An Overview of Tomcat 6 Servlet Container: Part 1

11 min read

In practice, it is highly unlikely that you will interface an EJB container from WebSphere and a JMS implementation from WebLogic, with the Tomcat servlet container from the Apache foundation, but it is at least theoretically possible.

Note that the term ‘interface’, as it is used here, also encompasses abstract classes. The specification’s API might provide a template implementation whose operations are defined in terms of some basic set of primitives that are kept abstract for the service provider to implement.

A service provider is required to make available concrete implementations of these interfaces and abstract classes. For example, the HttpSession interface is implemented by Tomcat in the form of org.apache.catalina.session.StandardSession.

Let’s examine the image of the Tomcat container:

Tomcat 6 Developer's Guide

The objective of this article is to cover the primary request processing components that are present in this image. Advanced topics, such as clustering and security, are shown as shaded in this image and are not covered.

In this image, the ‘+’ symbol after the Service, Host, Context, and Wrapper instances indicate that there can be one or more of these elements. For instance, a Service may have a single Engine, but an Engine can contain one or more Hosts. In addition, the whirling circle represents a pool of request processor threads.

Here, we will fly over the architecture of Tomcat from a 10,000-foot perspective taking in the sights as we go.

Component taxonomy

Tomcat’s architecture follows the construction of a Matrushka doll from Russia. In other words, it is all about containment where one entity contains another, and that entity in turn contains yet another.

In Tomcat, a ‘container’ is a generic term that refers to any component that can contain another, such as a Server, Service, Engine, Host, or Context.

Of these, the Server and Service components are special containers, designated as Top Level Elements as they represent aspects of the running Tomcat instance. All the other Tomcat components are subordinate to these top level elements.

The Engine, Host, and Context components are officially termed Containers, and refer to components that process incoming requests and generate an appropriate outgoing response.

Nested Components can be thought of as sub-elements that can be nested inside either Top Level Elements or other Containers to configure how they function. Examples of nested components include the Valve, which represents a reusable unit of work; the Pipeline, which represents a chain of Valves strung together; and a Realm which helps set up container-managed security for a particular container.

Other nested components include the Loader which is used to enforce the specification’s guidelines for servlet class loading; the Manager that supports session management for each web application; the Resources component that represents the web application’s static resources and a mechanism to access these resources; and the Listener that allows you to insert custom processing at important points in a container’s life cycle, such as when a component is being started or stopped.

Not all nested components can be nested within every container.

A final major component, which falls into its own category, is the Connector. It represents the connection end point that an external client (such as a web browser) can use to connect to the Tomcat container.

Before we go on to examine these components, let’s take a quick look at how they are organized structurally.

Tomcat 6 Developer's Guide

Note that this diagram only shows the key properties of each container.

When Tomcat is started, the Java Virtual Machine (JVM) instance in which it runs will contain a singleton Server top level element, which represents the entire Tomcat server. A Server will usually contain just one Service object, which is a structural element that combines one or more Connectors (for example, an HTTP and an HTTPS connector) that funnel incoming requests through to a single Catalina servlet Engine.

The Engine represents the core request processing code within Tomcat and supports the definition of multiple Virtual Hosts within it. A virtual host allows a single running Tomcat engine to make it seem to the outside world that there are multiple separate domains (for example, and being hosted on a single machine.

Each virtual host can, in turn, support multiple web applications known as Contexts that are deployed to it. A context is represented using the web application format specified by the servlet specification, either as a single compressed WAR (Web Application Archive) file or as an uncompressed directory. In addition, a context is configured using a web.xml file, as defined by the servlet specification.

A context can, in turn, contain multiple servlets that are deployed into it, each of which is wrapped in a Wrapper component.

The Server, Service, Connector, Engine, Host, and Context elements that will be present in a particular running Tomcat instance are configured using the server.xml configuration file.

Architectural benefits

This architecture has a couple of useful features. It not only makes it easy to manage component life cycles (each component manages the life cycle notifications for its children), but also to dynamically assemble a running Tomcat server instance that is based on the information that has been read from configuration files at startup. In particular, the server.xml file is parsed at startup, and its contents are used to instantiate and configure the defined elements, which are then assembled into a running Tomcat instance.

The server.xml file is read only once, and edits to it will not be picked up until Tomcat is restarted.

This architecture also eases the configuration burden by allowing child containers to inherit the configuration of their parent containers. For instance, a Realm defines a data store that can be used for authentication and authorization of users who are attempting to access protected resources within a web application. For ease of configuration, a realm that is defined for an engine applies to all its children hosts and contexts. At the same time, a particular child, such as a given context, may override its inherited realm by specifying its own realm to be used in place of its parent’s realm.

Top Level Components

The Server and Service container components exist largely as structural conveniences. A Server represents the running instance of Tomcat and contains one or more Service children, each of which represents a collection of request processing components.


A Server represents the entire Tomcat instance and is a singleton within a Java Virtual Machine, and is responsible for managing the life cycle of its contained services.

The following image depicts the key aspects of the Server component. As shown, a Server instance is configured using the server.xml configuration file. The root element of this file is <Server> and represents the Tomcat instance. Its default implementation is provided using org.apache.catalina.core.StandardServer, but you can specify your own custom implementation through the className attribute of the <Server> element.

Tomcat 6 Developer's Guide

A key aspect of the Server is that it opens a server socket on port 8005 (the default) to listen a shutdown command (by default, this command is the text string SHUTDOWN). When this shutdown command is received, the server gracefully shuts itself down. For security reasons, the connection requesting the shutdown must be initiated from the same machine that is running this instance of Tomcat.

A Server also provides an implementation of the Java Naming and Directory Interface (JNDI) service, allowing you to register arbitrary objects (such as data sources) or environment variables, by name.

At runtime, individual components (such as servlets) can retrieve this information by looking up the desired object name in the server’s JNDI bindings.

While a JNDI implementation is not integral to the functioning of a servlet container, it is part of the Java EE specification and is a service that servlets have a right to expect from their application servers or servlet containers. Implementing this service makes for easy portability of web applications across containers.

While there is always just one server instance within a JVM, it is entirely possible to have multiple server instances running on a single physical machine, each encased in its own JVM. Doing so insulates web applications that are running on one VM from errors in applications that are running on others, and simplifies maintenance by allowing a JVM to be restarted independently of the others. This is one of the mechanisms used in a shared hosting environment (the other is virtual hosting, which we will see shortly) where you need isolation from other web applications that are running on the same physical server.


While the Server represents the Tomcat instance itself, a Service represents the set of request processing components within Tomcat.

Tomcat 6 Developer's Guide

A Server can contain more than one Service, where each service associates a group of Connector components with a single Engine.

Requests from clients are received on a connector, which in turn funnels them through into the engine, which is the key request processing component within Tomcat. The image shows connectors for HTTP, HTTPS, and the Apache JServ Protocol (AJP).

There is very little reason to modify this element, and the default Service instance is usually sufficient.

A hint as to when you might need more than one Service instance can be found in the above image. As shown, a service aggregates connectors, each of which monitors a given IP address and port, and responds in a given protocol. An example use case for having multiple services, therefore, is when you want to partition your services (and their contained engines, hosts, and web applications) by IP address and/or port number.

For instance, you might configure your firewall to expose the connectors for one service to an external audience, while restricting your other service to hosting intranet applications that are visible only to internal users. This would ensure that an external user could never access your Intranet application, as that access would be blocked by the firewall.

The Service, therefore, is nothing more than a grouping construct. It does not currently add any other value to the proceedings.


A Connector is a service endpoint on which a client connects to the Tomcat container. It serves to insulate the engine from the various communication protocols that are used by clients, such as HTTP, HTTPS, or the Apache JServ Protocol (AJP).

Tomcat can be configured to work in two modes—Standalone or in Conjunction with a separate web server.

Tomcat 6 Developer's Guide

In standalone mode, Tomcat is configured with HTTP and HTTPS connectors, which make it act like a full-fledged web server by serving up static content when requested, as well as by delegating to the Catalina engine for dynamic content.

Out of the box, Tomcat provides three possible implementations of the HTTP/1.1 and HTTPS connectors for this mode of operation.

The most common are the standard connectors, known as Coyote which are implemented using standard Java I/O mechanisms.

You may also make use of a couple of newer implementations, one which uses the non-blocking NIO features of Java 1.4, and the other which takes advantage of native code that is optimized for a particular operating system through the Apache Portable Runtime (APR).

Note that both the Connector and the Engine run in the same JVM. In fact, they run within the same Server instance.

Tomcat 6 Developer's Guide

In conjunction mode, Tomcat plays a supporting role to a web server, such as Apache httpd or Microsoft’s IIS. The client here is the web server, communicating with Tomcat either through an Apache module or an ISAPI DLL. When this module determines that a request must be routed to Tomcat for processing, it will communicate this request to Tomcat using AJP, a binary protocol that is designed to be more efficient than the text based HTTP when communicating between a web server and Tomcat.

On the Tomcat side, an AJP connector accepts this communication and translates it into a form that the Catalina engine can process.

In this mode, Tomcat is running in its own JVM as a separate process from the web server.

In either mode, the primary attributes of a Connector are the IP address and port on which it will listen for incoming requests, and the protocol that it supports. Another key attribute is the maximum number of request processing threads that can be created to concurrently handle incoming requests. Once all these threads are busy, any incoming request will be ignored until a thread becomes available.

By default, a connector listens on all the IP addresses for the given physical machine (its address attribute defaults to However, a connector can be configured to listen on just one of the IP addresses for a machine. This will constrain it to accept connections from only that specified IP address.

Any request that is received by any one of a service’s connectors is passed on to the service’s single engine. This engine, known as Catalina, is responsible for the processing of the request, and the generation of the response.

The engine returns the response to the connector, which then transmits it back to the client using the appropriate communication protocol.

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