Starting web development is easy: you create a file called something.html, edit it in Notepad, and load it in a browser. Simple sites can be built using this process but, to really explore the possibilities, you need a web server.
What is a Web Server?
Since the web server sits between your browser and the requested file, it can perform processing that is not possible by opening an HTML file directly. For example, it can parse PHP code which connects to a database and returns data.
You can use your host’s web server for testing, but uploading will become tiresome and changes could go live before they had been fully tested. What you need is a local web server installation.
In general, I would recommend using the web server software that your web host uses. Unless you are creating ASP.NET applications on Microsoft IIS, your host is likely to use Apache: the most widespread and fully-featured web server available. It is open-source project so it does not cost anything to download or install.
The following instructions describe how to install Apache on Windows. Mac OSX comes with Apache and PHP, although you might need to enable them. Most Linux users will have Apache pre-installed or available in the base repositories.
There are some excellent all-in-one Windows distributions that contain Apache, PHP, MySQL and other applications in a single installation file, e.g. XAMPP (including a Mac version), WampServer and Web.Developer. There is nothing wrong with using these packages, although manually installing Apache will help you learn more about the system and its configuration options.
The Apache Installation Wizard
An excellent official .msi installation wizard is available from the Apache download page. This option is certainly recommended for novice users or perhaps those installing Apache for the first time.
Manual installation offers several benefits:
- backing up, reinstalling, or moving the web server can be achieved in seconds (see 8 Tips for Surviving PC Failure)
- you have more control over how and when Apache starts
- you can install Apache anywhere, such as a portable USB drive (useful for client demonstrations).
Step 1: configure IIS, Skype and other software (optional)
If you have a Professional or Server version of Windows, you may already have IIS installed. If you would prefer Apache, either remove IIS as a Windows component or disable its services.
Apache listens for requests on TCP/IP port 80. The default installation of Skype also listens on this port and will cause conflicts. To switch it off, start Skype and choose Tools > Options > Advanced > Connection. Ensure you untick “Use port 80 and 443 as alternatives for incoming connections”.
Step 2: Download the files
We are going to use the unofficial Windows binary from Apache Lounge. This version has performance and stability improvements over the official Apache distribution, although I am yet to notice a significant difference. However, it is provided as a manually installable ZIP file from www.apachelounge.com/download/
You should also download and install the Windows C++ runtime from Microsoft.com. You may have this installed already, but there is no harm installing it again.
As always, remember to virus scan all downloads.
Step 2: extract the files
We will install Apache in C:Apache2, so extract the ZIP file to the root of the C: drive.
Apache can be installed anywhere on your system, but you will need to change the configuration file paths accordingly…
Step 3: configure Apache
Apache is configured with the text file confhttpd.conf contained in the Apache folder. Open it with your favourite text editor.
Note that all file path settings use a ‘/’ forward-slash rather than the Windows backslash. If you installed Apache anywhere other than C:Apache2, now is a good time to search and replace all references to “c:/Apache2”.
There are several lines you should change for your production environment:
Line 46, listen to all requests on port 80:
Line 116, enable mod-rewrite by removing the # (optional, but useful):
LoadModule rewrite_module modules/mod_rewrite.so
Line 172, specify the server domain name:
Line 224, allow .htaccess overrides:
Step 4: change the web page root (optional)
By default, Apache return files found in its htdocs folder. I would recommend using a folder on an another drive or partition to make backups and re-installation easier. For the purposes of this example, we will create a folder called D:WebPages and change httpd.conf accordingly:
Line 179, set the root:
and line 204:
Step 5: test your installation
Your Apache configuration can now be tested. Open a command box (Start > Run > cmd) and enter:
cd Apache2bin httpd -t
Correct any httpd.conf configuration errors and retest until none appear.
Step 6: install Apache as a Windows service
The easiest way to start Apache is to add it as a Windows service. From a command prompt, enter:
cd Apache2bin httpd -k install
Open the Control Panel, Administrative Tools, then Services and double-click Apache2.2. Set the Startup type to “Automatic” to ensure Apache starts every time you boot your PC.
Alternatively, set the Startup type to “Manual” and launch Apache whenever you choose using the command “net start Apache2.2”.
Step 7: test the web server
Create a file named index.html in Apache’s web page root (either htdocs or D:WebPages) and add a little HTML code:
Apache is working!
Ensure Apache has started successfully, open a web browser and enter the address http://localhost/. If all goes well, your test page should appear.
In general, most problems will be caused by an incorrect setting in the httpd.conf configuration file. Refer to the Apache documentation if you require further information.