide will allow you to distinguish these two concepts.
Web hosting is characterized by the storage and making available of Web content. Data from a website is stored on a defined webspace. This webspace is, so to speak, a hard drive on which web content is stored. This memory is linked to a Web server, so that online content is made available (such as a website).
A web host or host, i.e. a web server computer, and the corresponding webspace is obtained through a web host. Many Internet service providers such as DMTwebhosting for example act as web hosts. If you decided on a standalone hosting when choosing the web hosting service provider, you will have to arrange it by yourself. For this, you will need a web server program.
Common web server management software (free)
There are many programs for operating a web server. Most are available for free download from the Internet. The web server used must obviously be compatible with the host’s operating system. Most web servers are based on UNIX or Linux (Apache, Nginx, Tomcat, etc.) but often also on Windows. Microsoft IIS is an exception because it only works on Windows.
Here is a brief overview of the most used web server administration programs:
- Apache HTTP Server: The Apache HTTP server (or more simply Apache server) is continuously developed and improved thanks to its open-source base. This modular program works equally well with all operating systems, it is the most used Web server. It is very suitable for dynamic web content: we can indeed integrate PHP scripting language without problem. Thanks to the CGI interface, Apache can execute other programs.
- It is possible to bypass the installation of an Apache Web server, which is quite complicated, by using a set of XAMPP or LAMP software. Such sets of programs indeed greatly simplify installation. They include, apart from Apache, software for database management and scripting languages.
- Lately, the Apache HTTP server has lost speed compared to the competition. Indeed, many competitors stand out with shorter response times and data transfers.
- Apache Tomcat: It is an open-source server program based on a Java environment. If you want to produce web content with Java, this software is very suitable since it offers a web container. In addition, it can be incorporated into other Web servers (Apache HTTP or Microsoft IIS server) via an AJP connector.
- Nginx: this free software offers more functions than a usual web server. Among other things, Nginx also offers a reverse proxy, which makes it possible to reduce the load on the server and therefore to work faster. In recent years, Nginx has grown in popularity. You can find more information about this program in our introduction to Nginx.
- Microsoft IIS: The Microsoft Internet Information Service (IIS) program corresponds to a set of software in which there is also a Web server (program). Previously, IIS was an integrated Windows server system. Since then, the program can be installed later and independently, if necessary, on some Windows operating systems. The fact that IIS can only be used on Windows-based servers is not surprising but plays against it.
- LiteSpeed Web Server: Litespeed is web server software for Linux and Unix with which you can choose between an open-source version, a free standard version and a variant for companies. The Litespeed Web server is characterized above all by its speed of data transmission. This is even higher in the professional version.
Administration of a web server program is typically performed by another computer via remote access. In most cases, the operating system of the host does not have to be the same as that of the computer on which the Web server management program is running. One of the most well-known remote access programs is Plesk. With this software, you can manage a Web server on Linux, UNIX, but also Windows. Therefore, you can, for example, manage a host on Linux from your computer running Windows and vice versa.
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