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The workings of a web server

By Staff

So you want a web-site?  But you don’t know a server side from a sunny side up and you think a host has something to do with church?  Not to worry.

It is easy to get lost in the jargon, especially when we venture into areas we may not know very well.  Our natural reaction is to just nod our heads and not to ask - we don’t want to seem stupid.  And no area is considered more foreign to most consumers than technology.  The good news is that armed with a little bit of knowledge, broken down into plain English, you can understand what is going on behind the scenes when you select a web hosting provider for your web site.

I’m sure you know from the research you’ve done so far that the first step to establishing your web presence is to find a company that will host your web site – they are going to put it on their computers – Web servers - and make it available to your prospective customers so you don’t have to.

This is a good opportunity to step back and use that plain English we talked about.  Web server – what’s that?  It is just a computer, though usually a powerful one that stores information.  That’s all there is to it.  In the case of a Web server, it stores Web documents and in the most basic sense, makes them available to anyone with an Internet connection.  If you want to read more detailed definitions, go to Google and type in “define Web server”.  From there you can go to a page with summary definitions – nice because you don’t have to wade through a bunch of other unrelated stuff.

Before we move on, let’s talk a bit about what the Internet is and what it means to be connected to it.  The Internet started as a project to test what were then, new networking technologies.  The first two links were between UCLA and the Stanford Research Institute in the late 1960s.  This formed “ARPANET”, the precursor to our Internet.  More computer networks sprang up and were added, and the Internet was born.  One reason the Internet works is that the networking technologies include standards so that each computer network (and the computers within it) can “talk” to each other and exchange information.  The process of finding the computer you wanted to communicate with used to be a bit daunting; lots of computer-ese and numbers to remember – until a little piece of software called the “browser” was written.  Read on.

So we have talked about one side of the equation: a computer – our Web server – that stores Web documents and is connected to the Internet, allowing other people access to these documents.  The other side of the connection is also a computer that is connected to the Internet and allows people to request and retrieve the Web documents stored on the Web server.  The second computer is referred to as a client.  If you think about it in plain English, it makes sense.  A client is someone who is requesting service, whether it is an oil change or a data exchange.  The server and the client – our two sides of the equation – are computers, what is called hardware.  Hardware doesn’t work unless you also have software to tell it what to do.  This is where the browser we mentioned comes in.  The browser simplifies the task of navigating the Web by letting us associate a complex computer address with a simpler, more user-friendly name; the domain name. 

So the browser tells the client computer what to do.  The Web server must also have software that negotiates data transfers to and from the clients using their common language – a communications protocol – called http (hypertext transfer protocol). 

When you type (Wesleyan University) into the address line of your browser, the browser is going to translate it into the components that your computer can use to connect you to the address you have asked for.  These are the components typically found in an address, along with a breakdown of the Wesleyan address:

Transfer Protocol

Sever name





File - type















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