What is a web server?
When we think of servers, we may think of a room full of data banks, and that’s one definition of a server: a hard drive that holds files. It’s a physical entity. But that is only one part of a server.
A web server stores website files and sends them to you when you ask to see them. Because something is needed to move the data from storage to your device, servers have software to facilitate data transfer. So, a server (at minimum) has two parts: hardware to store data and software to transfer that data.
Static vs Dynamic Servers
A static server sends its data to your device as it is stored: no assembly required. The static server stores complete HTML pages and, when requested, hands them over.
A dynamic server is a two-part system. A quick analogy: say you order a Caesar salad at a high-end restaurant. The waiter may bring out a cart with ingredients, whip up the dressing, and assemble the salad table-side. This is a little like what a dynamic server does: it takes information from the database and arranges it for you. This is particularly helpful for sites with large numbers of pages, where it would be cumbersome to store complete HTML pages. The data is stored in the hardware server, then the software server feeds that data into a template and delivers the assembled package to you.
Large companies that provide server services generally have server banks scattered all over their service areas. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, and all that. Check out SiteGround’s server locations here.
Do I need a website server?
“I mean, my site is really simple, and the files aren’t that big. Can’t I just keep my website on my computer at home?” In a nutshell, yes. This is called local hosting, and you could do that, but for run-of-the-mill websites it’s not recommended. You’d need to constantly monitor your computer and your connectivity to make sure it’s always running, so it would become a large part of your job. Servers are lightning-fast and the business is competitive, so companies are motivated to provide speedy, reliable hardware/software packages. Don’t reinvent that particular wheel.
Why do I need to know this?
Well, in order to have a website you may not really need to know about servers, but a little knowledge goes a long way. When you are choosing a website host you may want to investigate their servers. Where are they located? How much downtime do they have? How quickly do they deliver your site? With a solid understanding of what a website server is, you’re a well-educated consumer.
If you are building your own site, though, you may have to point your domain name servers. This is the code that tells the world wide web which servers it should look for to access your site. SiteGround’s nameservers are ns1.siteground.net and ns2.siteground.net. I host my sites on SiteGround so all my sites have those nameservers. It’s like a zip code; mail from all over the world makes it to your zip code then your local handlers bring it to you. Once SiteGround’s servers get a request for someone to see your site, they know where to look for you within their system.
What’s the difference between a server and hosting?
A server is the hardware and software that stores and facilitates access to your files. A website host is a company that runs the server and provides services on top of that. See my post about website hosting here.
HTML – HyperText Markup Language – the language used to build web content
Web server – a combination of hardware and software that stores and grants access to your website files
Database – the files stored in a server
Hardware – the physical components of a computer
Software – code that manipulates data in the hardware