This chapter presents an introduction to servlets. Servlets are small programs that execute on the server side of a web connection. Just as applets dynamically extend the functionality of a web browser, servlets dynamically extend the functionality of a web server. The topic of servlets is quite large, and it is beyond the scope of this chapter to cover it all. Instead, we will focus on the core concepts, interfaces, and classes, and develop several examples.
In order to understand the advantages of servlets, you must have a basic understanding of how web browsers and servers cooperate to provide content to a user. Consider a request for a static web page. A user enters a Uniform Resource Locator (URL) into a browser. The browser generates an HTTP request to the appropriate web server. The web server maps this request to a specific file. That file is returned in an HTTP response to the browser. The HTTP header in the response indicates the type of the content. The Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (MIME) are used for this purpose. For example, ordinary ASCII text has a MIME type of text/plain. The Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) source code of a web page has a MIME type of text/html.
Now consider dynamic content. Assume that an online store uses a database to store information about its business. This would include items for sale, prices, availability, orders, and so forth. It wishes to make this information accessible to customers via web pages. The contents of those web pages must be dynamically generated to reflect the latest information in the database.
In the early days of the Web, a server could dynamically construct a page by creating a separate process to handle each client request. The process would open connections to one or more databases in order to obtain the necessary information. It communicated with the web server via an interface known as the Common Gateway Interface (CGI). CGI allowed the separate process to read data from the HTTP request and write data to the HTTP response. A variety of different languages were used to build CGI programs. These included C, C++, and Perl.
However, CGI suffered serious performance problems. It was expensive in terms of processor and memory resources to create a separate process for each client request. It was also expensive to open and close database connections for each client request. In addition, the CGI programs were not platform-independent. Therefore, other techniques were introduced. Among these are servlets.
Servlets offer several advantages in comparison with CGI. First, performance is significantly better. Servlets execute within the address space of a web server. It is not necessary to create a separate process to handle each client request. Second, servlets are platform-independent because they are written in Java. Third, the Java security manager on the server enforces a set of restrictions to protect the resources on a server machine. Finally, the full functionality of the Java class libraries is available to a servlet. It can communicate with applets, databases, or other software via the sockets and RMI mechanisms that you have seen already.
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