“The server is down!”
“I cannot login to the server.”
Servers are loaded.
These are the phrases we hear every day when using the Internet, but what exactly is a “server”? This is one of those terms that everyone uses, but few people know any details.
Chances are high that you found this article by typing “What is a server?” to the search engine. There is nothing to be ashamed of! This is an essential piece of knowledge that any internet user should know and you are going to get all the information you need right here.
What is the Internet actually
To understand what a server is, you must first understand what the Internet (or any computer network) is. For most people, the Internet is like electricity. You plug the cable into the wall and the Internet comes out of it. Just as most people don’t know how a powerhouse works from the inside out, most people don’t really understand how these internet services, such as web pages, streaming video, or email, work.
The concept is actually pretty simple. The Internet is simply a collection of computers connected together by communication equipment such as routers and network cables.
Every time you visit a web page, watch a video, or send an email, there is another computer somewhere in the world that provides content or acts as an intermediary to help you communicate with someone else.
What is server versus client
These computers that provide the SERVICE are commonly referred to as “servers”. The computers receiving these services are called “clients.” See? It’s a pretty simple concept. Servers provide content and services to clients. However, this tells us little about the servers themselves. What exactly?
Servers are just computers
Any computer can be a server. Your home computer can be a server. Though your ISP probably disallows home Internet subscriptions. It’s not just traditional desktop computers. Any computer connected to the network can act as a server, client, or both.
The terms “client” and “server” do not describe a specific device, but describe the roles of computers in a network. For example, if you have a security IP camera, the server software is installed on its tiny embedded computer. When you access the camera, you are logged into a server that provides you with a video stream.
However, not every computer is suitable to act as a server. Very often, when the word “server” is used, it refers to specialized computers that are built from the ground up specifically to function as servers.
Especially server devices
If you ventured into a typical hosting company’s server room, you would see rows of cabinets. Inside these cabinets, you will see server racks stacked on top of each other. As seen in this picture.
Inside each of these racks, you’ll find a dedicated server-grade motherboard, RAM, processor, and storage. Basically, these are the same components found in your computer. Except that inside servers they are much more powerful, more reliable, and more energy efficient. After all, these computers run 24/7, serving millions of customer requests every day.
This is why server hardware is so much more expensive than what you find in a consumer PC. Every minute of server failure can result in losses of thousands of dollars. Therefore, it is worth paying extra to keep these Internet services available.
We won’t go into details here, but server hardware stands out for the following key features:
- Server motherboards support large amounts of RAM. Worth a terabyte in many cases!
- Server motherboards often have multiple CPU sockets.
- Server CPUs tend to have many CPU cores and large amounts of cache.
- Server RAM is usually of a special type with bug fixes for stability.
- Server power supplies can be redundant, instantly switching to redundant if the main unit fails
Rack servers also don’t have keyboards, mice, screens, or speakers. Instead, they are accessed over the network via the command line or using a remote desktop application. Although they usually have the necessary ports to connect peripherals when needed.
A â€œlocalâ€ server is a server that runs on your local home network, not somewhere â€œout thereâ€ on the Internet.
Chances are good that one of your home computers is running some kind of server application and you don’t even know about it. The above IP camera firmware is one example, but there are other applications that work on common desktops and laptops that also fit the bill.
For example, the popular Plex app runs a media server on your local computer. It’s like Netflix running on your local network. Caliber acts as a local file server for e-books, and of course, network storage devices are also a kind of local network server. So, as you can see, there are servers everywhere. Even at your home!
Common server types
While all servers do the same general job, there are explicit server subtypes that specialize in different tasks.
Web servers are incredibly common. The website you are currently reading was sent to you by a web server. Your web browser acts as a client and requests website data from the server. Then it gets the HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) web page code and displays it on your screen. From there it enters your eyes, and now this information is in your head. Beautiful, is not it?
File servers use the FTP or File Transfer Protocol standard, not HTML, and exist to move files from their hard drives to yours.
Email servers handle sending and receiving email messages. This is mainly email.
The list goes on. There are servers that verify login information, servers that act as proxies between company computers and the Internet, streaming media servers at companies like Netflix, and others. As more Internet services are invented, we can expect new types of specialized server hardware and software to emerge over time.
Mainframe vs Server
Another point of confusion is the difference between a “mainframe” and a server. While a server is essentially a hardened desktop computer, mainframes are a different matter entirely.
These computers are much more powerful than server hardware. With a focus on reliability and redundant computing power, these computers are typically used for mission-critical tasks.
Online banking is one example where mainframes can be the best choice. Moreover, mainframes are designed to carry out as many “transactions” as possible. These computers are usually the size of a large refrigerator. They often reach the size of ten rack-mounted servers.
Are you being served?
I hope your curiosity about what computer servers are has subsided. These are just the basics, of course, but now at least you know where your memes come from before they even hit your screen!