GuidesWhat Is a Server and What Do Servers Do?

What Is a Server and What Do Servers Do?

3D rendering of a server room

What Is a Server?

Servers are high-powered computers built to store, process, and manage network data, devices, and systems. Servers are the engines powering organizations by providing network devices and systems with adequate resources. For businesses, servers offer critical scalability, efficiency, and business continuity capabilities.

Whether it’s hosting a data-heavy website, setting up a shared drive for a department, or managing thousands of queries every minute, servers are the vehicles for hosting and processing-intensive workloads that go beyond the capabilities of a traditional computer.

What Does a Server Do?

Servers can do everything a standard desktop computer can do and more. Vice-versa, computers can run server processes, but do so far less productively. Generally, servers offer the following features to the networks they serve:

  • Scalability to serve a growing or fluctuating number of devices, users, and workloads
  • High processing power with rising CPU and RAM specs to handle network workloads
  • Reliability to ensure critical systems remain online and available
  • Collaboration between personnel with access to shared network resources
  • Cost savings over time because servers can reduce stress on network devices

The Client-Server Model

Servers that power other devices on the network are referred to as host servers. The in-network devices receiving resources from the host server are known as clients. The following graphic offers a quick look at how servers and clients work within a network.

A graphic image that shows the client-server model where servers use their builds and data resources to serve network devices. Designed by Sam Ingalls.
Designed by Sam Ingalls. © ServerWatch 2021.

Server Form Factors

Servers come in all shapes, sizes, and designs. However, the structure or form factor of servers typically falls into three types.

Rack Servers

A rack server is a general-purpose, mountable, and rectangular machine that stacks neatly into metal rack frames, thus optimizing space usage.

Read more: Top Rack Servers of 2021

Blade Servers

A blade server houses multiple modular circuit boards called blades that don’t need CPUs, network controllers, and memory while also fitting in a rack frame.

Read more: Best Blade Servers for 2021

Tower Servers

A tower server is a lightweight, stand-alone chassis often used by small businesses for its strong configuration and customization features.

Read more: What Is a Tower Server?

For a full breakdown of how servers differ by structure, read our guide to Blade Servers vs Rack Servers vs Tower Servers.

Server Software

Top 10 Database as a Service (DBaaS) Solutions

In the cloud era, tasks like managing databases and building applications are more accessible than ever by utilizing database-as-a-service (DBaaS) solutions. Available as software as a service (SaaS) on all major cloud service providers (CSP), DBaaS offers developers and software engineers accessible online databases with managed underlying infrastructure services. Gone are the days of needing on-premises servers to run and…

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Best Serverless Computing Providers

Serverless computing offers an alternative to traditional compute methods and infrastructure, which frees up time for IT personnel to dedicate to more important tasks. As such, serverless computing is becoming more popular in industry and market trends. An O’Reilly survey found that 40 percent of respondents worked at a company that had adopted serverless architecture. And a Datadog survey discovered that 50…

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Best Free and Open Source NAS Solutions

Network-attached storage (NAS) solutions have long been a valuable way for networks to store, organize, and migrate data securely. Luckily, there are plenty of free and open source solutions to consider. While enterprise-grade NAS solutions often provide clients with the hardware and software needed to deploy network-attached storage, open source offerings allow anyone with the appropriate hardware to download, install,…

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Best FTP Servers: File Transfer Protocol

The File Transfer Protocol (FTP) is the longtime framework for transferring files over the internet. Organizations are all too familiar with FTP server software for securing online traffic and business processes. At the core of the Internet Protocol (IP) is connecting devices and facilitating the transfer of files to and from remote geographic locations. Because internet communications aren’t inherently secure,…

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Top Server Backup Software & Solutions

Server backup software has been a backbone of IT technology for decades. As a result of its staying power, it rarely gets the attention it deserves. For many years, backup was relegated to the status of IT drudgery; it was something that had to be done, but never ranked high in CIO priorities. But the recent rash of ransomware incidents…

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Best Server Virtualization Software for 2021

Server virtualization software burst onto the scene in the early 2000s. The meteoric rise of VMware came as organizations were at the outset of deploying multiple virtual machines (VMs) on one physical server. Gone are the days of low rates of server utilization and one physical server hosting one application. Here are the top server virtualization software vendors that you…

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6 Best Server Management Software & Tools

Finding the best server management software tools for your organization can have a major impact on the success of your business operations. Manually handling all tasks associated with server management and critical applications is time-consuming and costly. However, these tasks must be completed to ensure the health of your network.  This becomes even more complex and tedious when you expand…

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Best Server Monitoring Software and Tools

What is server monitoring? Server monitoring is a complicated area with lots of overlap across multiple domains. Some analyst firms in 2019 tend to group server monitoring under IT infrastructure management, which also includes networking, storage and ITSM (IT systems management) capabilities. There is also a difference between the hardware, operating system and application monitoring functions, though some vendor solutions…

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Server Operating Systems

Server operating systems (OS) are the core programs that enable all server functionality. Operating systems for servers must be able to handle:

  • Providing command-level interface (CLI) and/or a GUI display
  • Comprehensive management of users, security, and processes
  • Advanced hardware, software, and network configuration
  • Managing and monitoring client computers, software, and activity
  • Installing and deploying applications and patches to clients

Types of Server OS

Learn more about the most popular operating system for servers in our Best Linux Server Distros for 2021.

What Are the Different Types of Servers?

What Is a Hypervisor Server?

Server virtualization helps enterprises reduce the total cost of ownership and approach their resources more efficiently. Hypervisors are crucial to server virtualization. In this article, we dissect the two types of hypervisors. What is a Hypervisor? A hypervisor refers to software that creates and runs virtual machines (VMs). It enables multiple operating systems to run concurrently and share virtualized hardware…

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What Is a Print Server? How Print Servers Work

When you have a fleet of devices, multiple printers, or geographically distant office locations, a print server is a mechanism that provides adequate management and control. Print servers are high-powered appliances or software that help organizations manage files in a printing queue and facilitate the user-printer workflow.  Today, print servers can be physical or cloud-based systems that connect devices to…

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What Is a Network Policy Server? What Is the Purpose of an NPS Server?

For network access and policy management capabilities, Microsoft’s RADIUS server and proxy tool is the Network Policy Server (NPS). NPS offers authentication, authorization, and accounting (AAA), enables the use of heterogeneous network equipment and ensures the health of network devices.  The RADIUS protocol provides the configuration and management of authentication for network clients central to NPS functionality. Current editions of…

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What Is a Database Server & What Is It Used For?

Powering the apps, programs, and tools we’ve come to love, servers devoted to the operational use of data are known as database servers. Database servers are high-powered computers that store and manage data stored on a server for a network of users and devices. The terms database servers, database management systems (DBMS), and relational DBMS (RDBMS) get used interchangeably, but…

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What Is an FTP Server and How Does It Work?

A file transfer protocol (FTP) server is an intermediary for transferring files between computers on a network. While FTP servers traditionally were a physical unit in an organization’s back end, the adoption of SaaS technology brings those capabilities to the cloud. In either environment, FTP servers are the storage mechanisms that provide the secure transfer of files of varying weights…

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What is a File Server & How Does It Work?

File servers are high-powered computers that enable data sharing for a network of users, devices, and clients.  One of the earliest uses of servers was for the simple storage and management of data on an on-premises network. File servers are a central database for the network where permitted devices can access files hosted by the file server, save progress after…

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What Is A Virtual Server?

Virtual servers have the same capabilities as a physical server, but not the underlying physical machinery. A physical server can create multiple, separate virtual servers with a hypervisor or container engine using virtualization technology, and the instances share physical server resources like CPU and memory. Not long ago, some feared a future of bustling data centers covering the globe. While…

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What Is an Application Server?

Applications come in all shapes, sizes, and use cases. In a world where we rely on a host of critical business processes, application servers are the high-powered computers providing application resources to users and web clients. Application servers physically or virtually sit between database servers storing application data and web servers communicating with clients. App servers and akin middleware are…

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What Is a Proxy Server?

Proxy servers remain the powerful middlemen for securely passing internet communications between web clients and service providers in an evolving network. Proxy servers can increase internet connectivity, hide client IP addresses, and automate resource access. These high-powered computers are an added layer in the communication protocol, and primarily protect web clients and web servers, and ease workloads. A proxy server can do the…

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What Is a Web Server?

Web servers are software or hardware (or both together) that stores and delivers content to a web browser at a basic level. The servers communicate with browsers using Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP). Web servers can also support SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol) and FTP (File Transfer Protocol).  Web servers are also used for hosting websites and data for web applications….

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Other Types of Servers

Domain Controller

Foundational to networks, domain controllers store the Active Directory and AD tools to manage users, permissions, devices, and group policies.

DNS Server

Adjacent to the domain controller, Domain Name Service (DNS) servers resolve the conversion of names into IP addresses for network systems.

DHCP Server

A Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) server automatically assigns network devices with the router, gateway address, DNS address, and IP address data.

Patch Server

The more extensive your network, the more likely you are to need an update server (or patch server) devoted to deploying updates. Patches resolve bugs and vulnerabilities and deliver new features for apps.

Phone Server

Connecting with a Private Branch Exchange (PDX), a phone server (or VoIP server) enables phone switching devices for managing internet-phone networks.

Email Server

Less common because of cloud solutions, email servers host email data. Examples of email servers would include SMTP relay or Microsoft Exchange Server.

Monitoring Server

A monitoring server handles the job of scanning the network and monitoring equipment health, as well as specs like CPU, RAM, and hardware space.

CCTV Server

Closed-circuit television (CCTV) servers, or building security servers, store audio, video, and sensor data related to the physical security of organization premises.

Terminal Server

A terminal server, or remote desktop server, enables remote users to access network resources for business continuity.

Load Balancing Server

For websites, applications, and software with varying and intensive workloads, load balancing servers can reallocate demands between other servers.

Server Comparisons

VMware Fusion vs Parallels Desktop: Compare Desktop Virtualization Tools

VMware Fusion and Parallels Desktop are two of the top considerations for desktop virtualization on macOS devices, with multiple editions for small business to enterprise infrastructure needs. Virtualization has long been a valuable tool for individuals, businesses, and enterprise organizations looking to maximize existing hardware through virtual machines (VMs). In 2006, Parallels released the first commercially successful desktop virtualization tool…

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Blade Servers vs. Rack Servers

Blade servers and rack servers are the stock-in-trade of data centers, chosen for their versatility, security, and ability to configure and connect large amounts of computing power in small spaces. But while blade servers and rack servers accomplish the same goal of organizing your server base, they do it in very different ways. Which one of them you choose could…

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Web Server vs. Application Server

Web and application servers are often confused, partly because they work together, and partly because some vendors have consolidated web and application servers into dual-use machines. Similarly, the use of terms like “web application server” gives the impression they’re dual units when the reality is that they often are distinct, separate nodes. The critical difference between web servers and app…

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Server Guides

What is a Data Lakehouse?

A data lakehouse is the data management paradigm combining data warehouse and data lake capabilities into a unified platform for optimizing structured and unstructured data storage. While data warehouses have long been the answer to storing structured data, the explosion of data in recent decades led to data lakes storing vast amounts of unique and unstructured data types. Only recently…

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What Is a Client-Server Model? A Guide to Client-Server Architecture

The foundation of modern networking is the centralized process and IT framework known as the client-server model. For over 50 years, servers have been the machines and mechanisms to process end-user requests and deliver specific digital resources. These requests include anything from a Google search on a smartphone to a remote employee accessing confidential company information. In both instances, a…

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Server Performance Monitoring: Best Practices for Server Monitoring

Server performance monitoring is the process of overseeing system resources, such as CPU usage, memory consumption, storage capacity, I/O performance, network uptime, and more. It helps identify performance-related issues of a server, such as response time, resource utilization, and application downtime. Further, it supports capacity and efficiency planning by helping administrators understand system resource consumption on the server. What Is…

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Server Optimization: How to Increase Server Speed & Performance

Server optimization provides a way to improve the performance and speed of a server. Server optimization techniques are practiced extensively by companies to meet expectations such as accessibility, availability, and functionality with their websites. The optimal functions of any website are directly related to server optimization. In this article, we discuss server optimization, its benefits, and trusted techniques for optimizing…

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Server Backups

If this year’s cyberattacks have taught us anything, it’s the importance of server backups and data redundancy. While part of the problem is vulnerabilities and zero-day threats catching enterprise networks off guard, the sheer amount of data currently collected, stored, and processed is becoming too much to manage.  Server backups for critical network resources address both of these problems by:…

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Server Room Power Consumption: The Battle Between Demand and Efficiency

In a world dominated by internet-enabled technology, data centers are the brains keeping the digital ecosystem afloat. Responsible for processing, storing, and transmitting data, server rooms are of enormous value, and – by extension – so are the infrastructure and resources used to maintain them. The lifeblood that makes all digital systems possible is electricity, and data center managers couldn’t…

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Server Security Best Practices

Your servers are your business. That is a fact in the 21st century. And your servers can make or break your business. Well maintained servers can drive your business forward and bring in revenue. Poorly managed servers can mean lost business, data, or customer information, and that can be crippling if not outright fatal to a company. Because of the…

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Best Server Virtualization Software for 2021

Server virtualization software burst onto the scene in the early 2000s. The meteoric rise of VMware came as organizations were at the outset of deploying multiple virtual machines (VMs) on one physical server. Gone are the days of low rates of server utilization and one physical server hosting one application. Here are the top server virtualization software vendors that you…

Read More

Why and When to Upgrade Servers

Like any other asset or device, servers depreciate over time and malfunction when you least expect it. The good news: we know why and when to upgrade servers. Most upgrades can be divided into two buckets, upgrading to the newest technology and replacing existing servers for business continuity. Server complications can be anything from performance decay to limited disk space…

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Guide to Hyperconverged Servers

Converged servers are part of a three-tier infrastructure setup that includes storage systems and networking hardware, but hyperconverged server infrastructure does away with this traditional three tier approach. Instead, hyperconverged servers are the base hardware units – referred to as nodes – along with directly attached storage in the form of hard drives and solid state drives built in to…

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Server Management

Most IT functions depend on the health and infrastructure of servers, making proper server management an essential task for data center administrators. Server management is a complex process, especially with the growth of cloud computing. System administrators must be able to continuously manage physical server hardware, virtual machines and a variety of application and database servers simultaneously.  In this article,…

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