Web Server vs. Application Server: How Do They Differ?

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 23 May 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Many businesses use online functionality in their operations, which requires certain IT infrastructure. A crucial part of a company's IT infrastructure is servers that meet different needs of a business. Learning more about servers and the services they provide can be valuable in understanding how a company can utilise them. In this article, we explore what a web server vs. application server is, go over how they differ and where their functions may overlap and provide tips on when to use them.

Web server vs. application server

Here are the definitions of a web server vs. application server:

Web server

A web server allows a computer to host websites that's typically a software or hardware system. It processes hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP) and hypertext transfer protocol secure (HTTPS) requests in a web browser. From these requests, a web server delivers static content like videos, images, files or HTML pages to a client. Static content is any content that requires manual updates and doesn't update in real-time.

The client is typically a computer web browser or mobile application. For example, a business may host its website on a web server. The web server processes requests through a web browser to access static content on the website so a user can view the content.

Related: What Does Web Designer Do? (Definition, Salary and Skills)

Application server

Application servers may power the interactive components of a website. These servers host web applications, which are computer programs that run inside a web browser. The main functionality of an application server is to provide clients access to business logic, which is part of a program that encodes rules for storing, creating and manipulating data. Application servers allow clients to access business logic by facilitating interactions between a client and the server's application code. Using business logic, application servers can create dynamic content from data, such as:

  • analytics

  • transaction results

  • decision support

The capacity to track data in real-time can be valuable in carrying out useful administrative tasks that support business functions. For example, a marketing department can benefit from real-time data to assess consumer engagement with digital content on an ongoing basis, such as using a program that automatically tracks website engagement metrics. As the program is automatically recording and updating data, it's using a dynamic process and is likely hosted through an application server.

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Key differences between web and application servers

Here are some of the key differences between web servers and application servers:

Purpose

The primary difference between these two server types is in their main purpose. Both process requests, but carry out tasks of differing complexity. A web server's principal purpose is to host a website and process simple requests. It receives HTTP requests and uses a web browser to display responses. The result of using a web server is typically a hypertext document that displays information from the request in a web browser, such as opening a video or webpage.

Application servers handle more complicated tasks. They host applications and use business logic to provide more complex interactions. As opposed to the web server's simplistic hypertext document output, application servers can produce more specialised results. They're able to create files containing data that fulfil specific user needs. For example, application servers can process digital financial transactions.

Protocols and clients

In programming, a client is a program or computer that sends a request to another program for it to produce a result. A protocol describes the rules followed by a program for this transmission of data to another program. The most common client for a web server is a web browser. Web servers only use HTTP and HTTPS protocols.

Application servers can also use web browsers, but they may serve other clients, such as mobile applications. They also commonly serve enterprise-based applications. These are strategic tools businesses may use to model, project and oversee business operations. Application servers may also use HTTP and HTTPS, but can also use other communication protocols.

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Content

The two server types also differ in the type of content they produce in response to requests. Web servers produce static content only that requires manually updating and doesn't change in real-time, such as webpages, videos, images or files. Web servers are most effective for hosting informative details that remain constant and are unlikely to change, such as business contact information.

Application servers, by accessing business logic, can process data and update it in real-time. This allows them to produce more dynamic content than web servers. The dynamic nature of this content makes it more useful for meeting different user needs. For example, application servers may allow businesses to track constantly changing web-traffic metrics.

Do web and application servers overlap?

There may be overlap between the functionality and operation of web and application servers. While web servers usually only produce static content, you can integrate code plug-ins that allow them to host dynamic content typically only hosted by application servers. These plug-ins allow a web server to access and interact with the server-side code, meaning it can process real-time updates to content to make it dynamic.

Application servers can use the same HTTP and HTTPS protocols as web servers, and many application servers can host static content, like web servers. Many organisations look to implement a hybrid approach to their server setup, ensuring they can make use of the services offered by both web and application servers for more comprehensive web functionality.

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Choosing the right server for your needs

Choosing the right server largely depends on the needs of a business. Here's why a business may implement each type of server infrastructure:

Web server

Web servers offer more basic functionality, which is beneficial if a company only needs a website to display basic static information that doesn't change, such as contact details, business services or opening hours. Web servers can still provide features such as an online store page where customers can buy products and carry out online transactions, but may require some manual input to update any information.

Web servers are usually the best option for hosting small business websites, informative websites or basic mobile applications. They're usually more cost-effective to implement than other options and are less prone to issues occurring because of their simpler design and functionality. If there's an increased need for more dynamic content, a company can integrate relevant plug-ins to upgrade the functionality of their web servers.

Application server

Application servers are an appropriate option for companies requiring more varied functionality beyond the static content of a website. Any business that deals with managing data that updates in real-time can benefit from using an application server. As these servers manage and update real-time data, they're an effective option for any automated tracking or information management systems. Businesses may apply this automated functionality to their internal administrative functions, using application servers to perform tasks like:

  • tracking marketing and engagement metrics

  • forecasting sales predictions

  • hosting internal instant messaging systems

  • maintaining client relationship databases

  • managing customer accounts

  • managing procurement and billing systems

Larger businesses usually need more complex and dynamic functionality of application servers to support their operations. With greater complexity in operation and more extensive functionality, application servers are usually more costly to instal, operate and maintain as compared to web servers.

Hybrid setup

For a business that requires both static and dynamic content, they may choose to use a hybrid system. Hybrid systems include both web and application servers in the same infrastructure, providing the benefits and functionality of both. The hybrid approach may be the most efficient setup for businesses that can implement it as each server can be used for the tasks they're designed for, maximising resource use. While application servers are technically capable of hosting static content, doing so may slow the server and prevent it from effectively carrying out dynamic tasks.

Using a hybrid approach, a web server can host static content, allowing an application server to focus entirely on processing dynamic content. E-commerce sites where product costs change in real-time, such as an auction site, can benefit from using a hybrid system. The web server can host information pages that remain the same, such as product descriptions, and an application server can be used to dynamically update product prices.

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