Is Tomcat an Web Server or Application Server?


Angela Bailey

Is Tomcat a Web Server or Application Server?

Tomcat is a widely used web server that is often mistaken for an application server. In reality, Tomcat primarily functions as a web server rather than an application server.

However, it does have some features that blur the line between the two.

Web Server vs Application Server: Understanding the Difference

Before delving into the specifics of Tomcat, let’s first differentiate between web servers and application servers.

Web Servers:

A web server handles HTTP requests from clients (typically web browsers) and responds with HTML pages or other static content. It serves as the foundation for hosting websites and delivers these files to users upon request.

Web servers handle tasks such as processing HTTP requests, managing connections, and delivering content efficiently.

Application Servers:

On the other hand, an application server provides a runtime environment for executing dynamic applications. It supports various programming languages and frameworks by providing services like security, transaction management, database connectivity, and session management.

Application servers are designed to host complex applications that rely on server-side processing.

The Role of Tomcat

Apache Tomcat, often referred to simply as Tomcat, is a popular open-source web server developed by the Apache Software Foundation. It is specifically designed to serve Java-based web applications.

While Tomcat mainly functions as a web server, it also includes additional capabilities that make it more than just a basic web server. These extra features provide some characteristics of an application server but do not fully qualify it as one.

Servlet Container:

  • Servlets:
  • Tomcat acts as a servlet container, allowing developers to build and deploy Java Servlets. Servlets are Java classes that manage the processing of requests and generate dynamic content.

    Tomcat handles the lifecycle of servlets, managing their creation, invocation, and destruction.

  • JSP Support:
  • In addition to servlets, Tomcat also supports JavaServer Pages (JSP). JSP allows developers to embed Java code within HTML files to create dynamic web pages.

    Tomcat compiles JSP files into Java servlets behind the scenes and executes them when requested.

Web Container:

  • Static File Serving:
  • As a web server, Tomcat is capable of serving static files such as HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and image files directly to clients. This makes it an ideal choice for hosting simple websites or serving static assets alongside dynamic content.

    When to Use Tomcat

    Considering its capabilities, Tomcat is typically used in scenarios where a lightweight web server is required for hosting Java-based web applications. It is especially useful for projects that primarily rely on servlets or JSP for generating dynamic content.

    However, if your application requires advanced features like distributed transactions, messaging services, or enterprise-level scalability, you may need an application server like JBoss or WebSphere instead of Tomcat.


    In conclusion, while Apache Tomcat possesses features that go beyond those of a traditional web server, it is primarily considered a web server rather than an application server. Its focus on supporting Java-based web applications through servlet and JSP technologies makes it an excellent choice for lightweight deployments.

    Understanding the differences between web servers and application servers is crucial when deciding which technology best suits your specific project requirements.

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