- A server is defined as a powerful machine designed to compute, store, and manage data, devices, and systems over a network.
- This article explains servers in detail, their types, and key features.
A server is a powerful machine designed to compute, store, and manage data, devices, and systems over a network. This sophisticated computer system provides resources to networking units to render specialized services such as displaying web pages and sending or receiving emails, among others.
Computer hardware, software, or even virtual machines with requisite software capabilities can act as a server. However, server functionalities go beyond a traditional computer. They handle complex server processes, from managing multiple user queries every second, hosting content-heavy websites, and setting up a shareable drive for network devices, to processing intensive workloads such as database transaction management that requires high computing power.
Servers answer user requests via a client-server model. Here, the host device that powers network devices is referred to as host-server, and the in-network devices that utilize the resources the host device offers are termed clients.
Key components of a server
Server computers are made up of fundamental elements that can execute code, transmit or receive data, and store this data for a shorter or longer duration. Although these components are also present in modern-day laptops, smartphones, and IoT devices, they are much more powerful in server machines.
Let’s understand the four key components of a server:
The processor, also called a CPU, is the main component of any server. It acts as the brain of the server system. Today’s advanced server computers are equipped with powerful processors that have multiple cores to execute thousands of instructions in one go. Popular processor brands available today include Intel Xeon processors, HPE, Dell, and Huawei, among others.
RAM is the short-term memory unit that stores working data and machine code. Processors require RAM to read and write data at a faster pace. As servers work on multiple instructions, retrieving data from RAM saves much more time than fetching data from hard drives. Moreover, when the processor executes a computer program, that program typically resides in the main memory (RAM). The performance of the memory can ultimately determine the execution speed of the server computer.
Servers use storage components to store various files necessary for executing machine code. This includes operating system files, libraries, databases, website data, application data, etc. On the server side, traditional hard drives and solid-state drives (SSDs) are employed to store data. The choice of the storage element depends on the needs and requirements. For example, a database server should be capable of reading and writing data faster than a file archive server, which need not be as quick.
It is also important to consider that a single storage device can impact server performance negatively. For example, when a storage component fails, all the websites hosted by the web server are bound to go down, resulting in a bad online user experience. Hence, most servers employ a Redundant Array of Independent Disks (RAID) to address such problems and, in turn, increase fault tolerance. RAIDs are an array of independent disks that give better storage performance and data redundancy than any single storage component.
Servers process user requests and deliver content via the internet or a combination of networks such as WAN or LAN. It is inevitable that servers have a higher bandwidth, allowing them to cater to multiple clients and address queries on time.
How does a server work?
When a user enters a website URL in the web browser, several servers are already waiting to provide the requested information. The process begins with the web browser dividing the URL into three parts:
- Protocol: The first part is the hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP or HTTPS), which acts as a communication pathway for servers and browsers to talk to each other.
- Server name: The second part of the URL relates to the server name. Here, a domain name server (DNS) translates the domain name into the server’s IP address that hosts the requested website.
- File name: The final part encapsulates files that include HTML, CSS, fonts, images, graphics, and many other ingredients that make up the requested website.
In step one, the web browser sends a domain name request to the DNS server. Next, the DNS server identifies the IP address associated with the requested domain. Upon receiving the IP address, the browser forwards the user request to the target server. The server then collects the website data along with the dynamic elements necessary to display the website on the user side and sends it back to the user as a response to the user query.
Servers of different types exist today. Several servers can perform multiple jobs, such as hosting websites, sending and receiving emails, safeguarding internal networks, etc. On the other hand, dedicated servers such as database servers or print servers focus on one objective.
Some of the key server types that are an integral part of networking environments are:
1. Web server
Web servers are designed to run websites and apps through client programs (web browsers) such as Internet Explorer, Chrome, Firefox, Opera, or Safari. They are responsible for storing, processing, and delivering web content to users. They support protocols such as HTTP, FTP, and SMTP that are key to information exchange between network devices.
In a network, all machines hosting websites have web server software to better manage user access to hosted files. Some examples of web servers include Apache HTTP Server, Microsoft Internet Information Services (IIS), and Sun Microsystem’s Sun Java System Web Server.
2. Mail server
A mail server facilitates email storage and management for clients. It uses different protocols for sending and receiving emails. For example, the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) is used to send an email. The server relies on the Post Office Protocol (POP3)l to store and receive an email.
Mail servers are similar to a typical post office that stores and sorts mail before sending it to the target destination. Simply put, when a user sends an email to another computer, it requests the mail server to deliver it to the intended recipient. Mail servers rely on several software modules that allow emails to be sent, received, retrieved, and forwarded.
3. Application server
An application server provides an environment that helps develop, process, and run web-based applications, irrespective of their functionality. The server executes computer programs or scripts essential for running PHP, Java, or .Net applications.
Application servers are much like web servers as they tend to use HTTP protocol and answer client requests. However, these servers focus on creating dynamic websites that use object pooling, messaging services, and others; for example, ecommerce websites, blogs, etc. On the other hand, web servers are inclined towards creating static websites where information remains the same, for example, technical documentation websites, corporate portfolio websites, read-only websites, landing pages, and so on.
In some cases, application servers include a web server component in them so that they can perform the function of a web server when needed.
4. Database server
Database servers offer database services to client computers. Users can access, modify, store, and retrieve data from a database by executing a query; for example, an SQL query. Database servers are responsible for handling the security and recovery of database management systems (DBMS). They store digital files, application files, and non-database files. Large organizations use these servers to safeguard their sensitive and valuable corporate data. Some examples of database servers include Microsoft SQL, MySQL, MongoDB, and SQLite.
5. DNS server
DNS servers are domain name servers. These computers resolve server names that reside in a network. DNS servers are an integral part of the internet as they translate user-understandable URLs (for example, www.spiceworks.com) into their corresponding IP addresses.
6. Proxy server
A proxy server acts as an intermediary between local networks and worldwide networks. It provides a communication interface between interacting networks by accepting requests from one network and forwarding them using its own IP address. These servers cache frequently accessed web pages, which helps faster loading when accessed in the future. As a result, the network’s bandwidth is reduced significantly.
Moreover, proxy servers filter network communication and are always available, which is crucial for network load balancing. These servers also keep clients anonymous as their original IP address is replaced with a proxy.
7. DHCP server
Dynamic host configuration protocol (DHCP) servers refer to computer systems that dynamically assign IP addresses to clients. The advantage of this automatic process is that it minimizes the errors that manual handling may bring along, such as typo errors or IP conflicts.
DHCP servers maintain configuration updates of network devices; for example, they update or change expired IP addresses or manage the IP addresses of devices that move from location to location. These servers also play a key role in network administration since they can simultaneously address multiple client requests.
8. File server
A file server refers to a machine that provides shareable disks that can be accessed by the workstations on a network. The disk holds computer files such as text files, images, graphic files, audio & video files, and so on. File servers are typically used for storage purposes. Hence, they neither run computer programs nor perform computational tasks.
File servers use different protocols to access files depending on the computing environment. For example, internet file servers are accessible via FTP and HTTP protocols, while file servers on LAN, such as the ones used in offices and schools, are accessed using SMB or NFS protocol.
9. Gaming server
Gaming servers connect the global online gaming community. They support multiplayer games such as Counter-Strike, Minecraft, etc. Moreover, these servers manage player and game data while synchronizing player activity in the virtual world. ScalaCube, HostHavoc, and Cloudzy are popular game server hosting solutions that rent game servers for games such as ARK, Rust, and others.
10. Print server
Print servers connect printing devices to clients on a network. They accept print tasks from users and queue them in anticipation that printers can fail to cope with the number of requests received in a certain timeframe. These servers use different protocols to accomplish print jobs, such as Internet Printing Protocol, Line Printer Daemon protocol, or JetDirect. Popular brands in the print server market include IOGEAR and HP.
Servers are key to organizations because they enhance the capabilities of a network by offering features such as scalability, efficiency, and business continuity to enterprise networks. While servers are critical for all businesses, the following are some of their fundamental features.
Server Key Features
As businesses expand, the demand for new machines, disk space upgrades, faster speeds, and better control over remote access keeps growing in the networking environment. However, it is worthwhile to note that this system requirement has to be met without replacing older machines. This ensures businesses run smoothly even while updating the client-server architecture. Servers play a critical role in such situations since they are not only capable of supporting the increasing number of clients but also managing dynamic workloads and upgrades.
2. High processing power
Servers provide high processing power to underlying clients as the available compute resources add up in the client-server framework. As a result, networks can handle an increasing number of jobs without impacting performance.
Servers ensure that critical computing systems are always available and online, ensuring zero downtime for businesses. When any network device or component fails, it can impact the company’s business. However, as a client-server setup has multiple devices within a network, the jobs of failed components are taken up by backup devices. Such an arrangement guarantees seamless network connectivity.
Additionally, where there is less load on the network, administrative teams can shut down some idle servers to cut down energy waste.
4. Better collaboration
Unlike standalone systems, servers drive collaboration because professionals and computers can easily access shared network resources, computer programs, and devices.
5. Cost savings
As servers manage a lot of network workload, the overall stress on individual network devices is reduced. As a result, devices showcase good performance throughout without much maintenance, saving companies from additional expenses.
6. Safeguard from cyberattacks
Servers play an important role in protecting network devices or websites from external attacks. For every data request received from the client, the IP address is verified to evaluate its authenticity. If the request shows signs of suspicious behavior, such as in malware attacks or DDoS attacks, the server can deny it and directly block the client’s IP address as a safety measure.
These are a few key features that are distinct from traditional server functions, such as serving user requests, storing data, providing a database to run computational tasks, and managing file transfers. Owing to these benefits, the demand for server architecture has risen globally in recent years.
According to a January 2023 report by ‘The Business Research Company,’ the global computer server market reached a valuation of $94.91 billion in 2022 and is estimated to climb to $100.39 billion in 2023.
Today, servers with a wide range of configurations and specifications are available in the market that can fulfill various client needs. With many server options, organizations need to consider their business goals and objectives to choose the server that best suits their requirements.
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