Is Tomcat an Web Server?


Heather Bennett

In the world of web development, there are several terms that often get confused or used interchangeably. One such confusion is between a web server and a servlet container.

One popular servlet container that often comes up in discussions is Apache Tomcat. But is Tomcat really a web server? Let’s dive deeper to understand the difference.

What is a Web Server?

Before we can determine whether Tomcat is a web server or not, let’s first understand what exactly a web server is. Simply put, a web server is software that serves web pages to clients upon request. It listens for incoming HTTP requests and responds with the relevant content.

  • Key features of a web server:
    • Handles HTTP requests: A web server understands and handles HTTP(S) requests sent by clients.
    • Serves static content: It can serve static files like HTML, CSS, JavaScript, images, etc.
    • Supports common protocols: A web server typically supports protocols like HTTP, HTTPS, FTP, etc.
    • Manages security: It ensures secure communication with clients through encryption and authentication mechanisms.

Taking a Closer Look at Apache Tomcat

Apache Tomcat, often referred to as just “Tomcat,” is an open-source Java servlet container developed by the Apache Software Foundation. It provides an environment for running Java-based applications that follow the Java Servlet specification.

In simple terms, Tomcat acts as an interpreter of Java servlets and JavaServer Pages (JSPs). It receives requests from clients and executes the appropriate servlets or JSPs to generate dynamic content. Tomcat enables developers to build and deploy Java web applications efficiently.

However, it’s important to note that Apache Tomcat alone does not meet all the criteria of a web server.

Tomcat vs. Web Server

While Tomcat can handle HTTP requests and serve web pages, it lacks certain features that are typically associated with a full-fledged web server.

  • Key differences between Tomcat and a web server:
    • Static content serving: Unlike a web server, Tomcat is not primarily designed for serving static files like HTML, CSS, or images. Its focus is on executing Java-based applications.
    • Protocol support: While Apache Tomcat supports HTTP and HTTPS protocols, it doesn’t provide extensive support for other protocols like FTP or SMTP.
    • Load balancing and caching: These features, commonly found in web servers, are not part of the core functionality of Tomcat.
    • Security configurations: Although Tomcat offers some built-in security mechanisms, it may not have the same level of security-related features as dedicated web servers.

The Perfect Combination: Web Server + Servlet Container

To achieve a complete web application infrastructure, developers often combine Apache Tomcat with a separate web server like Apache HTTP Server or Nginx. This combination allows them to leverage the strengths of both components.

The typical setup involves using the web server as the front-end facing the internet. It handles static content serving, load balancing, caching, SSL termination, and other advanced features. The web server then proxies dynamic requests to Tomcat, which focuses on executing servlets and JSPs.

This combination provides a powerful and scalable architecture for hosting Java web applications while benefiting from the performance optimizations and security features offered by web servers.


So, is Tomcat a web server? The answer is no.

While Tomcat can handle HTTP requests and serve web pages, it lacks certain essential features commonly associated with a full-fledged web server. However, when combined with a separate web server, such as Apache HTTP Server or Nginx, it forms a robust infrastructure for hosting Java-based web applications. Understanding the difference between a web server and a servlet container like Tomcat is crucial for developers working on Java web projects.

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