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Ever wondered exactly where your website is? After all, the computer code has to be stored on a piece of hardware somewhere in the real world, right? Here we break down the key terms and explain where the site built by your web development team really lives.
Your website is in two parts: a set of code files (computer programmes), stored in a folder on a computer (called a “web server”); and a database (a collection of information, such as product details), which usually runs on a separate server. Each server has an IP address, which is a string of numbers. Like a telephone number, an IP address lets other computers find your server among all the computers on the network.
You don’t type in an IP address to reach a website though: you use a domain name like ‘boxchilli.com’ which is written out as a url (https://www.boxchilli.com). Domain names are like an address book for websites: the web browser looks up the domain name to find the right IP address to connect to. Just as you can move house and still keep your name, you can change server and still keep your domain name.
The domain name address book is shared around by the maintainers of “DNS servers” (like phone books). Every broadband provider (such as BT or Virgin) maintains their own DNS and so do people like Google. Domain name details are continually broadcast to all the other DNS machines so that they all know what IP address each domain name points to.
Several domain names can point to the same IP address, just as multiple businesses can share the same offices. This means you can easily have a .com and a .co.uk (and .london and .fashion) all pointing at the same website.
Somewhere, there’s a real computer holding the code of your website. Your site might be on a single real computer in a rack somewhere (your web server), or it might be on a “virtual” server or in “the cloud”. Virtual servers let hosting companies have multiple servers hosted on a single real computer, which great for small businesses that don’t need the expense of renting a whole machine. If your site is “in the cloud”, then multiple real computers will host loads of virtual servers. These virtual servers can have their performance increased and decreased as necessary, so if you usually only get 3 hits in a month, you only pay for the power you need, but if if your website suddenly viral and you get 3 million hits, then your server can handle the load.
Many websites are built using pre-made blocks of code. Companies like WordPress and Drupal have libraries of standard parts that web development teams can put together – like installing pre-made doors and windows for a new house.
Whether your website is hosted on a physical or virtual server, the same process is used to display pages to people visiting your site: their browser requests a page from the web server, and that web server will fulfil the request. The request, if it could be written in plain English, would be something like “show these 3 pictures and that text” or “fetch this information from the database”.
The browser takes the information given, including instructions to put the right colours and fonts in the right places, adds any images, and responds to interactions, such as button clicks. That’s your webpage, delivered.