Technical terms can get confusing, but understanding the definitions of different terms and how they relate to each other can be important to understanding how things work. Two terms you may come across in similar contexts are application server and web server. Based on how they’re used, you’re likely to wonder how they differ.
Here’s the rundown on application servers vs. web servers, what you should know about the difference, and how they relate to application hosting.
What is a Web Server?
A web server is the technology that serves up a website to users when they visit a URL. On the technical side of things, what that means is that it handles the hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP). When a client (which is usually a browser or mobile app) queries the server (by visiting a URL or accessing the app), the web server does the work of processing that request and delivering up the web page—or at least the static parts of the web page.
How Web Servers Are Used
This is all what happens on the backend when you visit a website. People don’t usually have to think much about what web servers are or how they work in order to browse the web, or even to run a website. Unless working with web servers is your job, the only time you’re likely to have any reason to think about them is when you’re launching a website and you need to find website hosting.
For most website owners, having your own web server is impractical. The power needed to store all the files that make up a website and deliver HTTP protocol to the hundreds or thousands of visitors that come to a site is beyond what most individuals can take care of with their own resources. The physical hardware that powers web servers is large and sensitive. It wouldn’t easily fit in your average three-bedroom home, and even most offices don’t have good facilities for managing a web server well.
In addition to the space involved, web servers also need the right kind of care. They must be stored in climate-controlled environments to avoid overheating. They need regular maintenance from skilled professionals to stay in working order. And for the web hosting they provide to stay secure from hackers, they need to be equipped with the proper firewalls and other security measures that keep the websites they power safe.
Web hosting companies take care of all that and rent out space on their servers for a monthly or annual fee. How web hosting works is that every website you visit online lives on a web server somewhere that does the work of delivering each web page you view on your browser. But for the most part, those web servers do their job in the background, far away from the people running the websites and the people viewing them alike.
What is an Application Server?
An application server is a little harder to describe in layman’s terms. It’s the software server that both web applications and desktop applications run on.
Application servers host what you call business logic, which is the code that provides the functionality needed to build and run dynamic content. If that’s still a little too technical for you, an application server is essentially the software framework that allows programs and websites to create and serve up dynamic content.
It’s used for websites that include dynamic features ( features that change based on specific parameters, such as where the visitor is geographically or whether an item is currently in stock). But it’s not exclusively used for websites. Application servers can be used for other types of platforms and applications as well, particularly at the enterprise level.
Mobile Application Servers
As mobile use soars, mobile application servers are now a growing subset of application servers. These work in a similar way to other servers, but for mobile apps. They essentially serve as the middle component between the backend system and mobile devices, making sure that the different components of an app or web page show up appropriately on a mobile device.
Since mobile devices have certain features and limitations, mobile application servers often have to do the work of ensuring the mobile version of a program or website functions well in spite of the limited connectivity, power, and bandwidth that’s normal with mobile devices.
For mobile technology used by businesses, mobile application servers contain the software that provides access across device types and process important elements of that access such as authentication, security features, and updates.
How Are Application Servers and Web Servers Different?
Application servers and web servers provide similar functionality and have a lot in common in the role they play, but the differences are worth being aware of.
Application servers work with more than just http protocol.
Web servers basically have one primary job: they process HTTP requests in order to display websites. Application servers often have this ability as well, but they go further and provide additional functionality. They work both with websites and with other types of programs. And they can add a layer of adaptivity to the information they deliver.
Web servers serve static content.
Web servers on their own provide static web pages to browsers. While you can visit a website that includes adaptive components, those are powered by additional technology beyond the web server itself. The part the web server provides when you type a URL into a browser is the same regardless of the place a person is, the device they’re using, or any other factors that might otherwise influence what they see.
Application servers can enable additional functionality.
The websites and applications that use application servers often need to provide features that go beyond the static functionality web servers provide. Application servers can enable features like transactions, personalization, and messaging services. These enhanced features are increasingly used and expected for websites of all types.
It’s Not Either-Or
The framing of “application servers vs web servers” isn’t really accurate. Generally speaking, it’s not a matter of choosing between the two or deciding which is better. Most of the time, they’re a package deal.
Application servers can contain web servers.
Web servers are usually one part of an application server. In addition to the other functionality they provide, they also tend to enable HTTP protocol. Sometimes the web server function is an important part of the other features an application server offers. Most often, when you hear someone talk about application servers, you can assume a web server is one part of what they’re describing.
Web servers and application servers often work in tandem.
Even though many application servers include a web server, application servers are most commonly used alongside web servers. You can get speedier and better results by having a web server that takes care of the static portion of serving up a website, and an application server that handles any dynamic functions. Web servers can handle caching and simple requests that don’t require much bandwidth, leaving the application server to exert its power only on the more complex requests that require it. That way, simple web requests don’t overtax or slow down the application server and both pieces of the overall solution do their jobs better.
Developers can ensure that a website knows how to recognize which requests only require the web server, and can incorporate a filtering technique to identify dynamic content requests and automatically forward them to the application server. By working together, the two types of technology provide better results all around.
How Are Application Servers and Web Servers Alike?
While the ways they differ matter, web servers and application servers are more alike than they are different at the end of the day. Both serve as the middleware or bridge between the back systems that keep a website running and what the user sees when they access it. They help translate the technical side of things into something web designers and everyday web users can interact with in a way that’s intuitive and helpful.
And while they’re both invisible to the vast majority of users, they help power the web we all depend on every single day.
Which Do I Need?
For most web users, the distinction won’t really matter. And often the terms are used interchangeably, in part because the vast majority of us don’t need to worry about what the difference is.
In practice, what you need is a reliable web hosting provider who takes care of the web servers for you and provides compatibility with any applications you use in order to bring all the functionality you need to your website. Don’t feel like you have to choose between one or the other. A good application web hosting plan can do both.
How to Find the Right Web Hosting Plan
A good web hosting provider will have the right bandwidth and features to enable all your static and dynamic website needs. You won’t have to worry about what’s happening on the backend, you can simply enjoy the results of it for your website and visitors. You don’t even have to think about it during the designing process, especially if you use a website builder that makes it extra easy.
But the market for web hosting plans is large. To find a good web hosting provider that will take all the complicated aspects of worrying about web servers and applications out of your hands, here’s a short list of the main things to look for.
Possibly the most important responsibility a web hosting company has is making sure your website is consistently up and available for your visitors. Web servers must occasionally go offline for maintenance. But the best web hosting companies make sure those times are so rare you barely notice it.
With less reputable companies, your website can go offline for a variety of reasons: insufficient maintenance, repairs, hardware glitches, hacker attacks, or weather problems like the the server warehouse flooding. In the industry, the amount of time your website is available to visitors is called uptime. And uptime is one of the main differences you’ll find between different service providers.
The reason you pay a web hosting company is to do the work of maintaining the web servers for you. For your money, find a company that does it well. The best web hosting companies promise at least 99% uptime. And some (like HostGator) actually go so far as to assure 99.9% uptime with a money-back guarantee.
Ease of Use
You don’t have to know the technical ins and outs of how your web hosting technology works. With an intuitive web hosting provider, you just need to know how to log into your account and cover the basics: managing domain names, setting up redirects, and keeping your billing up to date. If you’ll be using a popular content management system (CMS) or other application to build your website with, then you also want a web hosting plan that makes installation easy and provides compatibility,
And a good web hosting plan will provide plenty of resources on how to use the account management and cPanel tools you’ll use to manage your website.
24/7 customer service
If reading about the technical side of web and application servers leaves you feeling confused, have no fear. You don’t have to shoulder the responsibility of the technical side of running your website alone.
Any good web hosting provider will offer customer support to help you figure out a range of issues related to building and running your website. And while having any access at all to customer support makes a difference, it’s that much more valuable to have consistent access at the moment you need it.
Find a web hosting company that offers customer support 24/7 and has a good reputation for the level of support they provide.
Website hacks are all too common in the modern world. And if your website will collect personal information from visitors, the risk is that much more serious. Choosing the right web hosting provider is the first step in creating a secure website.
Check that your web hosting company invests in infrastructure that keeps their web servers safe and sets up firewalls to keep hackers out. And look for additional features or add-ons such as an SSL certificate or security software. Some simple additions can make your website that much safer.
Choose Application Web Hosting Solutions
While it can be valuable to understand the distinction, you don’t have to choose between an application server and a web server. When you choose an application web hosting plan, you can be confident that your web hosting service provides all the functionality you need.
They’ll take care of managing the web servers and application servers on their end and make sure everything works together as it should. You can focus on building an awesome website that delivers the experience you want your visitors to have.
Regardless if you’re looking into shared hosting, dedicated server hosting, or any other hosting plan, HostGator can help. Contact our team of experts today for further assistance on our website hosting plans.
Kristen Hicks is an Austin-based freelance content writer and lifelong learner with an ongoing curiosity to learn new things. She uses that curiosity, combined with her experience as a freelance business owner, to write about subjects valuable to small business owners on the HostGator blog. You can find her on Twitter at @atxcopywriter.