[Video] What Is a Server and How Does It Work?

This month we’re answering your pressing web questions by releasing a new 60-second video each Wednesday. Last week we covered how websites work. Today we’re tackling servers.

Have you ever wondered exactly how web pages are stored and delivered to your screen? Well, prepare to get served! In this video we’re breaking down what is a server and explaining how servers work with your web browser to deliver all the memes, cat videos, and news stories you devour on a daily basis.

What Is a Server?

Let’s talk about this in basic terms: a web server is a powerful computer with two main jobs.

First, it’s a fancy storage unit. Think of it like this: your website is made of a bunch of files, and those files need a physical space to live. When you sign up with a hosting company, you’re essentially renting a powerful and reliable storage space.

Second, a web server returns requests through your web browser. When an inquisitive person goes to a web browser and types in a URL, the browser forms a connection with a web server and requests the page files that are linked to the URL. Then the server delivers those stored files to the searcher’s personal computer as a complete website.

How Does It Work?

There are two behind-the-scene players that work as partners to get a website to show up on your screen properly: the browser and the web server.

When an internet searcher types in a URL, the browser divides the URL into three parts:

  • The hypertext transfer protocol: http
  • The server name: www.thewebsite.com
  • The file name: web-server.htm

Each of these parts have a different responsibility when it comes to interacting with a web server.

1. Hypertext Transfer Protocol

The hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP) is the language browsers and web servers use to communicate. A browser delivers an HTTP request to a web server, and the web server transfers the hypertext to the internet searcher’s browser.

When a server receives a request, it checks whether or not the requested URL matches an existing file. If it does, it will speedily return the requested file. If the file does not exist, it will return an error page.

2. Domain Name System

The next part of the equation is the Domain Name System (DNS), which translates easy-to-remember domain names to numerical IP addresses. When you type a domain name into a browser, your internet service provider views the DNS that is tied to the domain name, translates it into a computer-friendly IP address, and then directs your internet connection to the server, delivering up a set of stored files. These stored files show up as a website.

3. File Name

The web server stores all of the files related to each unique domain name. This includes all the HTML documents, images, CSS stylesheets, videos, fonts, JavaScript files, and more — basically, everything that converts into organized text, design, images, or videos when you see a website.

And that’s it. Now the next time you surf the web, you’ll know exactly what’s happening behind the curtain. Tune in next Wednesday for another Web Basics in Under 60 Seconds video.

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