What is a web server, and how does it work in 2024?

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What’s a web server? Every interaction you have on the internet, such as browsing content-rich sites, accessing web applications, or even reading this guide, revolves around it.  

These interactions are possible through software and hardware working behind the scenes.

Web servers act as the bridge between your website's files and internet browsers wanting to access them.

This article will discuss everything you need to know about web servers, including their components, configuration best practices, and features. 

Let’s get started. 

What is a web server?

A web server is a computer that continuously stores, shares, and retrieves content on the internet. Think of performing a Google search for the image of a car; the moment the Google page provides images available for download, the web server has just served you.

The basic principle of the internet is to share and retrieve data. This data exchange requires software to provide accurate internet usage. Web servers are the infrastructure that enables this content distribution across browsers using Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP). 

Depending on the client's requests, some contents may be static or dynamic files. However, the infrastructure has different components for effective functioning.

Components of a web server

 A web server consists of the following components:

  • Software
  • Hardware
  • Protocols

A web server’s software component uses HTTP to handle users’ requests and responses on a website.

The hardware consists of computers that store website files and documents and the web server’s software; such files include HTML, CSS, and JavaScript files. The hardware enables internet communication to share these files.

Protocols facilitate intercommunication between web servers and computers. They include HTTPS, which helps in static content delivery such as images and documents; SMTP, which allows mail delivery; and FTP, which helps in file transfer and storage.

Importance of HTTP and HTTPS

HTTP lacks security and encryption, allowing anyone on the internet who monitors the communication to access any type of information shared.

HTTPS is a secure way of managing the communication between websites and users. When browsing an HTTPS website, all your information is encrypted, and no third party can intercept your data. 

Websites built using HTTPS are usually ranked higher in a Google search than websites built without HTTPS.

How do all these work together?

How does a web server work?

Image of how a web server works

A web server receives, processes, and retrieves requests and sends responses through the following steps. 

  • Step 1 – Receiving the request: When a web browser queries a web server for information, the server’s first task is to receive the request.
  • Step 2 – Processing the request: The server translates the website’s domain name into an IP address. The IP address then locates the requested resource, such as an HTML page, image, or script. If a user has visited the website before, the browser will first search through the cached files.
  • Step 3 – Retrieving the requested resource: Once the request reaches the correct file URL on the web server, the HTTP server will accept it, look through the available files on the server, and locate the needed content.
    For a static file, such as an HTML page or an image, the server simply reads it from the file system. The server runs the needed server-side code to make the content.
  • Step 4 – Sending the response: After locating the requested data, the web server will send an appropriate response and return the data to the client browser through HTTP. If the web server doesn’t find the data, it’ll send an error message to the client browser. Hence, the client’s browser will display the information received. 

What are the functions of a web server?

Some functions of a web server include the following:

High uptime

A web server's primary function is to provide a standby hardware infrastructure to store websites and maintain high uptime so that users can access hosted websites and web applications.

Seamless transfer of data

A web server provides an adequate and safe delivery of online content.

Secure servers

Web server hosts can provide robust security protocols and reduce cyber attacks, including Secure Sockets Layer (SSL), Secure Sockets Shell (SSH), and reverse proxy.

Various hosting options

Web servers provide different hosting options to accommodate diverse needs and requirements. These options include shared hosting, virtual private servers (VPS), dedicated servers, and cloud hosting, each with features and resources.

Flexibility

Web servers offer high flexibility and support for programming languages, databases, and frameworks. This flexibility allows developers to choose the technologies that best suit their project requirements.

Website performance

Web servers enhance a website’s performance by clearing the storage cache of files that have no use. Caches take up space on a web server and slow down a website. Clearing the cache provides more storage space for other valuable files and documents.

Ranking

Web servers improve website ranking by optimizing page load and server response times. Faster page speeds and server response times contribute to better user experiences, a significant ranking factor for search engines like Google.

While web servers share common functions, different software and configurations cater to specific needs and use cases.

Examples of web servers

Icons representing different types of web servers

Various web servers with numerous software solutions are available to meet the diverse needs of websites and web applications. The following are common examples.

Apache HTTP server

Apache HTTP Server is an open-source software built for operating systems like Windows, UNIX, and Mac OS. It provides secure and standard web server software for websites.

As a versatile web server software, Apache’s architecture provides a customizable functionality that creates a wide range of features. Among other web servers, Apache has about 20.7 percent of the market. Due to its popularity, it’s the go-to web server for developers, web owners, and hosting service providers. 

NGINX 

NGINX is another popular web server that manages 23.21 percent of all websites. It‘s widely used for caching, load balancing, media streaming, etc. NGINX offers low memory consumption and a high asynchronous mode of serving web requests.

Internet information services (IIS)

Microsoft developed and maintained the IIS web server. It provides a secure website layer with a low surface area and maximum functionality.

Sun Java system 

This multithreaded web server software provides high performance and scalability to websites. It operates multiple single-threaded child processes simultaneously and distributes all incoming requests among the child processes for better performance.

Jigsaw server, implemented on the JAVA programming language, is an open-source web server software with a modular architecture. It uses an object-oriented approach to store files and process requests. Sun Java manages about 0.1 percent of all websites.

Apache Tomcat

Apache Tomcat is an open-source Java Server Page container and Java servlet used to host and run Java applications and websites. It helps Java apps with dynamic content for multiple requests. It’s an intermediary between the web server and the Java application to ensure efficient and secure data access.

Regardless of the chosen web server software, its architecture is crucial in determining its performance and scalability.

Web server architecture 

The web server architecture represents a web server’s layout, structure, and components. It outlines the working system of a functional web server. This includes how the server handles incoming server requests and delivers responses to the client’s computers. 

There are two main approaches to web server architecture: 

  • Concurrent approach. 
  • Single-process-event-driven approach.

Concurrent approach

The concurrent approach handles one client request per thread. This feature enables processing multiple requests simultaneously.

Web servers like the APACHE HTTP server use this process. The concurrent approach uses three approaches: multi-process, multi-threaded, and hybrid.

1. Multi-process 

A multi-process approach starts with a base process. It creates different single-threaded branch processes. These branches divide the requests among them. Once done, each branch handles a single request without affecting the other. This threading handles all requests without depending on other requests.

2. Multi-threaded

A server manages many client requests at once using multiple threads. The server generates a thread to interact with every client’s request for other users simultaneously, making it more efficient for the server to respond quickly to many client requests.

3. Hybrid 

The hybrid method is a combination of both multi-process and multi-threaded methods where multiple processes are created. These multiple processes create threads that handle single requests at a time.

Single-process-event-driven

In this approach, a single thread handles all incoming server requests at once, creating a web server architecture. This kind of architecture brings maximum efficiency and scalability by using an event handler to respond to multiple requests.

Besides its architecture, web servers have several features that enhance their functionality and versatility.

What are web server features?

Web server features are the individual features that make up the working architecture of web servers. Different web server software features make them distinct from other web server software. 

Here are some of the key features to consider when choosing a web server.

HTTP hosting

A web server hosting feature enables it to communicate with the web browser.  Web servers host and serve websites using HTTP or HTTPS protocols. Their core functionality allows clients to access web pages, images, videos, and other web resources.

Content hosting

Web servers provide a platform for hosting and storing web pages, multimedia files, and other web content and serve them to user requests.

SSL/TLS support

Modern web servers provide SSL/TLS for secure communication. They use certificates to encrypt data between clients and servers. It adds a thick layer of security to internet requests and responses, preventing data theft and breaches.

URL rewriting and redirects

To change file locations on the server, the web server offers URL rewriting and redirecting to move such files to new URLs. URL rewriting allows the server to map user-friendly URLs to the actual file paths, while redirects enable seamless forwarding of requests from one URL to another.

Scripting support

Web servers support various scripting languages, including PHP, Python, Ruby, and Node.js, for generating dynamic content to fit unique user requests. This ranges from data validation to form submission and other authentication processes. 

Caching layers

Most web servers save a copy of frequently accessed files and folders to reduce server load and improve response time.

Access control

A web server should restrict access to sensitive data by default. It encrypts data such as passwords to prevent hackers from exploiting users. Only authorized users should have access to content from a web server.

Compression

The size of web assets greatly affects website performance. To improve performance, a web server can compress documents, images, and other multimedia files. It should support compression techniques, such as Gzip or Brotli, to reduce the size of transferred data.

Web servers offer many features, including HTTP hosting, content management, security protocols, and caching. However, it's essential to ensure the security of the web servers and the data they host.

Web server security: Best practices

The web server security you install protects your website and data from cyber threats. Here are the top web server security practices.

Implement strong access controls and authentication measures

These measures help web servers limit access to content and data.

Enforce strong passwords that adhere to best practices, such as a minimum length, a combination of characters (uppercase, lowercase, numbers, and symbols), and regular password rotations.

Also, enabling two-factor authentication (2FA) or multi-factor authentication (MFA) provides additional security by requiring a one-time code or biometric authentication besides a password.

Software and services hardening

It includes applying security updates in a continuous integration and continuous delivery system. 

Third-party software removal reduces surface access to attacks by removing unnecessary or outdated third-party software that is no longer functional on the website.

Secure network communications and traffic

A network involves various components that make it functional optimally. The security measures below protect your network:

  • Enable HTTPS (Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure) by installing SSL/TLS certificates to secure data delivery between clients and the web server. This encryption keeps your sensitive info safe from interception or hacking. 
  • Set up a Web Application Firewall (WAF) to block known attacks and malicious activity from accessing the web server.
  • Include DNS filtering to mitigate distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks and network-based threats. Make a list of websites or some website resources and have an internet service provider blacklist them.
  • Maintain strict firewall rules to control and restrict access to the web server and its associated services, allowing only authorized traffic and blocking potential threats.

Establish comprehensive auditing, logging, and monitoring

Monitor database server logs, operating system logs, and login history, and report suspicious activity. IDS/IPS systems are crucial in detecting and mitigating potential security threats.

Maintain robust operational security procedures

These procedures involve identifying sensitive data and threats, analyzing vulnerabilities and documentation, and implementing recovery plans.

Most of the time, people prioritize and implement best practices but neglect training their admin. Yet, humans contributed to 81 percent of cyber attacks. Training your admin on the latest security threats, best practices, and incident response procedures can maintain a secure web server environment.

Ensure physical security measures for infrastructure protection

Keep your web server components in well-secured facilities that are safe from human and environmental intrusions. 

  • Set up intrusion detection systems to identify unauthorized human access to the server.
  • In emergencies, failover servers should be on standby to pick up any time the primary servers fail.

Web server configuration 

Configuring a web server requires customizing and optimizing it to meet the specific requirements of your website or application.

Server software 

Choose a web server that fits your needs, such as Apache, NGINX, or Microsoft IIS. Each web server has its peculiarities; for example, Apache is known for its high performance and stability, while NGINX offers high speed and scalability. 

Configuration setting

The next step is configuring the web server. Since most web servers have default configurations built by the developers and many are customizable, you must ensure that all third-party modules are compatible with the web server. 

However, you can adjust the settings to control the server’s behavior, including port numbers, document root directories, error handling, and resource allocation. Also, ensure you restart your server every time you change the configuration settings to effect change.

Setting up virtual hosts 

This enables web servers to specify the IP address to which the server receives incoming requests. Virtual hostings are basic units of websites that describe a domain name. It’s useful when using a shared server, as it allows multiple domains to host on a server without hiccups.

Security

When setting up your web server, you should secure it by adding security configurations such as firewalls, encryption protocols, and authentication methods.

Performance

Optimize your website performance by setting up cache mechanisms, load balancing, and minimizing resource usage. A well-optimized web server reduces its latency in case of a traffic surge. 

Static vs dynamic content

Web servers deliver static or dynamic content. But what are the differences?

Content type

Static web servers consist of hardware and an HTTP server. These servers supply static and non-changing content. These static contents are files already hosted and do not need updating, deleting, or removal.

Dynamic web servers consist of hardware, a web server, and other software like database and application servers. These components of a dynamic web server make it possible for the server to update, change, and delete files hosted on the web server. Dynamic web servers host services like authentication, ecommerce websites, and forms.

Processing

The content transfer process in a static web server is straightforward because the content served needs no modification. Saving the content in a database before sending it to the browser makes the dynamic website more complex.

Static web servers do not have complex server-side processing, so they tend to load faster than dynamic web servers.

Flexibility

There’s a higher level of flexibility in a dynamic website because of its nature; for example, in an ecommerce website, users can add different products to their cart and make a purchase, which isn’t available from a static website.

Security

A dynamic web server keeps private data safe in a database, not on the server. 

Static and dynamic web content differs across content and processing types, as well as overall performance, flexibility, and security considerations.

Web server vs application server 

Web servers and application servers are technologies used to exchange data and content on the internet, with slight differences. 

A web server serves static content such as HTML, CSS, JavaScript files, and images over the HTTP protocol. An application server hosts and runs web applications or server-side components of applications.

While a web server uses only HTTP to send data to the browser’s requests, an application server can use HTTP and other protocols to send data over the internet. Java EE, WildFly (formerly known as JBoss), WebLogic, and Node.js are some of the few application servers.

What is the difference between a website, web page, search engine, and web server?

To understand the framework behind delivering and accessing web content over the internet, we must understand the difference between web servers, web pages, and search engines.

Website

A website is a collection of web pages typically interconnected by hyperlinks and organized under a single domain name. It serves as an online presence for individuals, organizations, and businesses.

Web page

A web page is a structured HTML document accessible by internet browsers. It includes texts, images, and videos. Different web pages consist of several resources that make up the website.

Search engine

A search engine is a specialized software program that crawls, indexes, and ranks web content from other websites. It collects and organizes web pages, making them easily accessible and searchable for users. 

Web server FAQs

The following are the common questions readers ask about web servers.

Is it better to host my web server or use a hosting service?

Hosting your website gives you total control over your server, which will need a lot of resources. Using a hosting service gives you less control over your server, but you will only spend a few resources maintaining your server.

Is Google a web server?

No, Google isn’t a web server. Google is a search engine that helps web users find other websites they want to reach. Google manages over 90 percent of the search engine market share. 

What is the most common web server?

The most common web servers are NGINX and Apache. According to W3Tech’s data, NGINX holds about 34.1 percent of the market share. It’s a reliable web server that powers different websites. 

What are the 3 main elements of a web server?

A web server’s three main elements are hardware, operating system software, and web server software. The hardware stores data and connects to the internet to exchange data while the software uses an HTTP server to process client’s requests. 

An operating system facilitates the communication between your computer hardware and the software. Some examples of operating systems are Linux-based, Mac OS, and Windows OS.

What should you look for when choosing a web server?

Consider a web server that meets your website's needs, such as content type, expected traffic, and integration capacity. Also, prioritize factors like speed, compatibility with your preferred scripts, and long-term cost-effectiveness.

Maximize your web server’s performance with Liquid Web

Web servers are the internet backbone. Managing a web server requires a comprehensive approach, from understanding the architecture and components to configuring for optimal performance and implementing security best practices. 

Optimize your web server performance using Liquid Web VPS, which offers high performance through dedicated high-speed SSDs and custom software installation. For more information, contact us today and speak with one of our sales representatives to learn why we’re one of the most loved hosting providers.