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Web Server vs. Application Server: Differences and Examples

March 28, 2024

Web Server Vs. Application Server

Servers handle the requests your browser makes while you’re online. Two types of servers technically handle these requests: the web server and the application server.

Web servers take care of requests for static content, like HTML pages, images, videos, or files. Application servers manage requests for dynamic content that changes based on your interactions with a web page. 

This article compares web servers and application servers to understand when to use one or the other.

Some companies that rely on web servers use web server acceleration tools to reduce response time, speeding up content delivery. This helps when there are numerous requests to respond to. Application servers generally take longer to respond since they deal with complex business logic. 

A web server provides static content by sending hypertext markup language (HTML) pages, files, videos, and images to a web browser and responding using hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP)

An application server facilitates interaction between the user and the server side’s application code while delivering web content. It also provides dynamic content, such as real-time analytics. 

However, distinguishing between the two has become tricky. Web servers nowadays use scripting languages like hypertext preprocessor (PHP) or active server page (ASP) to make content dynamic. While this is happening, application servers have started using HTTP to communicate and offer reverse proxy, load balancing, and various other services to improve performance and reliability. It helps developers focus more on app development than on infrastructure. 

Due to these overlaps, professionals refer to these both servers as web application servers. Many use the two terms interchangeably since they can easily perform both jobs. 

How does a web server work?

A web server manages all the bits and pieces of a website's code and data. Whenever you type a website's URL into your browser, you’re really looking for the web server where that website lives.

Here’s an overview of how your browser and web server talk. 

  • Your browser finds the web server’s internet protocol (IP) address based on the URL you enter.
  • Then, your browser asks the web server for the website’s information through an HTTP request. 
  • The web server contacts a database server to get the data and fulfill the request.
  • When the web server finds the data you want, it returns that data to your browser as an HTTP response.
  • The browser takes this response and shows it to you on the screen. 

Websites with static content like articles or images work with web servers. However, modern web pages include several interactive elements, such as filling out a form. These interactions need an application server to work smoothly. We detail the way application servers operate in a few sections, but first, let’s discuss use cases for web servers.

What are web servers used for?

Web servers extensively manage websites and data. They handle browser requests in order to send correct responses, ensure communication with legitimate users, and keep malicious hackers out of the picture. 

During heavy traffic inflow, web servers control the data that travels back and forth to prevent slowdowns or website crashes. This helps web servers manage more visitors easily. Some organizations use web server accelerator software to reduce response time, while they also employ compression techniques to improve connection speed. 

Top 5 web accelerator software platforms: 

  1. YOTTAA
  2. Varnish Software
  3. Speed Kit
  4. F5 NGINX Plus
  5. Amazon DynamoDB Accelerator (DAX)

* These are the top 5 web accelerator software based on G2 Score as of March 8, 2024.

Click to chat with G2's Monty-AI

With server-side web scripting, developers can make pages that adapt based on how users interact. Programming languages like PHP, Python, and Ruby make it possible, helping developers add more interaction and personalization. 

These servers often use virtual hosting to run multiple websites or applications. This makes for efficient resource usage and keeps costs down. 

Examples of web servers

Below are some common examples of web servers you might find engineers talking about.

Nginx

Nginx serves web content and handles reverse proxying to direct web traffic to multiple sources. It employs load balancing for distributing traffic across multiple servers, making the server fast and efficient. 

The server can also handle email proxying and provide HTTP caching. Nginx uses HTTP caching to store standard responses to requests. When a similar request comes up, Nginx uses the old responses to reply. 

Several companies like Dropbox, Zynga, and Netflix use Nginx to manage heavy incoming traffic. 

Apache HTTP Server

Apache HTTP Server, usually called Apache, emerged in 1995 and became well-known for its reliability and flexibility. It powered the majority of the websites for a long time. Until the end of 2019, Apache ran over 24% of all websites and around 31% of the busiest sites. 

The server’s longevity and continuous use prove its robust features and capabilities can manage major traffic volume. 

How does an application server work?

Now that we’ve covered web servers let’s get into the nitty-gritty of application servers.

Application servers make web servers interact better with dynamic content. They use application logic and connect the web server with different sources. They also facilitate application code communication with other systems and databases to bring a better web experience to users.

Here’s what happens when you interact with dynamic content. 

  • Your browser determines where the server is located on the internet using the URL's IP address.
  • Your browser sends a request, known as an HTTP request, asking for interactive content.
  • This request first goes to the web server. If the request is too complex, it goes to the application server. 
  • The application server uses business logic and talks to other servers or third-party systems to collect response information.
  • The application server creates a new HTML page and sends it back to the web server. 
  • The web server sends the page back to the web browser. 
  • Your browser gets the response and displays the interactive content you were seeking. 

For example, when you shop online, you’re interacting with the application server as you add items to your cart or update your delivery details. 

What are application servers used for?

Application servers make it easier to communicate with databases and other systems. They fulfill complex requests from your browser, facilitating mobile or computer functionality. Application servers do the heavy lifting to get the content users want. 

Application servers store cache data so retrieving the same content in the future is hassle-free. to They also ensure the data flows smoothly, and the request and response channel is secure enough to keep information safe.

There are different types of application servers. Some major in handling several user requests simultaneously, while others focus on improving applications. Below are three common types of application servers you’ll probably come across.

  • Active servers run scripts on the server side and communicate with databases to generate dynamic content. They’re good at managing data while providing you with real-time updates.
  • Web information servers are application servers that specialize in finding the web content you need. They go through digital archives to find the pages you need. These servers focus on delivering pages that change based on your interactions. 
  • Component servers host and manage small software pieces known as components. You can build various features with them while updating applications. This lets you improve existing applications more easily. 

Examples of application servers

Here are some common examples of application servers. They play a significant role in delivering dynamic content straight to Java applications. 

Apache Tomcat

Apache Tomcat caters to Java applications. It runs small Java programs on a server called Java Servlets to answer web requests and create web pages with JavaServer Page code (JSP) while supporting Java Enterprise Edition applications. 

After its release in 1998, Apache Tomcat became a preferred choice for Java web applications due to its holistic support for Java technologies and open-source nature. 

Glassfish

Glassfish came around in 2006 and supported Java applications, Servlets, and standards. Sun Microsystems added dual capabilities that meant that Glassfish could act like an application and web server to deliver static content while running complex Java applications. 

Developers loved this added flexibility for working in Java environments. 

Web server vs. application server: key takeaways

Here are some key differences between web and application servers that you can take away. Let’s compare the two.

  • Functionality and content type: Web servers handle HTTP requests to deliver static content to the client. On the contrary, application servers deliver dynamic content based on business logic. 
  • Processing: Web servers don’t process any business logic. This allows them to respond faster compared to application servers. The latter may require more processing power and time since they manage complex user requests. 
  • Middleware services: Middleware acts as a framework between applications' front-end and back-end. Application servers offer connection pooling, messaging services, transaction management, and other middleware services. Web servers don’t provide these. 
  • Load balancing: This application serves as built-in support for load clustering and balancing. It can be easily scaled to manage loads efficiently. On the other hand, web servers require additional tools to balance load and failover

The verdict

The differences above make it clear that web servers and application servers have different purposes. Web servers are better when you want faster content delivery. However, application servers work better when you need to support complex application logic and deliver dynamic content. 

Learn more about application servers and how to choose the right one for your business.

web server accelerators
Save some time!

Find the right web server accelerators to reduce the amount of time it takes users to access websites or apps.

web server accelerators
Save some time!

Find the right web server accelerators to reduce the amount of time it takes users to access websites or apps.

Web Server vs. Application Server: Differences and Examples Compare web servers and application servers. Discover the key differences and overlaps. And learn more about how they work and what they're used for. https://learn.g2.com/hubfs/G2CM_FI885_Learn_Article_Images_%5Bweb_server_vs_application_server%5D_V1b.png
Sagar Joshi Sagar Joshi is a former content marketing specialist at G2 in India. He is an engineer with a keen interest in data analytics and cybersecurity. He writes about topics related to them. You can find him reading books, learning a new language, or playing pool in his free time. https://learn.g2.com/hubfs/Sagar%20JoshiUpdated.jpeg https://www.linkedin.com/in/sagarjoshi9/

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