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How Java Web Servers Work

by Budi Kurniawan
04/23/2003

Editor's Note: this article is adapted from Budi's self-published book on Tomcat internals. You can find more information on his web site.

A web server is also called a Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) server because it uses HTTP to communicate with its clients, which are usually web browsers. A Java-based web server uses two important classes, java.net.Socket and java.net.ServerSocket, and communicates through HTTP messages. Therefore, this article starts by discussing of HTTP and the two classes. Afterwards, I'll explain the simple web server application that accompanies this article.

The Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP)

HTTP is the protocol that allows web servers and browsers to send and receive data over the Internet. It is a request and response protocol--the client makes a request and the server responds to the request. HTTP uses reliable TCP connections, by default on TCP port 80. The first version of HTTP was HTTP/0.9, which was then overridden by HTTP/1.0. The current version is HTTP/1.1, which is defined by RFC 2616(.pdf).

This section covers HTTP 1.1 briefly; enough to make you understand the messages sent by the web server application. If you are interested in more details, read RFC 2616.

In HTTP, the client always initiates a transaction by establishing a connection and sending an HTTP request. The server is in no position to contact a client or to make a callback connection to the client. Either the client or the server can prematurely terminate a connection. For example, when using a web browser, you can click the Stop button on your browser to stop the download process of a file, effectively closing the HTTP connection with the web server.

HTTP Requests

An HTTP request consists of three components:

An example HTTP request is:

POST /servlet/default.jsp HTTP/1.1
Accept: text/plain; text/html 
Accept-Language: en-gb 
Connection: Keep-Alive 
Host: localhost 
Referer: http://localhost/ch8/SendDetails.htm 
User-Agent: Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 4.01; Windows 98) 
Content-Length: 33 
Content-Type: application/x-www-form-urlencoded 
Accept-Encoding: gzip, deflate 

LastName=Franks&FirstName=Michael

The method-URI-Protocol/Version appears as the first line of the request.

POST /servlet/default.jsp HTTP/1.1

Related Reading

HTTP: The Definitive Guide
By David Gourley, Brian Totty

where POST is the request method, /servlet/default.jsp represents the URI and HTTP/1.1 the Protocol/Version section.

Each HTTP request can use one of the many request methods, as specified in the HTTP standards. The HTTP 1.1 supports seven types of request: GET, POST, HEAD, OPTIONS, PUT, DELETE, and TRACE. GET and POST are the most commonly used in Internet applications.

The URI specifies an Internet resource completely. A URI is usually interpreted as being relative to the server's root directory. Thus, it should always begin with a forward slash (/). A URL is actually a type of URI. The protocol version represents the version of the HTTP protocol being used.

The request header contains useful information about the client environment and the entity body of the request. For example, it could contain the language for which the browser is set, the length of the entity body, and so on. Each header is separated by a carriage return/linefeed (CRLF) sequence.

A very important blank line (CRLF sequence) comes between the headers and the entity body. This line marks the beginning of the entity body. Some Internet programming books consider this CRLF the fourth component of an HTTP request.

In the previous HTTP request, the entity body is simply the following line:

LastName=Franks&FirstName=Michael

The entity body could easily become much longer in a typical HTTP request.

HTTP Responses

Similar to requests, an HTTP response also consists of three parts:

The following is an example of an HTTP response:

HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Server: Microsoft-IIS/4.0
Date: Mon, 3 Jan 1998 13:13:33 GMT
Content-Type: text/html
Last-Modified: Mon, 11 Jan 1998 13:23:42 GMT
Content-Length: 112

<html>
<head>
<title>HTTP Response Example</title></head><body>
Welcome to Brainy Software
</body>
</html>

The first line of the response header is similar to the first line of the request header. The first line tells you that the protocol used is HTTP version 1.1, the request succeeded (200 = success), and that everything went okay.

The response headers contain useful information similar to the headers in the request. The entity body of the response is the HTML content of the response itself. The headers and the entity body are separated by a sequence of CRLFs.

The Socket Class

A socket is an endpoint of a network connection. A socket enables an application to read from and write to the network. Two software applications residing on two different computers can communicate with each other by sending and receiving byte streams over a connection. To send a message to another application, you need to know its IP address, as well as the port number of its socket. In Java, a socket is represented by the java.net.Socket class.

To create a socket, you can use one of the many constructors of the Socket class. One of these constructors accepts the host name and the port number:

public Socket(String host, int port)

where host is the remote machine name or IP address, and port is the port number of the remote application. For example, to connect to yahoo.com at port 80, you would construct the following socket:

new Socket("yahoo.com", 80);

Once you create an instance of the Socket class successfully, you can use it to send and receive streams of bytes. To send byte streams, you must first call the Socket class' getOutputStream method to obtain a java.io.OutputStream object. To send text to a remote application, you often want to construct a java.io.PrintWriter object from the OutputStream object returned. To receive byte streams from the other end of the connection, you call the Socket class' getInputStream method, which returns a java.io.InputStream.

The following snippet creates a socket that can communicate with a local HTTP server (127.0.0.1 denotes a local host), sends an HTTP request, and receives the response from the server. It creates a StringBuffer object to hold the response, and prints it to the console.

Socket socket    = new Socket("127.0.0.1", "8080");
OutputStream os   = socket.getOutputStream();
boolean autoflush = true;
PrintWriter out   = new PrintWriter( socket.getOutputStream(), autoflush );
BufferedReader in = new BufferedReader( 
    new InputStreamReader( socket.getInputStream() ));

// send an HTTP request to the web server
out.println("GET /index.jsp HTTP/1.1");
out.println("Host: localhost:8080");
out.println("Connection: Close");
out.println();

// read the response
boolean loop    = true;
StringBuffer sb = new StringBuffer(8096);

while (loop) {
    if ( in.ready() ) {
        int i=0;
        while (i!=-1) {
            i = in.read();
            sb.append((char) i);
        }
        loop = false;
    }
    Thread.currentThread().sleep(50);
}

// display the response to the out console
System.out.println(sb.toString());
socket.close();

Note that to get a proper response from the web server, you need to send an HTTP request that complies with the HTTP protocol. If you have read the previous section, "The Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP)," you can understand the HTTP request in the code above.

The ServerSocket Class

The Socket class represents a "client" socket; a socket that you construct whenever you want to connect to a remote server application. If you want to implement a server application, such as an HTTP server or an FTP server, you need a different approach. This is because your server must stand by all the time, as it does not know when a client application will try to connect to it.

For this purpose, you need to use the java.net.ServerSocket class. This is an implementation of a server socket. A server socket waits for a connection request from a client. Once it receives a connection request, it creates a Socket instance to handle the communication with the client.

To create a server socket, you need to use one of the four constructors the ServerSocket class provides. You need to specify the IP address and port number on which the server socket will listen. Typically, the IP address will be 127.0.0.1, meaning that the server socket will be listening on the local machine. The IP address the server socket is listening on is referred to as the binding address. Another important property of a server socket is its backlog, which is the maximum queue length for incoming connection requests before the server socket starts to refuse incoming requests.

One of the constructors of the ServerSocket class has the following signature:

public ServerSocket(int port, int backLog, InetAddress bindingAddress);

For this constructor, the binding address must be an instance of java.net.InetAddress. An easy way to construct an InetAddress object is by calling its static method getByName, passing a String containing the host name:

InetAddress.getByName("127.0.0.1");

The following line of code constructs a ServerSocket that listens on port 8080 of the local machine with a backlog of 1.

new ServerSocket(8080, 1, InetAddress.getByName("127.0.0.1"));

Once you have a ServerSocket instance, you can tell it to wait for incoming connection requests by calling the accept method. This method will only return when there is a connection request. It returns an instance of the Socket class. This Socket object can then be used to send and receive byte streams from the client application, as explained in the The Socket Class. Practically, the accept method is the only method used in the application accompanying this article.

Source Code

Download the HowWebServersWork.zip file for the example application.

The Application

Our web server application is part of the ex01.pyrmont package and consists of three classes:

The entry point of this application (the static main method) is in the HttpServer class. It creates an instance of HttpServer and calls its await method. As the name implies, await waits for HTTP requests on a designated port, processes them, and sends responses back to the clients. It keeps waiting until a shutdown command is received. (The method name await is used instead of wait because wait is an important method in the System.Object class for working with threads.)

The application only sends static resources, such as HTML and image files, from a specified directory. It supports no headers (such as dates or cookies).

We'll now take a look at the three classes in the following subsections.

The HttpServer Class

The HttpServer class represents a web server and can serve static resources found in the directory indicated by the public static final WEB_ROOT and all subdirectories under it. WEB_ROOT is initialized as follows:

public static final String WEB_ROOT =
	System.getProperty("user.dir") + File.separator  + "webroot";

The code listings include a directory called webroot that contains some static resources that you can use for testing this application. You can also find a servlet that will be used for my next article, "How Servlet Containers Work."

To request a static resource, type the following URL in your browser's Address or URL box:

http://machineName:port/staticResource

If you are sending a request from a different machine from the one running your application, machineName is the name or IP address of the computer running this application. If your browser is on the same machine, you can use localhost for the machineName. port is 8080 and staticResource is the name of the file requested and must reside in WEB_ROOT.

For instance, if you are using the same computer to test the application and you want to ask the HttpServer to send the index.html file, use the following URL:

http://localhost:8080/index.html

To stop the server, send a shutdown command from a web browser by typing the pre-defined string in the browser's Address or URL box, after the host:port section of the URL. The shutdown command is defined by the SHUTDOWN static final variable in the HttpServer class:

private static final String SHUTDOWN_COMMAND = "/SHUTDOWN";

Therefore, to stop the server, you can use:

http://localhost:8080/SHUTDOWN

Now, let's have a look at the await method that is given in Listing 1.1. The explanation of the code is to be found right after the listing.

Listing 1.1. The HttpServer class' await method

public void await() {
    ServerSocket serverSocket = null;
    int port = 8080;
    try {
        serverSocket =  new ServerSocket(port, 1,
        InetAddress.getByName("127.0.0.1"));
    }
    catch (IOException e) {
        e.printStackTrace();
        System.exit(1);
    }

    // Loop waiting for a request
    while (!shutdown) {
        Socket socket = null;
        InputStream input = null;
        OutputStream output = null;
        try {
            socket = serverSocket.accept();
            input = socket.getInputStream();
            output = socket.getOutputStream();

            // create Request object and parse
            Request request = new Request(input);
            request.parse();

            // create Response object
            Response response = new Response(output);
            response.setRequest(request);
            response.sendStaticResource();

            // Close the socket
            socket.close();

            //check if the previous URI is a shutdown command
            shutdown = request.getUri().equals(SHUTDOWN_COMMAND);
        }
        catch (Exception e) {
            e.printStackTrace();
            continue;
        }
    }
}

The await method starts by creating a ServerSocket instance and then going into a while loop.

serverSocket =  new ServerSocket(
     port, 1, InetAddress.getByName("127.0.0.1"));

...

// Loop waiting for a request
while (!shutdown) {
    ...
}

The code inside of the while loop stops at the accept method of ServerSocket, which returns only when an HTTP request is received on port 8080:

socket = serverSocket.accept();

Upon receiving a request, the await method obtains the java.io.InputStream and the java.io.OutputStream objects from the Socket instance returned by the accept method.

input = socket.getInputStream();
output = socket.getOutputStream();

The await method then creates a Request object and calls its parse method to parse the raw HTTP request.

// create Request object and parse
Request request = new Request(input);
request.parse();

Next, the await method creates a Response object, sets the Request object to it, and calls its sendStaticResource method.

// create Response object
Response response = new Response(output);
response.setRequest(request);
response.sendStaticResource();

Finally, the await method closes the Socket and calls the getUri method of Request to check if the URI of the HTTP request is a shutdown command. If it is, the shutdown variable is set to true and the program exits the while loop.

// Close the socket
socket.close();
//check if the previous URI is a shutdown command
shutdown = request.getUri().equals(SHUTDOWN_COMMAND);

The Request Class

The Request class represents an HTTP request. An instance of this class is constructed by passing the InputStream object obtained from a Socket that handles the communication with the client. Call one of the read methods of the InputStream object to obtain the HTTP request raw data.

The Request class has two public methods: parse and getUri. The parse method parses the raw data in the HTTP request. It doesn't do much--the only information it makes available is the URI of the HTTP request, which it obtains by calling the private method parseUri. The parseUri method stores the URI in the uri variable. Invoke the public getUri method to return the URI of the HTTP request.

To understand how the parse and parseUri methods work, you need to know the structure of an HTTP request, which is defined in RFC 2616(.pdf).

An HTTP request contains three parts:

For now, we are only interested in the first part of the HTTP request, the request line. A request line begins with a method token, is followed by the request URI and the protocol version, and ends with carriage-return linefeed (CRLF) characters. Elements in the request line are separated by a space character. For instance, the request line for a request for the index.html file using the GET method is:

GET /index.html HTTP/1.1

The parse method reads the whole byte stream from the socket's InputStream passed to the Request object, and stores the byte array in a buffer. It then populates a StringBuffer object called request using the bytes in the buffer byte array, and passes the String representation of the StringBuffer to the parseUri method.

The parse method is given in Listing 1.2.

Listing 1.2. The Request class' parse method

public void parse() {
    // Read a set of characters from the socket
    StringBuffer request = new StringBuffer(2048);
    int i;
    byte[] buffer = new byte[2048];

    try {
        i = input.read(buffer);
    }
    catch (IOException e) {
        e.printStackTrace();
        i = -1;
    }

    for (int j=0; j<i; j++) {
        request.append((char) buffer[j]);
    }

    System.out.print(request.toString());
    uri   = parseUri(request.toString());
}

The parseUri method then obtains the URI from the request line. Listing 1.3 shows the parseUri method. The parseUri method searches for the first and the second spaces in the request and obtains the URI from there.

Listing 1.3. The Request class' parseUri method

private String parseUri(String requestString) {
    int index1, index2;
    index1 = requestString.indexOf(' ');

    if (index1 != -1) {
        index2 = requestString.indexOf(' ', index1 + 1);
        if (index2 > index1)
           return requestString.substring(index1 + 1, index2);
    }

    return null;
}

The Response Class

The Response class represents an HTTP response. Its constructor accepts an OutputStream object, such as the following:

public Response(OutputStream output) {
    this.output = output;
}

A Response object is constructed by the HttpServer class' await method by passing the OutputStream object obtained from the socket.

The Response class has two public methods: setRequest and sendStaticResource. The setRequest method is used to pass a Request object to the Response object. It is as simple as the code in Listing 1.4.

Listing 1.4. The Response class' setRequest method

public void setRequest(Request request) {
    this.request = request;
}

The sendStaticResource method is used to send a static resource, such as an HTML file. Its implementation is given in Listing 1.5.

Listing 1.5. The Response class' sendStaticResource method

public void sendStaticResource() throws IOException {
    byte[] bytes        = new byte[BUFFER_SIZE];
    FileInputStream fis = null;

    try {
        File file  = new File(HttpServer.WEB_ROOT, request.getUri());
        if (file.exists()) {
            fis    = new FileInputStream(file);
            int ch = fis.read(bytes, 0, BUFFER_SIZE);

            while (ch != -1) {
                output.write(bytes, 0, ch);
                ch = fis.read(bytes, 0, BUFFER_SIZE);
            }
        }
        else {
            // file not found
            String errorMessage = "HTTP/1.1 404 File Not Found\r\n" +
                "Content-Type: text/html\r\n" +
                "Content-Length: 23\r\n" +
                "\r\n" +
                "<h1>File Not Found</h1>";
            output.write(errorMessage.getBytes());
        }
    }
    catch (Exception e) {
        // thrown if cannot instantiate a File object
        System.out.println(e.toString() );
    }
    finally {
        if (fis != null)
            fis.close();
    }
}

The sendStaticResource method is very simple. It first instantiates the java.io.File class by passing the parent and child paths to the File class' constructor.

File file = new File(HttpServer.WEB_ROOT, request.getUri());

It then checks if the file exists. If it does, the sendStaticResource method constructs a java.io.FileInputStream object by passing the File object. It then invokes the read method of the FileInputStream and writes the byte array to the OutputStream output. Note that in this case, the content of the static resource is sent to the browser as raw data.

if (file.exists()) {
    fis    = new FileInputStream(file);
    int ch = fis.read(bytes, 0, BUFFER_SIZE);

    while (ch != -1) {
        output.write(bytes, 0, ch);
        ch = fis.read(bytes, 0, BUFFER_SIZE);
    }
}

If the file does not exist, the sendStaticResource method sends an error message to the browser.

String errorMessage = "HTTP/1.1 404 File Not Found\r\n" +
    "Content-Type: text/html\r\n" +
    "Content-Length: 23\r\n" +
    "\r\n" +
    "<h1>File Not Found</h1>";
output.write(errorMessage.getBytes());

Compiling and Running the Application

To compile and run the application, you first need to extract the .zip file containing the application for this article. The directory you extract the .zip file into is called the working directory and will have three sub-directories: src/, classes/, and lib/. To compile the application, type the following from the working directory:

javac -d . src/ex01/pyrmont/*.java

The -d option writes the results to the current, not the src/, directory.

To run the application, type the following from the working directory:

java ex01.pyrmont.HttpServer

To test the application, open your browser and type the following in the URL or Address box:

http://localhost:8080/index.html

You will see the index.html page displayed in your browser, as in Figure 1.

output from the web server
Figure 1. The output from the web server

On the console, you can see something like the following:

GET /index.html HTTP/1.1
Accept: */*
Accept-Language: en-us
Accept-Encoding: gzip, deflate
User-Agent: Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 4.01; Windows 98) 
Host: localhost:8080
Connection: Keep-Alive

GET /images/logo.gif HTTP/1.1
Accept: */*
Referer: http://localhost:8080/index.html
Accept-Language: en-us
Accept-Encoding: gzip, deflate
User-Agent: Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 4.01; Windows 98) 
Host: localhost:8080
Connection: Keep-Alive

Summary

In this article, you have seen how a simple web server works. The application accompanying this article consists of only three classes and is not fully functional. Nevertheless, it serves as a good learning tool.

Budi Kurniawan is a senior J2EE architect and author.


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