Hosting Java Web applications is far from trivial. Ask anyone who has tried it and you'll start to understand why Java Web applications are not popular outside the enterprise. On the other hand, another common type of Web application - PHP based - has no such hosting issues. While there is lots of information on this topic throughout the Internet, I thought about performing my own simple test and I focused on three representative hosting providers.
Our company has recently launched the Java translation of phpBB 2, branded as nBB2. It's open-source and you can get it from nbb2.sourceforge.net. So what I had at hand was the Java equivalent of a popular PHP forum engine. Same look, same behavior, only backed by a different programming language. If one wants to compare the hosting options for small-to-medium PHP and Java Web applications, the phpBB/nBB2 pair looked to me like a good test material.
My reasoning was to use a Java application that is the very close counterpart of something that runs on even the cheapest PHP hosting options. By "close counterpart" I mean they both carry out the same operations on system resources (e.g. writing files, using sockets, accessing databases).
Another concern I had was performance. I wanted to find out not only whether the Java application can run on a certain hosting plan, but also how fast. Again, the most reasonable benchmark was to compare performance with the original PHP application running in the same environment.
I started by setting up a testing scenario using Apache JMeter which performs the following workflow: main page → login page → main page (automatic redirect) → view forum → view topic → post reply → log out → main page (automatic redirect).
This scenario is executed by 10 concurrent threads (users), 30 times each. This produces 300 new topic posts at the end of the performance test. All JMeter project files are available on the CVS here.
Before using the hosting providers, I conducted reference testing on two of our machines (one Linux, one Windows). The results were consistent: phpBB 2 was 10-15% faster than nBB2.
I ran PHP 5.2.3 through the Apache 2.x PHP module, a pretty common setup. For nBB2, I used Apache Tomcat 5.5 (on J2SE 6) and I imposed a heap limit of 32 MB, close to what one can expect in a remote hosting environment. More performance tuning could produce better nBB2 results, but this was enough to prove that the performance of the two applications is comparable.
The JMeter aggregate reports are also on the CVS. In case you wonder why Java doesn't blow out PHP for speed (or vice-versa), do not forget that both applications share the same architecture.
For Java Web applications, the basic hosting options I have encountered feature a setup in which several users share the same instance of Tomcat 5.x. Perhaps Caucho Resin would be a better choice, but that's another discussion.
After many attempts, I gave up on GoDaddy's cheap Linux-based Java hosting account (the Deluxe Plan with $6.99 per month). I can only say what many others do, that it isn't suitable for anything but the simplest servlets or JSP pages.
Their JVM is set up to be very restrictive. As a rule of thumb, any part of the Java API that requires security permissions will probably not work. Think of write access to your own account (or /tmp), reading of system properties, creation of URL stream handlers, FTP connections. Before dismissing the importance of write access, think about logging. You'll be forced to log to a database. Log4j JDBCAppender is your friend, but it can't replace a simple log file. But I digress.
Other basic hosting accounts forbid the use of third-party JARs, like the case of HostIgnition's StarterFire plan.
Deployment/redeployment is another issue, since you don't have direct access to the JVM and so you cannot restart it at your convenience. According to GoDaddy's documentation, they have scheduled restarts each night at 1 AM Arizona time. In practice, they seem to do restarts more often than that. Other providers have on demand restarts. Each user can request a certain number of restarts each day. The problem is that other users you are sharing the JVM with can temporarily take down your application.
Shared hosting using a private JVM was the next logical step in my quest. This took the monthly charge well over $10 (e.g. $14.95 for HostIgnition's LiteFire with the Level 2 JSP/Servlets option). At this level one needs to get used to 32 MB of heap, at best. Above that, prices increase steeply (e.g. $59.95 for 64 MB of heap at HostIgnition). Having your own JVM, you may restart it at your convenience and can see even the Tomcat logs directory through FTP.
But even using the private JVM doesn't mean that all will go well. For instance, on my test Hostignition LiteFire account, I occasionally encountered the java.lang.OutOfMemoryError: GC overhead limit exceeded error during performance testing. This is documented to occur when the -XX:-UseGCOverheadLimit JVM option is enabled, more than 98% of the total time is spent in garbage collection and less than 2% of the heap is recovered. Now this could happen if a certain part of the heap resided in swap and could not be restored to RAM in a time-effective manner.
On a positive note, the performance of nBB2 slightly exceeded that of phpBB on my HostIgnition account - configuration options do help.
After all this, I see the shared hosting with private JVM as the cheapest viable Java hosting alternative. While the basic hosting services just won't do, this one is reasonable but starts to be a little pricey.
Virtual Private Servers (VPS)
After finding a reasonable Java Web hosting solution, I thought about going upwards in the price range. The next step is represented by the Virtual Private Servers. You get your own machine (Linux or Windows) and have full root/admin access through SSH/Remote Desktop. The catch is that all this is virtualized and you are sharing a physical machine with others. Depending on how many users are allocated to the same physical machine and on what they are doing at a given time, performance varies.
The downside is that, besides the JVM, you are in charge of the whole operating system. Setting up and maintaining the servers for DNS, email, database, Web etc. is no small task.
My Linux-based GoDaddy VPS (Economy Plan, $30+) had enough RAM (256 MB RAM + 1 GB of swap), but experienced occasional performance drops. This was really bad. I thought I'd try a different VPS provider.
On a LunarPages VPS also running on Linux, things were much better and consistent on the performance side. The problem was that I had only 512 MB of memory available, including swap space. I'd say that on a real machine this would be the equivalent of 128 MB RAM and 384 MB of swap. This memory was eaten up pretty fast by the running services and I had difficulties getting a JVM to fully use its 32 MB heap space (in client mode, since the server mode requires additional non-heap memory). This ate up all the memory and /proc/meminfo was consistently reporting low to critical memory resources. Under these circumstances, even simple Cron jobs were failing due to out of memory errors. Naturally, the JVM also required daily restarts, otherwise I'd get OutOfMemory errors there as well.
Had I skipped the Plesk administrative interface and disabled some non-essential services, I might have been able to fully use the 32 MB of heap space and have some memory to spare. But it seemed pointless to pay twice the price of a private JVM on a shared host to get the same level of performance at best.
Performance-wise, when the Java application DID work, the results were consistent with what I had obtained on our local machines.
It surely works great, but it is in a completely different price range. I find a $100+ monthly charge to be rarely justified for low to medium traffic sites running small sized Web applications. The JVM is snappy, while experiencing the same comparative performance as on my local tests. Memory is no issue since all dedicated plans come with at least 512 MB of RAM and a swap space for which you have exclusive use. It's a physical machine for your use only.
With all this effort, I managed to find out nothing new :-) Java runs well in an enterprise environment (good up-scaling) and lags outside of it (bad down-scaling). The memory overhead of the JVM translates into memory problems for the applications in a budget-friendly hosting environment, making the comparable performance (when/while things do run) a small consolation.
But PHP works well outside the enterprise. Its simple development and deployment life-cycles are ideal for shared hosting environments, just as if the language was been built with this in mind – well, actually, it was.
While Java comes out a little bruised from this comparison, future evolutions might change the balance of power. If the MVM (multi-tasking virtual machine) from JSR 121 that promises to run multiple isolated virtual machines inside the same JVM process will ever be released, this could make it easy and cost-effective for hosting providers to give full access to a JVM per account even in their basic hosting plans. Another possibility is for the embedded J2SE platform to be used by hosting providers, if it catches on.