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Web Design Reference Guide

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Web Servers

Last updated Oct 17, 2003.

When a Web site's URL changes, it may redirect traffic to its new URL. This is controlled behind the scenes with a server application. The server application is a way for administrators to customize the server in managing various server activities. Rather than serving up a useless 404 (file not found) page with no real information to help the user, the administrator can customize a 404 page and the Web server application sends that page instead of the default.

Apache and Microsoft's IIS are popular Web server applications, which provide a service to client programs. Web servers typically run at all times waiting for requests, which can come through a FTP, DNS, or HTTP to name a few.

Web servers handle multiple requests even simultaneously. Successful ones manage requests quickly and without shutting down from an overload of requests. They also have security and authentication features. Servers can act as a proxy server, which accepts client requests and forwards them to the real servers, and returns the real server responses back to the client.

Apache

The Apache Software Foundation is a non-profit organization supporting the community in its open source and collaborative efforts on Apache-related projects. The Apache Server HTTP Project focuses on developing and maintaining Apache for UNIX and Windows operating systems.

Apache has retained its dominance in Web servers since 1996, less than a year after its debut. Open source doesn't mean it's free, however Apache is a free Web server and its developers are volunteers. Open source means anyone can inspect the code and change it.

It works on Windows operating systems as well as on most types of UNIX such as IBM's OS/2 and Novell Netware. Developers prefer Apache to others because it's configurable and extensible with third-party modules and they create modules using the Apache module API.

The following four directories are typically in every copy of Apache.

  • conf – the httpd.conf configuration file lives in this directory. Over 200 directives can be used in this file.

  • htdocs – holds the files for serving to a browser. The files in this folder are accessible to the public.

  • logs – provides error and access information.

  • cgi-bin – holds the CGI scripts.

The foundation's Web site has instructions for installing and configuring Apache. Also, see the References for other Apache resources.

IIS and Windows Server 2003

PWS, IIS, and Windows Web Server, what's what? For the most part, they're all Microsoft's Web server applications. The application has gone through name and functionality changes with each release.

PWS (Peer or Personal Web Server) is distributed with Windows 98 and is available with the Windows NT Option Pack. Users on Windows 95 can obtain PWS from Microsoft. Windows NT and later operating systems use IIS, which is currently on version 6.0 that is part of a package known as Windows Server 2003. Included in the package are Microsoft .NET Framework, ASP.NET, ASP, UDDI Services, COM+, and MSMQ (Microsoft Message Queuing).

Windows Server 2003 has four editions: standard, enterprise, datacenter, and Web. The Web site has a comparison chart showing the features available in each edition.

A significant difference between Windows Server 2003 and Apache, is Windows uses a GUI (graphic user interface) for setup and maintenance. Though it doesn't have the capability to act as a proxy server like Apache does, it comes with remote maintenance capabilities.

Other Servers

Apache and Microsoft IIS are just two of the big Web servers. Domino Go Webserver, Sun ONE, and Zeus are also Web servers. To see what other Web servers are available, go to Serverwatch.

Returning back to the Internet servers discussion, recall that mail, DNS, file, FTP, and network are also servers. These are different applications that are needed as functions for interacting with Web servers. The following is a list of the more common functions.

DNS (Domain Name Service) – This application makes it possible to for us to use common names and not have to remember a string of numbers. DNS translates the Internet domain names (e.g. www.informit.com) into an IP address used on the Internet (in this case 165.193.123.40).

Mail Server – Refers to the physical server that houses the e-mail system (e.g. – MS Exchange)

File Server – This is the server(s) housing the data files.

Network Server – Any physical server connected to a network.

FTP (File Transfer Protocol) – This is a simple way to transfer files between two locations. It allows trhe user to login to a site, often anonymously, for the purpose of retrieving or sending of files. Many companies have established public accessible repositories of information and can be accessed by anonymous FTP, coining the term "Anonymous FTP Server." An interesting note is that FTP was invented and in wide spread use back when the "Internet" was strictly a text-interface, long before the advent of the World Wide Web.

It is important to remember that each one of these applications is not necessarily the only application running on a physical server. Often each physical server can handle several application functions. For example, the DNS Server is the physical box that DNS is running on. This same physical box can be the File Server and the FTP Server.