An example As an example, consider an online store that provides real-time pricing and availability information. Most likely, the site will provide a form with which you can choose a product. When you submit your query, the site performs a lookup and returns the results embedded within an HTML page. The site may implement this functionality in numerous ways. I'll show you one scenario that doesn't use an application server and another that does. Seeing how these scenarios differ will help you to see the application server's function. Scenario 1: Web server without an application server In the first scenario, a Web server alone provides the online store's functionality. The Web server takes your request, then passes it to a server-side program able to handle the request. The server-side program looks up the pricing information from a database or a flat file. Once retrieved, the server-side program uses the information to formulate the HTML response, then the Web server sends it back to your Web browser. To summarize, a Web server simply processes HTTP requests by responding with HTML pages. Scenario 2: Web server with an application server Scenario 2 resembles Scenario 1 in that the Web server still delegates the response generation to a script. However, you can now put the business logic for the pricing lookup onto an application server. With that change, instead of the script knowing how to look up the data and formulate a response, the script can simply call the application server's lookup service. The script can then use the service's result when the script generates its HTML response. In this scenario, the application server serves the business logic for looking up a product's pricing information. That functionality doesn't say anything about display or how the client must use the information. Instead, the client and application server send data back and forth. When a client calls the application server's lookup service, the service simply looks up the information and returns it to the client. By separating the pricing logic from the HTML response-generating code, the pricing logic becomes far more reusable between applications. A second client, such as a cash register, could also call the same service as a clerk checks out a customer. In contrast, in Scenario 1 the pricing lookup service is not reusable because the information is embedded within the HTML page. To summarize, in Scenario 2's model, the Web server handles HTTP requests by replying with an HTML page while the application server serves application logic by processing pricing and availability requests.
There are enough definitions floating around out there that it pays to skip these terms and say exactly what you're talking about in conversations with others.
For example, our team used to call the servlet container the web tier and the EJB container the app tier. But folks we work with say IHS is the web server and anything running Java is an app server. Now I try to talk about IHS and containers rather than app server and web server.
A good question is never answered. It is not a bolt to be tightened into place but a seed to be planted and to bear more seed toward the hope of greening the landscape of the idea. John Ciardi