|What is a server and what kinds of servers are there? What is the difference between a server and a workstation?|
What is a Server
You have arrived at a site that promotes LAMP Linux servers, a drastically less expensive alternative to Micro$oft servers. LAMP software can run on a normal PC in your home at one extreme, or on a virtual cloud server at a provider like Amazon or Rackspace on the other. It is an ideal way for you to have your own server rather than using an ISP.
A server is just a computer that sits on a network waiting for clients to ask for things. It talks to the world through its network cable, it thus does not normally need a screen or keyboard. It is not the computer, but the programs running on the server that wait for client programs to ask for things. Many different server programs can be running at once and a server can thus be responding to many kinds of requests (of course the more that are running the more possible security holes there are). The server can respond to multiple requests quickly and simultaneously. Servers generally store data and clients ask for it, edit it and add to it.
Almost all computers today are connected to the internet. Vast storehouses of information are out there stored in databases on servers and we access them using a web browser like Netscape, Opera, Firefox, Chrome or Internet Explorer. Increasingly we are not just looking up information on the internet but controlling it as we do our banking, buying and selling, shopping, trip planning and booking, etc on these servers. The kind of computer we have is not as important anymore, as long as it runs a nice web browser.
What Makes a Computer a Server?
Most of the servers on the Internet are just standard Pentium computers. The vast majority run the Linux or Windows operating systems. As noted, what makes these machines servers is quite simple: they are running programs that serve data when asked by clients. There are many kinds of software servers. An FTP server (file transfer protocol), for example, talks to FTP client programs. Likewise mail servers talk to mail clients. However the most popular kind of server by far is the Web Server. It talks to web browsers and serves pages when asked. It is important to remember that a web server does not need to be connected to the internet, it can just be connected to your office network and all connected machines can talk to it in a manner just like the internet.
Your Computer Can be a Combination Client and Server
Your workstation computer can thus be turned into a combination workstation-server by simply installing some kind of server software, starting it up, and connecting it to the internet or your network. The fascinating part of this is that the server software runs in the background, your computer continues to operate normally (albeit a little slower) and you can access the internet normally. The only evidence of the server running might be a little icon on a task bar or blinking pixel in a corner of the screen. You can install and launch multiple kinds of servers on your computer and still continue to use it as a workstation.
Here is the amazing part: You can install a server and client on the same computer and use the client to log into the server. The client does not know that the server is on the same computer, the client software (e.g. web browser) still thinks it is on the internet even though it is talking to the server on the same computer. This bit of magic works because operating systems like Windows, OSX and Linux have all the standard ‘plumbing’ built into facilitate the transport of internet protocol messages.
Web Servers vs. File Servers
A file server is a device that connects to your network and your computers see it as a place they can store files; it behaves as if it were another drive attached to the computer. Windows servers have varying methods of restricting access to those files and the Windows computers attached to the network know how to deal with the server’s security mechanisms. This means programs on your local PC can be configured to read and write files on a remote server. If multiple PCs are reading and writing one file on a server then there needs to be some sort of multiple access control built into each program. File servers are seen across a network using Microsofts SMB file sharing conventions. If you want to connect to a server named tiger you tell windows to look for tiger.
A web server is a software program running on a PC. It is very different. It can be seen across a network as an IP Address (e.g. 192.168.2.203) however it can only be seen by web clients (e.g. Internet Explorer, Firefox) who ask for it by its IP Address (you can learn more about IP Addresses elsewhere on this site). It waits for clients to ask for web pages and it returns them. It can run programs embedded within those web pages to accomplish information management tasks.
Why should your life revolve around a web server rather than a file server? Trust me, it should. How do you think the owners of ebay.com or amazon.com monitor their empires. They log on to an administration section of the website and they can do it from any computer or phone that has a web browser. Ebay.com is a virtual empire that exists inside a web server.
Kinds of Web Servers
There are hundreds of different choices when it comes to web servers. Microsoft has plenty of reasons why you should choose their products and ways of doing things. However, I recommend a LAMP open source server, that is, one running the Linux operating system (not Windows), Apache web server software, MySQL database server software and the PHP programming language. These are available at little or no cost and are much better for this specific purpose. I will explain these four technologies in detail.
Only custom-written web components can go down any road you choose!
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