A web server is a computer that stores websites on the Internet and delivers web pages to viewers upon request. This service is referred to as web hosting. Every web server has a unique address, called an Internet Protocol address, that tells other computers connected to the Internet where to find the server on the vast network. The Internet Protocol (IP) address looks something like this: 188.8.131.52; this address links to a more human-friendly address, such as http://www.wisegeek.com. Web hosts rent out space on their web servers for people or businesses to set up their own websites, and the web server allocates a unique website address to each website it hosts.
How a Web Server Works
When someone connects to the Internet, his personal computer also receives a unique IP address assigned by his Internet service provider (ISP). This address identifies the computer's location on the network. When he clicks on a link to visit a website, like www.wisegeek.com, his browser sends out a request to wiseGEEK's IP address. This request includes return information and functions like a postal letter sent across town, but in this case the information is transferred across a network. The communication passes through several computers on the way to wiseGEEK, each routing it closer to its ultimate destination.
When the request reaches its destination, the web server that hosts wiseGEEK's website sends the page in HTML code to the requesting computer's IP address. This return communication travels back through the network. The computer receives the code and the user's browser interprets the code and displays the page for the user in graphic form.
Selecting a Web Server
There are several points to consider when selecting a web server. Web servers with consistent records of an uptime of 99.5% or better are considered reliable. The more powerful the server, the faster it can serve up website pages. Slower, smaller servers may result in frustrating lag time for viewers. High traffic can also slow servers that are not powerful enough to handle high volumes of data exchange. This lag time should be a concern for anyone who is shopping for a web host.
In theory, web servers stay connected to the Internet 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. In truth, they experience occasional downtime due to maintenance and technical problems. Most web hosts have a page dedicated to sharing technical information about their web server, including speed, capacity, network configuration, and other details.