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“The server is down!”

“I can’t login to the server.”

“The servers have their capacity.”

These are the kind of phrases we hear on a daily basis when using the internet, but what exactly is a “server”. It’s one of those terms that everyone uses, but few people really know anything about it.

Chances are you found this article by “What is a server?” in a search engine. It’s nothing to be ashamed of! It is an essential piece of knowledge that every internet user should know and you are about to get all the essential information here.

What the Internet REALLY is

To understand what a server is, you must first understand what the Internet (or a computer network) is. For most people, the internet is like electricity. You plug a cable into the wall and the internet comes out. Just as most people don’t know the inner workings of a power plant, most people don’t really understand it how those internet services such as web pages, video streaming or email work.

The concept is actually quite simple. The Internet is simply a collection of computers connected by communication hardware, such as routers and network cables.

Whenever you visit a web page, watch a video, or send an email, there is another computer somewhere in the world delivering the content or acting as an intermediary to help you communicate with someone else.

What is a server vs a client?

These computers, which provide the SERVICES, are what we generally call “servers”. The computers that receive these services are called “clients”. To see? It’s a pretty simple concept. Servers deliver content and services to customers. However, that doesn’t tell us much about the servers themselves. But what exactly are they?

Servers are just computers

Any computer can be a server. Your home computer can be a server. Although your ISP probably prohibits the use of home internet plans. It’s not just traditional desktop computers, either. Any computer connected to the network can act as a server, client, or both.

Rather than being a description of a specific device, the concepts of “client” and “server” describe the roles computers have on a network. For example, if you have an IP security camera, server software is installed on the small built-in computer. When you open the camera, you log in to a server that provides you with a video stream.

That said, not every computer is suited to act as a server. As often as the word “server” is used, it refers to specialized computers built from the ground up to act specifically as a server.

Server hardware is special

If you were to venture into the typical server room of a website hosting company, you would see rows and rows of cabinets. In these cabinets you see racks with servers stacked on top of each other. As seen in this photo.

Inside each of these racks, you’ll find a dedicated server-grade motherboard, RAM, CPU, and storage. Basically these are the same parts as those in your computer. Only they are much more powerful, reliable and energy efficient within servers. After all, these computers operate 24/7 and serve millions of customer requests every day.

This is why server hardware is much more expensive than the stuff you find in a consumer PC. Every minute a server is down can cause thousands of dollars in losses. So it pays to pay a premium to ensure that the internet services in question remain available.

We won’t go into detail here, but server hardware differentiates itself in the following ways:

  • Server motherboards support large amounts of RAM. Worth terabytes in many cases!
  • Server motherboards often have multiple CPU sockets
  • Server CPUs usually have many CPU cores and large amounts of cache
  • Server RAM is usually of a special error-correcting type to ensure stability
  • Server power supplies can be redundant and immediately switch to backup if the main unit fails

Rack servers also don’t have keyboards, mice, screens, or speakers. Instead, they can be accessed over the network via the command line or using a remote desktop application. Although they usually do have the required ports to connect these peripherals if needed.

Local servers

A “local” server is one that runs on your local home network, rather than somewhere “out there” on the Internet.

Chances are you have some server application on one of your home computers and don’t even know it. The aforementioned embedded software for IP cameras is an example of this, but there are also other applications that run on regular desktop and laptop systems.

For example, the popular Plex application runs a media server on your local computer. This is like Netflix running on your local network. Caliber acts as a local file server for ebooks and of course network attached storage devices are also a kind of local network server. So, as you can see, servers are everywhere. Also at your home!

Common server types

While all servers have the same general task, there are distinct subtypes of servers 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. It then receives the HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) web page code and displays it on your screen. From there it enters your eyeballs and this information is now in your head. Neat right?

file servers use the FTP or File transfer protocol default instead of HTML and exist to move files from their own hard drives to yours.

Email Servers handle sending and receiving e-mail messages. Basically it is an electronic post office.

The list continues. There are servers that verify credentials, servers that act as a proxy between company computers and the Internet, media streaming servers at companies like Netflix, and more. As more internet services are invented, we can expect new types of specialized server hardware and software over time.

“Mainframe” vs “Server”

A final point of confusion is the difference between a ‘mainframe’ computer and a server. While a server is essentially a fortified desktop computer, mainframes are an entirely different beast.

These computers are much, much more powerful than server hardware. The emphasis on reliability and additional processing power is much higher, and these computers are typically used for mission-critical tasks.

Online banking is an example where mainframes can be a better choice. Especially since mainframe computers are built to go through as many “transactions” as possible. These computers are usually about the size of a large refrigerator. They are often as large as ten rack-mounted servers.

Are you already being helped?

Hopefully your curiosity about what computer servers are now has abated. These are of course just the basics, but at least now you know where your memes are coming from before they reach your screen!

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