What is the Web?
The Web can seem a bit of a mystery at first, with all this talk of “surfing,” “presence,” and “home pages.” It’s helpful to step back and see what it really is, but to do this you must understand client/server systems, another aspect of computing that’s full of confusing issues.
The primary idea of a client/server system is that you have a central repository of information—some kind of data, often in a database—that you want to distribute on demand to some set of people or machines. A key to the client/server concept is that the repository of information is centrally located so that it can be changed and so that those changes will propagate out to the information consumers. Taken together, the information repository, the software that distributes the information, and the machine(s) where the information and software reside is called the server. The software that resides on the remote machine, communicates with the server, fetches the information, processes it, and then displays it on the remote machine is called the client.
The basic concept of client/server computing, then, is not so complicated. The problems arise because you have a single server trying to serve many clients at once. Generally, a database management system is involved, so the designer “balances” the layout of data into tables for optimal use. In addition, systems often allow a client to insert new information into a server. This means you must ensure that one client’s new data doesn’t walk over another client’s new data, or that data isn’t lost in the process of adding it to the database (this is called transaction processing). As client software changes, it must be built, debugged, and installed on the client machines, which turns out to be more complicated and expensive than you might think. It’s especially problematic to support multiple types of computers and operating systems. Finally, there’s the all-important performance issue: You might have hundreds of clients making requests of your server at any one time, so any small delay is crucial. To minimize latency, programmers work hard to offload processing tasks, often to the client machine, but sometimes to other machines at the server site, using so-called middleware. (Middleware is also used to improve maintainability.)
The simple idea of distributing information has so many layers of complexity that the whole problem can seem hopelessly enigmatic. And yet it’s crucial: Client/server computing accounts for roughly half of all programming activities. It’s responsible for everything from taking orders and credit-card transactions to the distribution of any kind of data—stock market, scientific, government, you name it. What we’ve come up with in the past is individual solutions to individual problems, inventing a new solution each time. These were hard to create and hard to use, and the user had to learn a new interface for each one. The entire client/server problem needs to be solved in a big way.
The Web as a giant server
The Web is actually one giant client/server system. It’s a bit worse than that, since you have all the servers and clients coexisting on a single network at once. You don’t need to know that, because all you care about is connecting to and interacting with one server at a time (even though you might be hopping around the world in your search for the correct server).
Initially it was a simple one-way process. You made a request of a server and it handed you a file, which your machine’s browser software (i.e., the client) would interpret by formatting onto your local machine. But in short order people began wanting to do more than just deliver pages from a server. They wanted full client/server capability so that the client could feed information back to the server, for example, to do database lookups on the server, to add new information to the server, or to place an order (which required more security than the original systems offered). These are the changes we’ve been seeing in the development of the Web.
The Web browser was a big step forward: the concept that one piece of information could be displayed on any type of computer without change. However, browsers were still rather primitive and rapidly bogged down by the demands placed on them. They weren’t particularly interactive, and tended to clog up both the server and the Internet because any time you needed to do something that required programming you had to send information back to the server to be processed. It could take many seconds or minutes to find out you had misspelled something in your request. Since the browser was just a viewer it couldn’t perform even the simplest computing tasks. (On the other hand, it was safe, because it couldn’t execute any programs on your local machine that might contain bugs or viruses.)
To solve this problem, different approaches have been taken. To begin with, graphics standards have been enhanced to allow better animation and video within browsers. The remainder of the problem can be solved only by incorporating the ability to run programs on the client end, under the browser. This is called client-side programming.