What Is A Web Server?

A brief explanation of what a web server is, and what it does.

A web server is a piece of software that enables a website to be viewed using HTTP. HTTP (HyperText Transfer Protocol) is the key protocol for the transfer of data on the web. You know when you're using HTTP because the website URL begins with http:// (for example, http://www.quackit.com).

You might be thinking "I always thought a web server was a special, high-powered computer". Well, you'd be right too. Some high-powered computers are referred to as web servers as they have been built with web hosting in mind. But in most cases, when someone refers to a web server, they are referring to a piece of software that you install on a computer.

What does a Web Server look like?

That depends on which web server you choose to install. Here's an example of Microsoft Internet Information Services (IIS) 5.1 looks like:

IIS web server

The left pane represents the various websites, FTP sites, and SMTP virtual servers. When an item in the left pane is selected, the contents are displayed in pane on the right hand side.

In the above screenshot, there is one website (called Default Web Site), one FTP site (called Default FTP Site), and one SMTP virtual server (called Default SMTP Virtual Server).

You can right click on an item to display it's properties. For example, you can right click on Default Web Site to display (and configure) the properties of that website.

The above screenshot uses an old version of IIS. However, the layout hasn't changed much — you can still browse in the left pane and access tasks in the main pane.

Do I need a Web Server?

If you maintain your own web site I recommend you install a web server on your own development machine. That way you can configure your development environment to be closer to your live environment.

Also, if you intend to use server-side technologies such as PHP or ColdFusion, you will definitely need a web server.

Web Servers are Easy!

You might also be thinking that web servers are way too advanced for you - that they are only used by professional web developers and/or hosting companies. Please don't think that!

Think of a web server as simply another piece of software you can install on your machine. Once you install it, you can configure it to suit your needs.

And, depending on your computer set up, you may even find that you already have a web server on your machine.

Now, having declared that "web servers are easy!", there are many advanced topics regarding web servers. I won't be going into any detail in this tutorial. You can get a web server up and running on your machine with a minimum of technical knowledge. Then once you've done that, you'll start to become familiar with the various options available to you. Then if required, you can research the more advanced topics to suit your needs (such as security, load issues, logging etc)