In order to make the best decisions about an organization’s Information Technology (IT) infrastructure, it is helpful to have a clear understanding of the function of web servers and server hosting. Many terms related to computers and the Internet are used casually or incorrectly, which can make a technical topic challenging to understand.
However, with a functional understanding of how the Internet works, the context to make decisions on subjects such as server hosting becomes much easier.
The Basics: What is the Internet and What Does it Physically Connect?
The Internet is defined by Merriam-Webster as “an electronic communications network that connects computer networks and organizational computer facilities around the world.”
But what are those computer networks made up of?
The computers used by individuals to access the Internet and use programs to communicate with others, whether in a consumer or business context, are generally desktop computers, laptops, and mobile devices.
The computers that those individuals connect to are not others’ home or work computers, but a particular kind of computer called a server.
What is a Server?
Servers are defined by Webopedia as “a type of computer or device on a network that manages network resources.” They are designed to run something on the Internet, such as a website or application. Servers are a specialized type of computer engineered to operate at a consistent performance level 24-hours a day for extended periods of time.
They run a specific kind of operating system and can be used by one particular organization as a single-tenant server, or for resellers as a shared server. There are other categories as well, such as virtual servers and cloud servers. All can do a set of jobs related to running the Internet.
Most web servers operate in large racks alongside dozens or hundreds of other servers in a data center, where they store different kinds of data. The server hosts the data for others to access. The host server transmits data that has been requested to Internet users’ computers or other web servers. Except for some of the largest companies in the world, such as Walmart and Apple, most organizations have servers with their data in the same data center as many other organizations.
The company that leases the server to the business is the hosting service provider, often referred to simply as the web host or host. The user connects to the Internet through a modem. The speed at which they send and receive information is determined by their Internet service provider.
What is Server Hosting and What Does a Server Host Do?
Server hosting is the management of hardware resources to ensure that content such as websites, emails, and media files can be accessed and used by people through the Internet.
Individuals and organizations lease server hosting from web hosting service providers to give them the virtual real estate where their websites, email systems, and other Internet properties can be stored and delivered from. The web hosting provider is responsible for keeping the server running and connected to the Internet so that requests and content can be communicated to and from end-user computers.
Other basic responsibilities of hosting service providers can include:
- Keeping servers from overheating, which is a potential risk for hardware in use 24/7
- Replacing hardware when necessary
- Providing basic customer support
If the server hosting plan is for ‘managed server hosting,’ the hosting provider performs a range of additional tasks specified in the service agreement.
What is Managed Service Hosting?
Managed service providers, such as Liquid Web, take on significantly more responsibility for the system. Their responsibility starts with installing and configuring the server hardware and web service platform, connecting the server to the Internet, and helping customers migrate their data from the source server to the new destination server.
Once those tasks are done, the managed hosting provider provides a full suite of services, including:
- Performance and security monitoring
- Enhanced security measures such as threat intelligence
- Server software and operating system updates
- Root cause analysis of unresponsive services
- Comprehensive customer support
The various types of server hosting allow individuals and organizations of any size in every industry to meet their online needs. Every kind of business, from freelancers to multinational brands, use web server hosting. The main differences between the server hosting used for a personal blog and a large enterprise are the number of servers needed, the type(s) of those servers, and the level of required support and services related to those servers.
What Can Be Hosted on a Server?
Practically any digital data can be stored on a web server. Before the rise of cloud computing, all applications that a business used on its own computers had to be stored locally, either on the computer’s hard drive or an internal company server, rather than a web server.
With the popularity of cloud and software-as-a-service (SaaS) for business applications, many organizations now run most or even all of their business software on servers provided by hosting companies.
Internal servers are still used by some companies to handle information covered under regulations such as HIPAA and PCI, due to the more involved process of maintaining sensitive data and keeping it secure. This is known as HIPAA Compliant Hosting or PCI Compliant Hosting.
The most common uses for web servers include running websites and email, and business collaboration with shared programs and documents.
All of the different parts of a website, such as the content management system, media files, and contact forms are all hosted on the organization’s servers. An online store, eCommerce elements like the catalog, the shopping cart, and possibly the payment system are all hosted on a web server.
There Are Different Types of Servers
The different kinds of servers offered by providers suit the specific needs of organizations and offer web hosting for a myriad of different purposes. Dedicated Servers, for example, are popular among organizations with compliance concerns, such as healthcare companies and eCommerce merchants processing their own payments. An online store that uses a third-party payment solution like PayPal or Square to handle sensitive customer data may prefer the value and scalability provided by Virtual Private Servers (VPS), which can scale as needed and are not tied to one dedicated server physically.
Whatever kind of business you have, the chances are that you have or need server hosting.