Web server refers to server software, or hardware dedicated to running said software, that can serve contents to the World Wide Web. A web server processes incoming network requests over the HTTP protocol (and several other related protocols).
The primary function of a web server is to store, process and deliver web pages to clients. The communication between client and server takes place using the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP). Pages delivered are most frequently HTML documents, which may include images, style sheets and scripts in addition to the text content.
A user agent, 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 storage, 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 using Active Server Pages (ASP), PHP, or other scripting languages. 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 generate HTML documents dynamically ("on-the-fly") as opposed to returning static documents. The former is primarily used for retrieving or modifying information from databases. The latter is typically much faster and more easily cached but cannot deliver dynamic content.
Web servers are not only 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 or administering 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 operating systems).
In 1989 Sir Tim Berners-Lee proposed a new project to his employer CERN, with the goal of easing the exchange of information between scientists by using a hypertext system. The project resulted in Berners-Lee writing two programs in 1990: