What are all the different kinds of servers? (Such as Web Servers, Application Servers, etc)

Paul Danckaert

The servers involved in handling and processing a user's request break down into a few basic types, each of which may have one or more tasks it solves. This flexibility gives developers a great deal of power over how applications will be created and deployed, but also leads to confusion over what server is able to, or should, perform a specific task.

Starting at the basic level, a user is typically submitting a request to a system through a web browser. (We are conveniently ignoring all other types of clients (RMI, CORBA, COM/DCOM, Custom, etc..) for the time being for purposes of clarity.) The web request must be received by a Web Server (otherwise known as an HTTP Server) of some sort. This web server must handle standard HTTP requests and responses, typically returning HTML to the calling user. Code that executes within the server environment may be CGI driven, Servlets, ASP, or some other server-side programming language, but the end result is that the web server will pass back HTML to the user.

The web server may need to execute an application in response to the users request. It may be generating a list of news items, or handling a form submission to a guest book. If the server application is written as a Java Servlet, it will need a place to execute, and this place is typically called a Servlet Engine. Depending on the web server, this engine may be internal, external, or a completely different product. This engine is continually running, unlike a traditional CGI environment where a CGI script is started upon each request to the server. This persistance gives a servlet connection and thread pooling, as well as an easy way to maintain state between each HTTP request. JSP pages are usually tied in with the servlet engine, and would execute within the same space/application as the servlets.

There are many products that handle the web serving and the servlet engine in different manners. Netscape/iPlanet Enterprise Server builds the servlet engine directly into the web server and runs within the same process space. Apache requires that a servlet engine run in an external process, and will communicate to the engine via TCP/IP sockets. Other servers, such as MS IIS don't officially support servlets, and require add-on products to add that capability.

When you move on to Enterprise JavaBeans (and other J2EE components like JMS and CORBA) you move into the application server space. An Application Server is any server that supplies additional functionality related to enterprise computing -- for instance, load balancing, database access classes, transaction processing, messaging, and so on.

EJB Application Servers provide an EJB container, which is the environment that beans will execute in, and this container will manage transactions, thread pools, and other issues as necessary. These application servers are usually stand-alone products, and developers would tie their servlets/JSP pages to the EJB components via remote object access APIs. Depending on the application server, programmers may use CORBA or RMI to talk to their beans, but the baseline standard is to use JNDI to locate and create EJB references as necessary.

Now, one thing that confuses the issue is that many application server providers include some or all of these components in their product. If you look at WebLogic (http://www.beasys.com/) you will find that WebLogic contains a web server, servlet engine, JSP processor, JMS facility, as well as an EJB container. Theoretically a product like this could be used to handle all aspects of site development. In practice, you would most likely use this type of product to manage/serve EJB instances, while dedicated web servers handle the specific HTTP requests.

See also: What is the difference between an Application Server and a Web Server?