A Web Server Coded in Just 25 Lines

DateMay 3, 2024

Laurence Tratt, the Shopify/Royal Academy of Engineering Research Chair in Language Engineering at King’s College London, tackles the challenge of building a basic web server. His work shows how even something as complex as an HTTP server can be understood and simplified for educational purposes. Tratt’s demonstration, captured in a video by Sean Riley for Computerphile, emphasizes the essentials of web servers and programming.

A web server is the backbone of online content delivery, handling requests from web browsers and serving up the required data. While popular servers like Apache and Nginx are feature-rich and complex, Laurence focuses on the core functionality to show how basic a server can be.

Key Components of a Minimal Server

Listening for Requests: A web server starts by listening for incoming network connections. Laurence uses Rust to create a simple server listening on This setup ensures that the server only accepts connections from the local machine.Handling HTTP Requests: The server needs to understand incoming HTTP requests. By reading the incoming data stream, the server parses the HTTP request to determine what the client wants.Responding to Clients: Once the server processes the request, it responds with a standard HTTP response. Laurence demonstrates sending a simple “Hello, World!” message, which provides a basic example of how servers interact with clients.

Laurie’s Approach

Laurence, also called Laurie, takes a systematic approach to building the server:

Start Simple: He begins with a minimal setup, focusing on printing a simple message to ensure that the server is running correctlyIterate Gradually: He builds the server in stages, iterating gradually from a basic response to more complex functionalityUnderstanding Requests and Responses: Laurence emphasizes understanding how HTTP requests work and how to form responses correctly. By simplifying the process, he makes it easier to grasp the core principlesHandling Real-world Scenarios: Even though Laurence starts simple, he gradually adds more functionality to handle scenarios such as serving files from a directory and handling multiple requestsCutting Corners While Learning: While acknowledging the importance of security and optimization, Laurence cuts corners in his demo to focus on learning the fundamental principles.

Expanding the Functionality

Through incremental enhancements, Laurence demonstrates how to transform the basic server into one capable of serving files, handling errors, and managing multiple requests. His methodical approach helps to uncover the inner workings of web servers, showing that the complexities of servers can be demystified.

Ultimately, his approach provides a window into understanding the basics of web server operations, making it more accessible for newcomers and offering a valuable refresher for experienced developers.

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