Overview

The primary function of a web server is to deliver web pages on the request to clients. This means delivery of HTML documents and any additional content that may be included by a document, such as images, style sheets and scripts.

A client, commonly a web browser or web crawler, initiates communication by making a request for a specific resource using HTTP and the server responds with the content of that resource or an error message if unable to do so. The resource is typically a real file on the server's secondary memory, but this is not necessarily the case and depends on how the web server is implemented.

While the primary function is to serve content, a full implementation of HTTP also includes ways of receiving content from clients. This feature is used for submitting web forms, including uploading of files.

Many generic web servers also support server-side scripting, e.g., Active Server Pages (ASP) and PHP. This means that the behaviour of the web server can be scripted in separate files, while the actual server software remains unchanged. Usually, this function is used to create HTML documents "on-the-fly" as opposed to returning fixed documents. This is referred to as dynamic and static content respectively. The former is primarily used for retrieving and/or modifying information from databases. The latter is, however, typically much faster and more easily cached.

Web servers are not always used for serving the world wide web. They can also be found embedded in devices such as printers, routers, webcams and serving only a local network. The web server may then be used as a part of a system for monitoring and/or administrating the device in question. This usually means that no additional software has to be installed on the client computer, since only a web browser is required (which now is included with most oparating systems).