War on Snaps

Java is a well established language for developing web applications, in no small part because of it’s industry standard framework for building them: Servlets and JSP.  Another important part of this standard is the Web Archive, or WAR, file format, which defines how to provide a web application’s executables and how they should be run in a way that is independent of the application server that will be running  them.

application-server-market-share-2015WAR files make life easier for developers by separate the web application from the web server. Unfortunately this doesn’t actually make it easier to deploy a webapp, it only shifts some of the burden off of the developers and on to the user, who still needs to setup and configure an application server to host it. One popular option is Apache’s Tomcat webapp server, which is both lightweight and packs enough features to support the needs of most webapps.

And here is where Snaps come in. By combining both the application and the server into a single, installable package you get the best of both, and with a little help from Snapcraft you don’t have to do any extra work.

Snapcraft supports a modular build configuration by having multiple “parts“, each of which provides some aspect of your complete runtime environment in a way that is configurable and reusable. This is extended to a feature called “remote parts” which are pre-defined parts you can easily pull into your snap by name. It’s this combination of reusable and remote parts that are going to make snapping up java web applications incredibly easy.

The remote part we are going to use is the “tomcat” part, which will build the Tomcat application server from upstream source and bundle it in your snap ready to go. All that you, as the web developer, need to provide is your .war file. Below is an simple snapcraft.yaml that will bundle Tomcat’s “sample” war file into a self-contained snap package.

name: tomcat-sample
version: '0.1'
summary: Sample webapp using tomcat part
description: |
 This is a basic webapp snap using the remote Tomcat part

grade: stable
confinement: strict

    plugin: dump
    source: .
      sample.war: ./webapps/sample.war
    after: [tomcat]

    command: tomcat-launch
    daemon: simple
    plugs: [network-bind]

The important bits are the ones in bold, let’s go through them one at a time starting with the part named “my-part”. This uses the simple “dump” plugin which is just going to copy everything in it’s source (current directory in this case) into the resulting snap. Here we have just the sample.war file, which we are going to move into a “webapps” directory, because that is where the Tomcat part is going to look for war files.

Now for the magic, by specifying that “my-part” should come after the “tomcat” part (using after: [tomcat]) which isn’t defined elsewhere in the snapcraft.yaml, we will trigger Snapcraft to look for a remote part by that same name, which conveniently exists for us to use. This remote part will do two things, first it will download and build the Tomcat source code, and then it will generate a “tomcat-launch” shell script that we’ll use later. These two parts, “my-part” and “tomcat” will be combined in the final snap, with the Tomcat server automatically knowing about and installing the sample.war webapp.

The “apps” section of the snapcraft.yaml defines the application to be run. In this simple example all we need to execute is the “tomcat-launch” script that was created for us. This sets up the Tomcat environment variables and runtime directories so that it can run fully confined within the snap. And by declaring it to be a simple daemon we are additionally telling it to auto-start as soon as it’s installed (and after any reboot) which will be handled by systemd.

Now when you run “snapcraft” on this config, you will end up with the file tomcat-sample_0.1_amd64.snap which contains your web application, the Tomcat application server, and a headless Java JRE to run it all. That way the only thing your users need to do to run your app is to “snap install tomcat-sample” and everything will be up and running at http://localhost:8080/sample/ right away, no need to worry about installing dependencies or configuring services.

Screenshot from 2017-03-21 14-16-59

If you have a webapp that you currently deploy as a .war file, you can snap it yourself in just a few minutes, use the snapcraft.yaml defined above and replace the sample data with your own. To learn more about Snaps and Snapcraft in general you can follow this tutorial as well as learning how to publish your new snap to the store.

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