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In 1990, British scientist Tim Berners-Lee invented the first web server, known as CERN httpd, along with a browser called WorldWideWeb. People began to realize the effectiveness of transferring data across what is now known as the internet. Multiple operating systems began to develop so all industries — and eventually, the public — could exchange data using computers. Read on to learn more about web servers and what they mean for web hosting.

Key takeaways:

  • Find out what a web server is
  • How web servers relate to web hosting
  • Learn different types of web hosting and how to choose the best for you

What Is a Web Server?

Web servers are advanced computers running programs that use Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP). They serve the files that form web pages, such as those that make up your website, to visitors clicking on your site or entering your URL into their browser.

The programs can deliver the same — or different — files to hundreds of site visitors at any time. Also, they are part of a larger web of programs that help serve emails, download File Transfer Protocol (FTP) files, and build and publish web pages like your site.

The importance of understanding how servers work

Without web servers, no one would be able to access your website. Understanding web servers is crucial to your success if you run your website. It is important to learn how your site’s content is delivered to visitors via your server and choose the right web hosting company to store it.

What operating systems do web servers use?

Web servers typically run on one of two operating systems: Linux or Microsoft Windows. The most popular choice is Linux, which is what most hosting companies do.

But some web hosts will host your site using the Windows operating system. There are two kinds of web servers to be aware of: hardware and software servers. Unfortunately, there is not always a clear distinction between the two. This confuses people that don’t understand what servers are and how they work.

What are hardware servers?

A hardware server is the actual computer that stores your website data and delivers it to site visitors when they request it by clicking on your website. These powerful computers are housed in data centers staffed by a security team and other security measures such as video surveillance.

Data centers are worldwide; delivering content to a global audience is easier if your site’s data is on a server near your target audience. The closer the server is to the visitor requesting to see your website, the faster it can deliver that request. Housing your website’s data — such as HTML text, images, cascading style sheets (CSS), and JavaScript files — the physical server supports the exchange of data between devices connected to the internet, such as your computer.

What are software servers?

Software servers are the software programs that run in the background with the help of the Linux or Microsoft Windows operating systems. For example, the HTTP server sends website files to site visitors because it understands URLs and HTTP protocols the browser uses to view web pages and deliver content to site visitors.

In addition, the FTP server allows for the uploading of files. The database server stores important information related to your website, such as the customer data needed to run an e-commerce shop and process transactions.

What role do content management systems play?

Lastly, software that runs in the background requires utilizing usernames and passwords to access. This includes popular content management systems (CMSs) such as WordPress.

The important thing to remember is that software “servers” are just software programs aiding in delivering site content to visitors. Used correctly, the term web server means the physical computer housing the program that stores your website’s data.

How Web Servers Work

Read on to learn how servers work and how your website’s content is delivered to interested site visitors.

Physical storage

Every bit of data that makes up your website is stored on physical web servers for safekeeping. When someone requests to see your web pages, either by clicking on your website in a search result or by entering the URL, a request is sent to your web server asking for that data.

How browsers work

While this is happening, the browser your site visitor uses, such as Firefox, Chrome, or Microsoft Edge, must find the server on which your site’s data is located. If it has contacted your server in the past, this process is easy, especially if your web content is cached.

Yet, if the browser does not know where your server is, it may need to look up its IP address in the Domain Name System (DNS). Either way, the browser will find your server and read the request sent by the site visitor to see your website.

How web servers send data

Your web server receives all requests to see your website and handles them according to the web server’s configuration files. This may mean delivering static files to a site visitor, enabling another application, and waiting for a response.

Regardless, all requests to see your website are written in HTML text, a programming language that tells the computer browser how a website should be formatted.

Making data user-friendly

If you received the HTML text on your computer screen as a site visitor requesting to see a website, you wouldn’t understand it. That’s why the browser must rearrange the HTML text into a readable form, which site visitors see as written text and images.

Web Server Optimization

Your web server plays a crucial role in displaying your website to visitors. Without the web server housing all of your site’s data, site visitors would not be able to access your content.

Your web server must perform well so it can deliver site content to visitors as quickly as possible. Here are some of the best ways to ensure your server gives site visitors the best user experience possible.

Web Server Content Caching

Caching your site’s static content — content that doesn’t change that often — is a great way to speed up the delivery of site content to people.

If your web server stores static content in its active memory, any request to see that content by site visitors is delivered far more quickly since it does not need to be loaded from a hard drive. .

You can also have your website’s content stored on servers in multiple geographic locations. Doing this allows a visitor to pull your website from whatever servers happen to be closest to them, which helps speed up the load times. Companies that offer this type of service are called content delivery networks (CDNs). CDN services are often provided by web hosting companies to help boost performance.

Web Server Configuration

Several types of web servers are available to store your site’s data. Some require specific operating systems, and some can run on any operating system, though some popular ones are Windows and Ubuntu.

Some well-liked web servers are Apache, which has a LAMP software stack including Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP, and Microsoft IIS (Internet Information Services). There are other web servers, such as NGNIX and Google Web Server (GWS). No matter which web server your hosting company uses, you can optimize them to perform at top speeds:

  • Rewrite request details before sending them to secondary applications
  • Block requests by certain IP addresses
  • Serve different content based on referring websites, mainly to prevent hotlinking

How Do Web Servers Relate to Web Hosting?

Web hosting companies store your site’s data on web servers and, as a result, aid in delivering site content to site visitors. Hosting services usually consist of all maintenance related to the server itself, including backups, root configurations, disaster recoveries, security, and uptime.

There are cases, depending on the hosting plan you choose, which allow you to have more control over the server storing your website’s files, including all related maintenance issues.

Different types of hosting

If you choose a dedicated server hosting plan, you rent an entire server to store your site’s data on, and you will have control over the operating system, hardware, and software used on it.

You can also store an enormous amount of data without worrying about running out of server resources. If you go with the more affordable options, such as shared hosting or VPS hosting, you will not be responsible for server maintenance as your hosting provider will be.

What to consider when choosing a host

Keep in mind that when you use inexpensive hosting plans, the number of server resources available are limited and are shared by other website owners whose site data is stored on the same server as yours.

In the end, no matter which hosting plan you go with, your website’s data is being housed on large computers called servers that use specialized, built-in programs to deliver your website’s content to those that request to see it.

Frequently Asked Questions About Web Servers

How does a web server compare to a data server?

While a web server handles HTTP requests and exchanges documents over the network, a data server takes similar requests, but instead of sending documents, it sends data.

Usually, a web server will communicate with a data server to store or retrieve information rather than allowing the visiting user direct access to the data server.

How does a web server relate to the “cloud?”

For a cloud-hosted website, the cloud provider is usually controlling the web server and parts of the web application – unless the customer is using a “Virtual Server” – an emulated computer that exists inside of a higher-rooted computer.

The term cloud can also apply to a normal web host, so with any cloud provider, just be clear whether you’re buying a server or an application on a server.

What is the difference between a website and web application – and how does it affect a web server?

The line between a website and web application is blurry, but usually, a web application is constructed dynamically based on user input. Anytime a website has a user login system, that’s an indicator that there is a more complex “application” running at the web address it appears on.

Sometimes a web application will talk very closely with the web server to make sure that when you visit a particular part of the site, certain information related to the user gets sent out to each user. So, if you were to visit a profile page, the web application would know to send back your profile information.

What is a web port and how are they used?

Every web server runs data packets through a pre-designated “port” associated with a computer’s network driver. By default, websites commonly use port 80 and are not seen when browsing a website. However, a web port can be accessed by typing : and a number.

So, if you run a web server on your computer, you can tell it to run at localhost:8080, where 8080 is the port and localhost is the friendly name for a computer’s “home” address. Ports are useful for setting up fast data streams, running multiple web servers simultaneously, or for using network protocols for software other than a web browser, such as Skype.

How do I install a web server?

The installation varies greatly, depending on the operating system and web server application. For a Windows IIS server, sometimes the software comes pre-installed, and certain Java or Linux machines might come pre-installed with Apache.

Some web servers can be installed via the command line in programming languages/interfaces like Python or NodeJS. Ruby on Rails usually comes with Mongrel or Passenger, and almost every programming language will have a most commonly used web server. Each one will require special installation and appreciation of web ports.

Does the operating system matter to a web server?

Viewing content on a website doesn’t require a user to have the same operating system as the website. However, for the administrator of that website, a web server must be chosen, which is supported by the computer’s operating system on which the web server is running.

To make things more confusing, the computer is also called a “server,” – so you have a web server running on top of the “server” computer. The web server is a piece of software that must be compatible with the operating system.