Is Apache Tomcat a Web Server or Web Container?


Angela Bailey

Apache Tomcat is a widely used open-source Java Servlet Container. It is often referred to as a web server, but is it really a web server or a web container? Let’s delve into this topic and understand the role of Apache Tomcat in the web development ecosystem.

What is a Web Server?

A web server is a software application that handles HTTP requests from clients and delivers HTML pages or other resources in response. It listens on designated network ports, typically port 80 for HTTP and port 443 for HTTPS, to accept incoming requests. Some popular examples of web servers are Apache HTTP Server, Nginx, and Microsoft IIS.

What is a Web Container?

A web container, also known as a servlet container or application server, provides an environment for executing web applications that adhere to the Java Servlet API specifications. It manages the lifecycle of servlets and JavaServer Pages (JSPs), processes incoming requests, and generates responses. In simple terms, it acts as an intermediary between the client’s browser and the web application.

Apache Tomcat – A Web Container

Apache Tomcat, officially known as Apache Tomcat Server, is primarily designed to function as a web container. It implements the Java Servlet and JavaServer Pages specifications and provides an environment for running Java-based web applications.

Tomcat can be thought of as an intermediary between the client’s browser and the actual web application running on it. When a client sends an HTTP request to access a specific resource or URL, Tomcat receives that request, processes it based on configured rules, invokes appropriate servlets/JSPs to generate dynamic content if required, and finally sends back the response to the client.

Web Server Capabilities

Although Tomcat is primarily a web container, it can also function as a web server to some extent. It includes a built-in HTTP server component that allows it to serve static content directly without the need for an additional web server.

This built-in HTTP server component provided by Tomcat is limited in functionality compared to dedicated web servers like Apache HTTP Server or Nginx. It lacks advanced features like load balancing, reverse proxying, and URL rewriting that are typically found in full-fledged web servers.

Integration with Web Servers

To leverage the combined capabilities of both Tomcat and a dedicated web server, it is common practice to integrate them together. This integration is often achieved using a connector module that enables communication between the web server and Tomcat.

By configuring this connector, incoming requests can be intercepted by the web server and then forwarded to Tomcat for processing dynamic content. This setup allows leveraging the performance benefits of dedicated web servers while utilizing the powerful servlet container capabilities of Tomcat.

In Conclusion

So, to answer our initial question – Apache Tomcat is primarily a web container. While it includes a built-in HTTP server component, its functionality in terms of serving static content is limited compared to dedicated web servers. However, when integrated with a dedicated web server, it can provide an efficient and powerful platform for running Java-based web applications.

Understanding the role of Apache Tomcat as a web container helps developers make informed decisions when choosing the appropriate technology stack for their projects. Whether you are building small-scale applications or large enterprise-level systems, Apache Tomcat’s servlet container capabilities make it an indispensable tool in the Java ecosystem.

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