Web server

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The inside and front of a Dell PowerEdge web server, a computer designed for rack mounting

A web server is a computer system that processes requests via HTTP, the basic network protocol used to distribute information on the World Wide Web. The term can refer to the entire system, or specifically to the software that accepts and supervises the HTTP requests.[1]


The primary function of a web server is to store, process and deliver web pages to clients. The communication between client and server takes place using the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP). Pages delivered are most frequently HTML documents, which may include images, style sheets and scripts in addition to text content.

Multiple web servers may be used for a high traffic website, here Dell servers are installed together being used for the Wikimedia Foundation

A user agent, commonly a web browser or web crawler, initiates communication by making a request for a specific resource using HTTP and the server responds with the content of that resource or an error message if unable to do so. The resource is typically a real file on the server's secondary storage, but this is not necessarily the case and depends on how the web server is implemented.

While the primary function is to serve content, a full implementation of HTTP also includes ways of receiving content from clients. This feature is used for submitting web forms, including uploading of files.

Many generic web servers also support server-side scripting using Active Server Pages (ASP), PHP, or other scripting languages. This means that the behaviour of the web server can be scripted in separate files, while the actual server software remains unchanged. Usually, this function is used to generate HTML documents dynamically ("on-the-fly") as opposed to returning static documents. The former is primarily used for retrieving or modifying information from databases. The latter is typically much faster and more easily cached but cannot deliver dynamic content.

Web servers are not only used for serving the World Wide Web. They can also be found embedded in devices such as printers, routers, webcams and serving only a local network. The web server may then be used as a part of a system for monitoring or administering the device in question. This usually means that no additional software has to be installed on the client computer, since only a web browser is required (which now is included with most operating systems).


The world's first web server, a NeXT Computer workstation with Ethernet, 1990. The case label reads: "This machine is a server. DO NOT POWER IT DOWN!!"
Sun's Cobalt Qube 3 - a computer server appliance (2002, discontinued)

In 1989 Tim Berners-Lee proposed a new project to his employer CERN, with the goal of easing the exchange of information between scientists by using a hypertext system. The project resulted in Berners-Lee writing two programs in 1990:

Between 1991 and 1994, the simplicity and effectiveness of early technologies used to surf and exchange data through the World Wide Web helped to port them to many different operating systems and spread their use among scientific organizations and universities, and subsequently to industry.

In 1994 Berners-Lee decided to constitute the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to regulate the further development of the many technologies involved (HTTP, HTML, etc.) through a standardization process.

Path translation

Web servers are able to map the path component of a Uniform Resource Locator (URL) into:

  • A local file system resource (for static requests)
  • An internal or external program name (for dynamic requests)

For a static request the URL path specified by the client is relative to the web server's root directory.

Consider the following URL as it would be requested by a client:


The client's user agent will translate it into a connection to www.example.com with the following HTTP 1.1 request:

GET /path/file.html HTTP/1.1
Host: www.example.com

The web server on www.example.com will append the given path to the path of its root directory. On an Apache server, this is commonly /home/www (On Unix machines, usually /var/www). The result is the local file system resource:


The web server then reads the file, if it exists, and sends a response to the client's web browser. The response will describe the content of the file and contain the file itself or an error message will return saying that the file does not exist or is unavailable.

Kernel-mode and user-mode web servers

A web server can be either incorporated into the OS kernel, or in user space (like other regular applications).

Web servers that run in user-mode have to ask the system for permission to use more memory or more CPU resources. Not only do these requests to the kernel take time, but they are not always satisfied because the system reserves resources for its own usage and has the responsibility to share hardware resources with all the other running applications. Executing in user mode can also mean useless buffer copies which are another handicap for user-mode web servers.

Load limits

A web server (program) has defined load limits, because it can handle only a limited number of concurrent client connections (usually between 2 and 80,000, by default between 500 and 1,000) per IP address (and TCP port) and it can serve only a certain maximum number of requests per second (RPS, also known as queries per second or QPS) depending on:

  • its own settings,
  • the HTTP request type,
  • whether the content is static or dynamic,
  • whether the content is cached, and
  • the hardware and software limitations of the OS of the computer on which the web server runs.

When a web server is near to or over its limit, it becomes unresponsive.

Causes of overload

At any time web servers can be overloaded due to:

  • Excess legitimate web traffic. Thousands or even millions of clients connecting to the web site in a short interval, e.g., Slashdot effect;
  • Distributed Denial of Service attacks. A denial-of-service attack (DoS attack) or distributed denial-of-service attack (DDoS attack) is an attempt to make a computer or network resource unavailable to its intended users;
  • Computer worms that sometimes cause abnormal traffic because of millions of infected computers (not coordinated among them)
  • XSS viruses can cause high traffic because of millions of infected browsers or web servers;
  • Internet bots Traffic not filtered/limited on large web sites with very few resources (bandwidth, etc.);
  • Internet (network) slowdowns, so that client requests are served more slowly and the number of connections increases so much that server limits are reached;
  • Web servers (computers) partial unavailability. This can happen because of required or urgent maintenance or upgrade, hardware or software failures, back-end (e.g., database) failures, etc.; in these cases the remaining web servers get too much traffic and become overloaded.

Symptoms of overload

The symptoms of an overloaded web server are:

  • Requests are served with (possibly long) delays (from 1 second to a few hundred seconds).
  • The web server returns an HTTP error code, such as 500, 502, 503, 504, 408, or even 404, which is inappropriate for an overload condition.
  • The web server refuses or resets (interrupts) TCP connections before it returns any content.
  • In very rare cases, the web server returns only a part of the requested content. This behavior can be considered a bug, even if it usually arises as a symptom of overload.

Anti-overload techniques

To partially overcome above average load limits and to prevent overload, most popular web sites use common techniques like:

  • Managing network traffic, by using:
    • Firewalls to block unwanted traffic coming from bad IP sources or having bad patterns
    • HTTP traffic managers to drop, redirect or rewrite requests having bad HTTP patterns
    • Bandwidth management and traffic shaping, in order to smooth down peaks in network usage
  • Deploying web cache techniques
  • Using different domain names to serve different (static and dynamic) content by separate web servers, i.e.:
    • http://images.example.com
    • http://www.example.com
  • Using different domain names or computers to separate big files from small and medium-sized files; the idea is to be able to fully cache small and medium-sized files and to efficiently serve big or huge (over 10 - 1000 MB) files by using different settings
  • Using many internet servers (programs) per computer, each one bound to its own network card and IP address
  • Using many internet servers (computers) that are grouped together behind a load balancer so that they act or are seen as one big web server
  • Adding more hardware resources (i.e. RAM, disks) to each computer
  • Tuning OS parameters for hardware capabilities and usage
  • Using more efficient computer programs for web servers, etc.
  • Using other workarounds, especially if dynamic content is involved

Market share

The LAMP (software bundle) (here additionally with Squid), composed entirely of free and open-source software, is a high performance and high-availability heavy duty solution for a hostile environment
Market share of all sites of major web servers 2005-2016
For more details on HTTP server programs, see Category:Web server software.

February 2017

Below are the latest statistics of the market share of all sites of the top web servers on the Internet by Netcraft February 2017 Web Server Survey.

Product Vendor January 2017 Percent February 2017 Percent Change Chart color
IIS Microsoft 821,905,283 45.66% 773,552,454 43.16% -2.50 red
Apache Apache 387,211,503 21.51% 374,297,080 20.89% -0.63 black
nginx NGINX, Inc. 317,398,317 17.63% 348,025,788 19.42% 1.79 green
GWS Google 17,933,762 1.00% 18,438,702 1.03% 0.03 blue

February 2016

Below are the latest statistics of the market share of all sites of the top web servers on the Internet by Netcraft February 2016 Web Server Survey.

Product Vendor January 2016 Percent February 2016 Percent Change Chart color
Apache Apache 304,271,061 33.56% 306,292,557 32.80% 0.76 black
IIS Microsoft 262,471,886 28.95% 278,593,041 29.83% 0.88 red
nginx NGINX, Inc. 141,443,630 15.60% 137,459,391 16.61% -0.88 green
GWS Google 20,799,087 2.29% 20,640,058 2.21% -0.08 blue

Apache, IIS and Nginx are the most used web servers on the Internet.

See also


  1. ^ "What is web server?'". webdevelopersnotes. 2010-11-23. Retrieved 2010-11-23. 

A web server is a computer system that processes requests via HTTP, the basic network protocol used to distribute information on the World Wide Web.

External links

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