How Websites Work: For Web Developers and the Curious

Alright, so this is a little guide on websites and how they work.

The Web has given us a lot of things to be grateful for; Patience Jonathan’s epic ‘CHAI’ video on YouTube is something I will always be grateful for.

You can be in a remote village in Jalingo, and buy expired drugs from a businessman in China. NEPA might misbehave while you’re in the middle of Season 3 of Game of Thrones. One MTN data pack later, you’d have watched it on YouTube or one of the many illegally legal streaming sites.

Simply amazing, amazing technology.

I want you to relax and forget about what you know or think you know. I assume you know all I have to talk about; I just want to make sure that assumption is right.

So on to the topic, what’s the web? How does it work? There is nothing too technical in this. Computers, and generally man’s inventions, only mirror the world in which we live in.

It all begins with a device called a Computer. I assume you’ve used a calculator at some point in your life. Let’s say you have to perform an addition on two numbers.

123 + 421

You press the buttons on the calculator to input the figures, and then press the answer button to get the result.
When you press the buttons on the calculator, the calculator has to perform the following processes to return a result to you.

a. accept your input.
b. process it.
c. return a result.

These are the functions of a computer. It’s an electronic device that accepts input(data), processes it, and returns a result. Easy.

Computers you are probably more familiar with range from desktops, laptops, mobiles etc..

Above are two computers. Let’s call the one on the left a client and the other a server. The Client represents your laptop, phone or any device you use to view or browse a website. A program on your device called a browser is used to access the website. Your browser might Edge, Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox or Opera Mini

Let me break this down a bit. Better hunger don wire you and you dey find food wey you go chop. You quickly rush into a restaurant and had two eba later, you are satisfied and your total financial worth has decreased by N250.

Like we did for the calculator, let’s go through the process from hunger to satisfaction.
You walk into the restaurant and approach the small girl lazily swinging her legs and chewing gum behind the counter. You place your order and take a seat. This is you, the client.

You are a client because you have a request. In the same way, your browser makes a request for a webpage.

You do not need to go into the kitchen and prepare the food yourself. You do not even need to know if they have a kitchen. All you do is place an order (and hope your belle no go run cheesy).

So your device is a client that makes a request using a web browser.

Unlike the girl at the counter who is physically present in front of you, the browser needs to send a request to another computer several miles away. That request has to make its way to the right computer. If you want Mr Biggs to send you meat pie, the request should not end up at Jevinik.

This is made possible through the Internet.

What is the Internet?

Now imagine you have to travel from Port-Harcourt to Owerri. There are many roads by which you can embark on this journey. Some of the roads will have more traffic than others. But every car, hopefully, will leave it origin and arrive at its destination safely.

In digital terms, we call the road network the internet. It enables you to send messages between two points, from source(your device) to a destination ( server).You can connect two computers together in such a way that they will be able to communicate with each other.

NOTE: To avoid being too technical, the rest of this story has been oversimplified. My intention is to ensure you understand the concept of what goes on behind the scenes, not understand every technicality.

The Internet is the connection of all connections. It’s a digital highway enabling billions of devices to communicate with each other. On this digital highway, every device has something called an IP address. This IP address is similar to your home address. It identifies the location of each device on the highway, just like your address describes and identifies where you reside.

When you enter the address(,,, you send out one small Akpan on the highway. That’s your message. Akpan takes address(, etc) and gets on the road. This is the address of the website you want to access.

Akpan gets to a junction. In IT parlance, we call this junction a router. They are a network device, you’ve probably seen one before. It’s usually what you connect to when you log into a WIFI network. It’s like LASTMA and Immigration in one. They control traffic on the digital highway, ensuring that millions/billions of

They control traffic on the digital highway, ensuring that millions/billions of Akpans’ head in the right direction. Routers link different computer networks. If the website you want to access is hosted in another country, they’ll be there to guide little Akpan along the way.

So from router to router, to router Akpan goes, until he gets to the router closest to the computer where Sidmach/Smartschool/BBC lives. Now, let’s come back to reality.

Now, let’s come back to reality.

The second computer on the right is called a Server. Don’t Let the name scare you, it’s nothing serious.

A server’s purpose is to accept requests and respond to them. Like that girl at the counter in our imaginary restaurant.

It’s a computer just like yours, but it has more power, more strength, it’s a Goliath and you are its David. Its strength comes from the fact that it would probably have more hard disk, ram and processing power than your phone will ever need. Think about it, who has more stock of food right now? You or Mr Biggs?

The server is the computer on which the website is hosted. This is where your site lives.

Just briefly, let’s describe what a website is. When you work on Microsoft Documents, you save them as document files. They’ll probably have a .doc or .docx extension at the end of the filename. Different programs have different file types. You need video players (Windows Media, VLC) to play videos. You need music players to play music. In the same way, documents opened by browsers are called HTML files.

A web developer writes the code for a website, stores them in files called HTML files and copies them onto the server. REMEMBER, the server is just a computer like yours. So when Akpan gets to the door to deliver the message, the server opens the door, gets the request from Akpan, looks at the address, and goes to find the web pages. Usually, when you access a website, the first page you get is the homepage. This is the page the server will return to your phone.

And Akpan returns home with a smile on his face and delivers the webpage to your device. Smartschool, Facebook, Hotmail whatever, all inside his tiny little bag.. cry

Extra info for web developers

Following the analogy on Akpan, it’s crucial to note the following.

The client doesn’t need to know what the server does or how it gets the web page. All Akpan requires is a HTML file is returned to it.

Now, remember as I said earlier, the server is like your computer. It runs an operating system just like your laptop runs Windows and phone runs Android or IOS (Apple).

From a web developer’s perspective, to design a website you should be versatile in the following languages.

HTML: Determines the content of your web pages(.html files you save)
CSS: Determines how the content will look, its presentation ( .CSS files)
Javascript: Adds interactivity to your website. ( .JS files)
PHP/Mysql: Server side programs (explained further on)

Every web browser comes with HTML, CSS, and Javascript installed. So they’re able to interpret the files without any help from the server.
Server side programs are installed on the server( remember just a computer). Apache is a WEB server. It’s simply an application that runs on a server and handles those requests you make. PHP is a web language that runs on servers. It makes your pages dynamic (i.e the page you get is based on your input/feedback, think newsfeed on facebook).

Server side programs are installed on the server( remember just a computer). Apache is a WEB server. It’s simply an application that runs on a server and handles those requests you make. PHP is a web language that runs on servers. It makes your pages dynamic (i.e the page you get is based on your input/feedback, think newsfeed on facebook).