How do websites really work?

There's a lot more to a website than all the pretty stuff you see on your screen. We'll show you what happens behind the virtual curtain.
Jun 11, 2020 • 6 minute read
Ruchi Bhargava @RuchiBhargava1
Technical Co-pilot
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We rip the pretty front panel off a website to reveal the complex wonderland inside

Understanding how the various components of a website work together will help you refine each process to create a website that loads and functions as efficiently as possibly.

In this post, we'll explore the intricacies of the client-side design, and delve deep into server-side capabilities. Once we're done with that, we'll explore how the frontend and backend communicate with each other to give us the stellar web apps we use and love.

Client-Server processes simplified

We've all heard the terms client and server. But what exactly are they? Simply put, the client-server architecture is the foundation of the web. The client is essentially your web browser, so you see and experience all of the functions that occur on the client side.

Web pages are stored on the particular server the client connects to. Based on the web address provided, that particular page is found out and returned to the browser by the server. This is what we see as the website.

Simple, isn't it? You bet it is. The operation of websites is simply an ask-and-answer model, which works wonderfully.

Now that we know the underlying mechanism of the web, let's explore the structural parts of a website.

Complex website functions explained

These are website functions that require significant technical expertise to implement. Though common in most websites, these customizations can only be incorporated by expert web developers.

Animated pop-ups

In order to make your website even snazzier, many developers opt for JavaScript. JavaScript is a client-side scripting language that's considered the language of the web.

Using JavaScript, developers can incorporate animations, pop-up forms, and fluid design as well as functional elements that serve to enhance the appeal of a website.

What's more, JavaScript can also be used for client-side validations, which is what we're going to tackle next.

Client-side validations

Ever felt irritated when you're trying to open a new Gmail account, and Google says the username is already taken? Or when the password you choose doesn't conform to the site's password policy?

Such messages are a result of validations. These are essentially certain rules and standards that you must follow when entering data into a website field. Validations help to standardize the data that the user sends to the server.

Validations can be server-side (handled by the server) or they can be client-side. Client-side validations are handled by the browser and help to offload some of the work of the server.

JavaScript is at heart a client-side scripting language. It's a programming language that allows developers to instruct the website to perform validations at the client's end. 

Such validations are essential to ensuring that all the data submitted to the server follows a standard format. They also serve to protect the server against hacking attempts, such as SQL Injection Attacks.

Dynamic WebPages

Just think. There are millions of users of Facebook, and each have their own accounts. Does that mean Facebook stores individual webpages for each member?

While we don't claim to know the ins and outs of Facebook, most membership websites don't operate that way. Instead, they opt for server-side scripting that equips the website with dynamic WebPages.

Dynamic WebPages aren't mere HTML documents that are directly stored in the server. Instead, the server stores a number of program files, known as scripts, that generate the HTML on the fly and send it to the client. 

This not only reduces the amount of storage required but also makes for dynamic WebPages that change with time. Such webpages allow the visitor to view the latest information on the website, and also interact with the site with greater fluidity.

Some common server-side scripting languages are ASP (Active Server Pages), PHP ( PHP: Hypertext Preprocessor), and JSP (Java Server Pages). 

Such languages require advanced programming skills to implement, unless you're a veteran in the complex field of web development, you'll need to hire a professional developer to get this done for you. 

The Database

We've discussed some of the common behind the scenes processes of websites, but have you ever wondered where they get all their data from? Complex processes are useless if they have no data to work with.

The simple answer is, from the server.

But servers can be of various types and the same server that holds the scripting files might not be able to handle data operations. Such data operations are handled by a database server, which forms part of the website's backend.

The database is responsible for storing all user data, the website generated data as well as any associated information such as large object files, images, and media. The database forms the basis of a website's personal memory, as it helps to organize all the information on a website and retrieve it as and when necessary.

Databases are usually queried using a specialized language known as SQL (Structured Query Language), which is the communication medium of most relational databases today. Some popular database servers that websites use are MySQL, Microsoft SQL Server, and Oracle.

Security And Encryption

The security of a website is a vital component of any web property in the 21st century. Every website today implements some form of security measures such as SSL certificates, AES-256 Encryption, and secure payment gateways 

Data encryption is imperative for ecommerce websites, which have to process highly sensitive payment information.

All the above are extremely important in the context of today's crime-ridden cyberspace scene. With hackers growing more technically adept by the day, website owners need to take every precaution they can in order to ensure the safety of their websites.

Backend-Frontend interaction: The secret sauce

Knowing the various parts of a website is only half the battle won. There's a whole lot going on behind the scenes we need to understand.

As a quick recap, everything you see no a website from your browser is classified as the 'front end'

The backend, on the other hand, consists of all the parts and functions of a website you don't see, such as its coding and database communications that reside on the server. 

But since the frontend and backend are two separate environments, how do they communicate with each other?

There are two primary technologies that define frontend-backend communication.

HTTP communication

This is the traditional method by which the frontend and backend communicate. The frontend, which is the browser, in this case, sends an HTTP request to the server, which then sends back the required response. During the server-side communication, the database is usually queried for relevant information.

However, repeated HTTP requests can be time-consuming. This is why developers have come up with a new model of the client-server communication.

AJAX communication

AJAX stands for Asynchronous JavaScript And XML and is a method of client-server communication that works to reduce the time for such interactions.

In AJAX, the entire webpage is not reloaded each time there is a server communication. Instead, only the portion of the webpage that needs to reload is updated asynchronously via XML. Of course, even JSON messages are used nowadays.

However, the above two are not the only modes by which the frontend and backend communicate today. Technology has advanced to the point where the gap between the two ends of a website is slowly being closed. 

Isomorphic apps

These are apps that can be rendered entirely on the client-side as well as the server-side. In this setup, the apps use HTML as well as AJAX to interact between the client and the server.

Standalone frontends 

Also known as progressive web apps, these are applications that can be loaded once from the backend, and then run entirely in the frontend.

All application components, including the database, can be loaded and run on the browser. Most of the logic too is embedded in the frontend, with the backend requiring minimal communication for updates.

Lightweight backends

Once upon a time website backends used to be pretty heavy and resource-intensive. Today, things are changing fast. With the advent of graph databases and document stores, backends are becoming lighter than ever. 

For example, Sqlite, is a database server that executes entirely on the client-side. Such applications offload server side processing to the endpoint systems. This results in greater processing efficiency.

Final Words

If you're hoping to build a website for your business, you might be feeling overwhelmed right now. After all, there's a lot more involved in creating a website then just dragging a few elements together, there are multiple processes that need to be built out and refined to perfection. This highly complex barrier of entry, however, should not stop you from getting a website developed for your business.

However, hiring a web development firm might not be feasible within your budget. Expert, full-time web development firms can certainly get a website built for you., but their high-end pricing isn't feasible for businesses struggling to survive a capricious economic climate

And that's where freelance web developerss come into the picture. Operating at a fraction of the cost of a development agency, freelancers have the necessary experience and expertise to get a highly complex website developed for all business requirements. 

Stop your competitors from stealing your potential website traffic, hire a freelance web developer today!

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