What is a Web Server?

Picture form Wikimedia depicting a rack of web servers for Internet Archive
When thinking of Web Servers this is the most common picture that comes to mind.
-Picture is from Wikimedia

A Web Server is a computer system hosting web-centric applications and resources that is accessible through the World Wide Web.

This statement does not justify the Web Server as it is the meat of the Web. Web servers allow the internet to create gossamer links to bring forth the World Wide Web that we as spiders hunting for information or distraction click from link to link traversing a tangled web of electrons pushing and pulling through the internet landing on web servers near and far.

How Do Web Servers Connect?

With links of gossamer strands that you insert into your web presence. These links though have to provide directions to the correct server where the webpage we so desperately need resides.

The link is your Internet Protocol, an address that ties all the parts and pieces together on the web.

Internet Protocol: The Postal Address Schema of the Internet

Picture of one of Dennis's Web Servers shoved under a corner desk with no keyboard or monitor connected.
This computer system was re-purposed and shoved under a desk in the corner and just peculates all alone forgotten until something goes wrong. I remote in from another system as this system is a “Headless” computer, as it has no keyboard nor monitor connected. -Dennis

Internet Protocol (IP) addresses come in two flavors for our purpose; public (defined by RFC 3330 (text file)) and private (defined by RFC 1918 (text file)). Public addresses are purchased from ISPs and then can be mapped to private addresses on your local area network (LAN) through your router using Port Forwarding. The article by superuser, “What is port forwarding and what is it used for?,” gives an short explanation of the process as well as a short entry on Network Address Translation (NAT) which allows traffic destined for your public IP address to resolve and be pathed to your internal private IP address.

An IP address is simply the street address that your computer or networked resource resides at. This allows those who also belong to the same network or are authorized to access the network be it public or private utilize and interact with those resources connected to that network.

The current protocol IPv4 is slowly being replaced with IPv6 (IPv6 is hexadecimal based thus will have a greater pool of addresses) due to the reduced availability of public IPv4 addresses. IANA (Internet Assigned Numbers Authority) is the world wide organization that is responsible for giving out blocks of IP addresses to Internet Service Providers then the ISP leases those out to you the end user.

As the Web Developer, you may only be concerned with your servers/sites IP address during the initial phases of development. Your system administrator and network administrator will be the ones who you will communicate with concerning the particulars of navigating the web to your site.

Domain Name Services: The Postman of the Internet

Where the IP address is your “street address” for your site, Domain Name Services is the postman or the traffic director to your site. We as humans are more word and description oriented than numbers thus the Universal Resource Locator (URL) http://google.com is much easier to remember than one of the various IP addresses which could reside in any of these ranges:

  • 64.233.160.0 – 64.233.191.255
  • 66.102.0.0 – 66.102.15.255
  • 66.249.64.0 – 66.249.95.255
  • 72.14.192.0 – 72.14.255.255
  • 74.125.0.0 – 74.125.255.255
  • 209.85.128.0 – 209.85.255.255

Source: What is the IP Address of Google, by Bradley Mitchel

Through the registration of the IP addresses to the URL or Domain address of a web server you can serve up your website http://www.example.com. There are many steps behind the scenes to insure that an IP or URl will go to the correct server. Again this is usually handled by the network administrator but a few things to know is that a URL has to be registered with one of the Domain Registration companies out there. I have listed a few but more registration service companies can be seen at InterNIC’s web site.

  • 1&1 Internet AG
  • 24×7 Domains LLC
  • Amazon Registrar Inc.
  • FastDomain Inc.

I have used Amazon and 1&1 Internet AG for different domains over the years. Before you pick a Registrar be sure to investigate the various prices at the different companies as prices can vary greatly from company to company.

A complete outline of the DNS process can be reviewed in “DNS the Postman of the Internet.”

The article goes deeper into what are called the root servers of the web. These servers insure that all traffic from .com’s to .edu’s can be located but to dispel a myth you may have heard there no more than 13 of the Root Servers in the world. This is not correct. A mere 13 servers could not handle the entirety of the net’s traffic requests.

Web Server Types: What gives the Web Server Life?

Two major web services are Apache and IIS (Internet Information Services).

Apache: A Linux Based Web Service

In terms of active sites, Apache remains in a much stronger position with a 52% share of the market.
April 2014 Web Server Survey by Netcraft

Picture of Dennis's ESXi VM server which runs an Apache web server in addition to other virtual servers and systems.
This is my ESXi server on which I run virtual servers, one of which is an Apache web server. I drilled out two holes in my desk to allow for air flow for cooling of the system. It runs at a constant 80F degrees. You can have a web server practically anywhere. -Dennis

Apache 2.2 is the most current release commonly used in modern web server environments which can include large enterprise server solutions, small business servers, home desktop computers, to virtual computer systems called virtual machines or VMs. We will discuss Visualization in a future post as the topic is beyond the scope of this article.

Another attractive feature of Apache is the price tag: free as it an open source application/service and is licensed as such by the Apache Software Foundation which can be installed on a Windows system or a Linux system.

IIS: Microsoft’s Internet Information Services

Microsoft made the largest gain this month, with nearly 31 million additional sites boosting its market share by 1.9 percentage points. IIS is now used by a third of the world’s websites. Although this is not Microsoft’s largest ever market share (it reached 37% in October 2007), this is the closest it has ever been to Apache’s leading market share, leaving Apache only 4.7 points ahead.
April 2014 Web Server Survey – Netcraft

Microsoft IIS has been gaining ground as security and compatibility issues have been shored up. One thing though which will always inhibit IIS’s adoption is price as it must be run on a Windows platform and license which can become expensive depending on the configuration of the server and services needed to be licensed by Microsoft.

IIS and Apache are not the only web server services out there. There are Google, nginx, Sun (though falling flat), and NCSA to name a few of the servers that hold a much smaller footprint on the active web.

Summary

This is a simple technical overview of web servers. I will be offering more articles on the topic of web servers over the next few weeks in this article series.

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