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What is a Server Computer?

written by: •edited by: M.S. Smith•updated: 3/2/2010

There are a lot of terms thrown around casually in technology discussions, and knowing their exact definition can sometimes be tricky, especially with something as fundamental as computer servers. This article explains what a server computer is, what it does, and what parts they consist of.

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    What Is A Server?

    Before we address what a computer server is, you need to know more generally what a server consists of.

    A server is essentially any combination of hardware or software that provides some sort of service to a given client. This is obviously a very broad definition, encompassing a vast array of potential services, hardware/software combinations, and clients.

    Even a single personal computer could fall under this definition, all of its operations consisting of a series of servers and clients operating in parallel (ex., “master-slave” relations in programming.) Or, on a macro level, the Internet, with vast arrays of computers functioning in server-client relationships to provide you with everything from instant messaging to the very web page you're reading now. Thus, understanding the concept of a server is critical to understanding the infrastructure basis for our high-tech world, one of hierarchal relationships in programming.

    Such grand things being said, the term “server” has the connotation of specifically referring to either a single computer or a single array of computers which provide a software or hardware process for clients in a given network, either consisting of public Internet users or private network users. The service provided could be anything from a cloud computing-style application to a stored file.

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    What Do Server Computers Consist Of?

    A server computer is simply a computer or set of computers that is entirely dedicated to being a server. While virtually any computer could function as a server, the sheer workload that a server computer must undertake in modern network environments requires that these computers specialize, both with regards to hardware and software.

    Server computers may be seen operating on a range of levels, from a single-computer home server that typically acts as a host for a very small network and often also has other functions, to the huge arrays of servers found in businesses and other large-scale operations.

    Special server versions of operating systems exist, most popularly Linux- or Unix- based server systems, but Windows server editions also exist. Server operating systems do not tend to have GUIs, or the graphical user interfaces.

    On the hardware end of things, server computers typically require faster CPU and multiple large hard drives to operate at the high performance level required of many servers. Specialized hardware such as switches, routers, and gateways also exist for large-scale servers. Massive computer fans or water coolers come into play once heat venting becomes an issue, as well as security features such as restricted physical/electronic access.

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    Types of Server Computers

    There are a number of types of server computers defined by their function. Of course, server computers will often take on many roles as part of their duties.

    Web servers are those servers which service the clients that are the public users of the Internet and host some sort of web service, such as a web page.

    Print servers refers to a server that links computers (as clients) to printers. This may be an application on the computer itself that requests the print job, which then interfaces as a server to the appropriate printer in its network.

    This classification of servers may also be applied to virtually any other peripheral function, from faxing to chat to multimedia to mail to proxy.

    Database servers, to again be redundant, are servers that act to store information as vast databases in their hard drive(s) for any clients in the given network that may request the information.