“In the Server” vs. “On the Server”

In this post, we’re going to discuss servers and files. Talking about servers, files, and other digital concepts can sometimes be confusing, as there are no strict patterns or rules to follow.

In vs. On.

First, let’s do a quick refresher on the difference between the two English prepositions in and on. There are many uses for both words, but we will focus on usages that pertain to objects (as files and servers are objects.)

First, Let’s Discuss In

In is typically used to mean that something is inside or completely enclosed by something else.

The extra chairs are in the conference room.

He left his laptop in his girlfriend’s car.

Ellen is waiting in the lobby.

In the last sentence, for example, Ellen is waiting inside the room of a building (the lobby.) It makes no sense to say that Ellen is waiting on the lobby, as a lobby is an architectural space, not an object.

Now, Let’s Talk About On

On is typically used to mean that one thing is immediately touching (but is not within) something else.

The barista put the coffee cup on the counter.

Jack dropped his iPhone on the floor.

My new neighbor wrote her number on a piece of paper.

In the first sentence, for example, the barista put the coffee cup physically on top of the counter. Unless she can bend the laws of physics (or the counter is made of jello), it is impossible for her to put the cup in the counter.

Feeling refreshed? Now let’s discuss what goes in the server and what goes on the server.

What’s In the Server?

If an object is in a server, it is physically inside the server hardware itself. You can touch it with your hand. Motherboards and hard drives are in the server, as they are physically connected to the physical server.

I installed the new RAM sticks in our server.

There is a problem with the hard drives in the server.

What’s On the Server?

For the most part, anything digital, or non-physical, is on the server. Images, videos, text documents, and any other files are on the server.

The files are on your server.
These documents shouldn’t be on this server.

Can you install this software on your server?

It’s Like a Book!

It helps to think of a server as if it were a book.

The pages of a book are like the components (hard drive, motherboard, etc.) of a server. Just as the pages are in the book, the hard drive, motherboard, and other components are in the server.

Similarly, any other external objects, like a pencil or a notebook, are on the book. Likewise, documents, images, and other individual files are on the server.


So, to sum up the difference between in the server and on the server:

  • In the server: the object is physically inside the server
  • On the server: the object is a file or other electronic piece of software on the server

Hopefully that makes sense!

What About To and From?

To and from are two other prepositions that are commonly used when talking about servers. We’ll talk about them in a separate post.

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