Servers are a key component of networks. The term server can refer to hardware or software or both, but usually it describes a central computer that performs special tasks for remote users. The early servers used in basic client/server networks acted as host computers, storing data shared by the clients within the network. Clients consisted of other computers or remote devices that were able to access the server to send and receive information.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, computers and networks were used for increasingly diverse functions. Consequently, technologists developed different types of servers to manage different types of resources. For example, increased computer use generated a demand for computer-file-storage devices, which prompted the development of file servers. Printer servers were able to link several machines to a limited number of printers. In addition, database servers emerged to process database queries and to give computer users more control over various types of data.
When businesses of all kinds began to embrace Internet technology in the late 1990s, many enterprises began to use application servers to allow current information to be delivered to clients over a corporate intranet or the Internet. Companies often link their application server to a Web server, which enables content to be transferred over the Internet. When a Web server receives a request for a Web page from an Internet user (essentially, when a user clicks on a link or enters a Web address), it finds or creates the Web page and loads it, allowing the user to view it in his or her Web browser. Web servers communicate with Web browsers through the hypertext transfer protocol, or HTTP, an international standard for data communication.
To run an online business, you either need to install Web server software on your own machine or purchase Web server space from a hosting company. If you allow another company to host your site, you can choose to share server space with other Web sites, which is the least expensive option and quite often a reasonable one for small businesses. For example, in 2002 many hosting services charged small business customers $20-50 a month for a basic shared hosting plan. You can also lease a dedicated Web server, one that serves your site exclusively. While this option typically offers your site more storage space and reserves more bandwidth for your site traffic, it is also more costly.
According to a February 2001 issue of Entrepreneur, "With Web hosting companies as common as banner ads these days, most Net start-ups prefer to let a hired hand do the dirty work rather than mess with it themselves. But e-commerce services add up, and getting the features you want can involve a lot of hassle and moolah." If you consider yourself technologically savvy, or plan to hire such an individual, you can typically save money by hosting your own site. You will also have much more control over your site.
To host your own site, you need to select a Web server. It will consist of hardware, often a specially equipped PC or a specialized server appliance, and server software to manage your Web site and retrieve pages as users request them. First, you need a machine that has the disk space, memory, and processing capacity to handle the site traffic you anticipate. If you expect high levels of traffic, you will need to invest in more than one machine. Large Web sites have dozens of servers working in tandem in order to deliver a high-volume, sophisticated service.
After choosing hardware, you will also be faced with a variety of software options. Most server appliances come installed with a popular operating system like Windows 2000 or Red Hat Linux. These systems typically prove more than adequate as a platform for your online business. Next, you will choose the Web server program itself. A Web server is often supplied with the server operating system, but you might choose another based on performance or other needs. The Apache Software Foundation offers one of the most popular Web server programs for free. Apache is run most often on Unix and Linux machines and is considered very stable. Microsoft bundles its Web server with server versions of Windows.
The final step is making sure you have a fast and reliable connection to the Internet. Your server must be reachable on the Internet around the clock in order to maintain an effective online presence.
Bonisteel, Steven. "AT&T Sells Small-Biz Web Hosting Service to Interland." Newsbytes, January 25, 2002.
Hughes, Chris, and Gunther Birznieks. "Serving Up Web Server Basics." INT Media Group, 2002. Available from http://webcompare.internet.com.
Kooser, Amanda C. "Servers with a Smile." Entrepreneur, February 2001. Available from http://www.entrepreneur.com.