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Clustering with Tomcat

by Shyam Kumar Doddavula

This article describes how Web applications can benefit from clustering and presents a clustering solution that we developed for the Jakarta Tomcat Servlet Engine to provide high scalability, load-balancing, and high availability using JavaSpaces technology.


With the increasing use of Web-based applications, scalability and availability are critical for their success. Implementing a clustering solution for the servers hosting the Web applications is a simple, cost-effective solution.

JavaSpaces technology provides a distributed shared memory model that can be used to design a clustering solution. Unlike typical distributed system solutions, which revolve around enabling remote procedure calling or exchanging messages, solutions using this technology revolve around the ability to pass objects around. These objects typically carry all of the information needed to perform a task on a remote system, including even the code as needed, using an associative, shared, distributed memory. JavaSpaces provides a simple set of write, read, and take operations, which allow processes to put an object in the space, get a copy of an object, or take out an object from space.

Figure 1. A distributed system using JavaSpaces (Reprinted with permission from Sun Microsystems)

JavaSpaces is a core Jini technology service. The Jini programming model, with its leasing model and dynamic service discovery, provides the infrastructure needed to create a self-configuring dynamic distributed system. See the resource section for further information on these technologies.

The JavaSpaces technology, combined with the Jini programming model, thus offers high spatial and temporal decoupling, making it possible to design a distributed system that is highly scalable, fault-tolerant, and dynamically configurable. In this article, we will describe a simple clustering solution for the Jakarta Tomcat servlet engine (Catalina 4.x), a popular open source implementation of the Servlet API, using these technologies.

Why Clustering?

Clustering solutions usually provide:

  • Scalability
  • High Availability
  • Load Balancing


The key question here is, if it takes time T to fulfill a request, how much time will it take to fulfill N concurrent requests? The goal is to bring that time as close to T as possible by increasing the computing resources as the load increases. Ideally, the solution should allow for scaling both vertically (by increasing computing resources on the server) and horizontally (increasing the number of servers) and the scaling should be linear.

High Availability

The objective here is to provide failover, so that if one server in the cluster goes down, then other servers in the cluster should be able to take over -- as transparently to the end user as possible.

In the servlet engine case, there are two levels of failover capabilities typically provided by clustering solutions:

  • Request-level failover
  • Session-level failover

Request-level Failover. If one of the servers in the cluster goes down, all subsequent requests should get redirected to the remaining servers in the cluster. In a typical clustering solution, this usually involves using a heartbeat mechanism to keep track of the server status and avoiding sending requests to the servers that are not responding.

Session-level Failover. Since an HTTP client can have a session that is maintained by the HTTP server, in session level failover, if one of the servers in the cluster goes down, then some other server in the cluster should be able to carry on with the sessions that were being handled by it, with minimal loss of continuity. In a typical clustering solution, this involves replicating the session data across the cluster (to one other machine in the cluster, at the least).

Load Balancing

The objective here is that the solution should distribute the load among the servers in the cluster to provide the best possible response time to the end user.

In a typical clustering solution, this involves use of a load distribution algorithm, like a simple round robin algorithm or more sophisticated algorithms, that distributes requests to the servers in the cluster by keeping track of the load and available resources on the servers.

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