All of the content on the Internet is stored on servers. A server is a machine much like a personal computer. When you save a file on your computer, that file is written to your hard drive. You can go back into your file system later, click on the document or picture to open it, and it will be displayed on your screen.
Using the Internet allows you to connect to the file system on the hard drive of a different machine, but the result is the same — the page displays on your screen. The Internet is like your own computer but multiplied millions of times.
In fact, your PC can be and often is used as a server. If you’re running an anti-virus program, for example, the program has a built-in feature that allows the anti-virus company to update the program with new information. When you’re online, your PC will automatically contact the program vendor to check for updates to the software. The anti-virus vendor will respond by asking your machine for information about what updates are already installed. When your machine sends that information, it’s acting as a server.
When Internet usage was gathering speed in the mid-1990s, a network model was being used in many businesses called the client-server network. It allowed companies to provide information to many users without the expense of purchasing a mainframe computer. Mainframes were so expensive that only the largest companies could afford them.
With the coming of client-server networks, smaller companies could make use of computing power. In a typical client-server network, most of the machines were clients, and all of them connected to a single machine, the server. The server was where shared files were stored. The server was typically a more powerful computer, with more memory, larger hard drives, and a faster processor.
In that model, the server was like the hub at the center of a bicycle wheel, and all of the client machines were like spokes that connected to it. When the Internet came along, the model changed. Suddenly, all of the computers in the network could connect to each other using Internet protocols. Instead of a bicycle wheel, the picture of machines connecting to each other now looked like a spider web. Seen on a very large scale, that is the origin of the phrase World Wide Web.
In the early days of the Web as we now think of it, it was common for people or companies to build websites on their own PCs and allow others to view the site using the Internet. Early versions of Microsoft’s web building program FrontPage had a feature called Personal Web Server, which made the process as simple as clicking a button to install. Of course, when people visited the site, and the home or company’s computer delivered the site via the Internet, the computer had to do extra work to serve the files. If several people visited the site at the same time, the computer had to do a lot of extra work, sometimes so much extra work that it couldn’t be used to do other work.
Dedicate a computer
The next move was to dedicate a computer to doing nothing but serving files to the Internet: a web server. Before long, manufacturers and clever individuals began building machines that were designed only for the purpose of acting as web servers, machines with more storage capacity and faster processors to keep up with demand.
While all this was happening, and Internet use was exploding, a bottleneck was encountered. The web servers were getting faster, but the communication lines that carried the data from web servers to website visitors couldn’t handle the traffic. Staying connected and keeping the site available meant dedicating a telephone line to the web server.
This was not only expensive; it was inadequate. If the connection was lost, the site was down. There were high-speed connections such as T-1 lines available from the telephone companies, but they required extra lines to be run. And by the time a “loop charge” for that was figured in, the cost was often thousands of dollars per month. ISDN lines were more available, but those cost hundreds of dollars per month and delivered the now agonizingly slow connection speed of 128K.
We’re still talking about the late 1990s. DSL and cable were not yet on the scene. The Web was still being dismissed by a lot of people as a fad, but the demand was continuing to increase, and there were still significant problems getting it to work at all.
Web hosting companies
This is where web hosting companies were created. They were entrepreneurs and engineers, visionaries and problem solvers. If the problem was the high cost of high-speed data lines, why not share that cost among many users? If the expertise and hardware required to keep a web server running for every website was too expensive, why not share the web server? Why not act as a “host” to provide the bandwidth, hardware, and expertise to people who wanted to publish websites?
The number of web hosting companies began to increase. The industry was new and exciting. It required specialized skills. And there was no real business model to follow. People made things up as they went along. They not only hosted websites, but many of them also acted as ISPs (Internet service providers) and sold access to the Internet through dial-up connections. A lot of companies also offered web development and design services.
The world wide wait
But there were new sets of problems. Hardworking web servers produce heat. A lot of servers in a room produce a lot of heat. When a server gets hot, it crashes. And of course, if it’s hot enough in a room to crash one server, you’re likely to crash a lot of servers. Not to mention power outages. When web hosting companies found themselves hosting large websites with demanding clients, they learned that losing power means that websites go offline, and that results in unhappy customers.
This was roughly the era known at the time as “the world wide wait.” We were in the new century, but connections were slow, and pages took forever to load. And then broadband became widely available. Computers became more reliable. Companies started to specialize. The business models began to make sense. The technology began to work.
The state of today’s web hosting
Today, if you were to walk into a professional web hosting place of business, you would have a difficult time getting past the lobby without an escort. Data is critical, and systems are sensitive, so the data centers where the servers reside are secure areas.
Once you get inside the bulletproof glass doors, the air is cool and clean. There is a low hum from the air filtration and air conditioning system. Cool air comes out of vents in the floor and the ceiling. There are refrigerator-sized racks that hold banks of servers. And there are dozens and hundreds of servers. Thick cables snake around the room. They are high-speed data cables.
Some web hosts have multiple data line providers. All systems are redundant.
Outside the building, there are diesel-powered generators — often more than one — which provide emergency power if needed. Some companies have multiple power grids so that in the event of a local power outage, they can switch to another power source. And this is before they turn on the diesel generators.
All of this has taken place in less than a decade.
There are now data centers the size of football stadiums. There are hundreds of smaller web hosts that occupy whole floors of tall buildings. On the other hand, there are still some people out there running web hosting companies from locations above an abandoned bakery. Some of them do a great job. It is important to know who you are dealing with.
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