Simplest way to serve static data from outside the application server in a Java web application

I’ve seen some suggestions like having the image directory being a symbolic link pointing to a directory outside the web container, but will this approach work both on Windows and *nix environments?

If you adhere the *nix filesystem path rules (i.e. you use exclusively forward slashes as in /path/to/files), then it will work on Windows as well without the need to fiddle around with ugly File.separator string-concatenations. It would however only be scanned on the same working disk as from where this command is been invoked. So if Tomcat is for example installed on C: then the /path/to/files would actually point to C:\path\to\files.

If the files are all located outside the webapp, and you want to have Tomcat’s DefaultServlet to handle them, then all you basically need to do in Tomcat is to add the following Context element to /conf/server.xml inside <Host> tag:

<Context docBase="/path/to/files" path="/files" />

This way they’ll be accessible through For Tomcat-based servers such as JBoss EAP 6.x or older, the approach is basically the same, see also here. GlassFish/Payara configuration example can be found here and WildFly configuration example can be found here.

If you want to have control over reading/writing files yourself, then you need to create a Servlet for this which basically just gets an InputStream of the file in flavor of for example FileInputStream and writes it to the OutputStream of the HttpServletResponse.

On the response, you should set the Content-Type header so that the client knows which application to associate with the provided file. And, you should set the Content-Length header so that the client can calculate the download progress, otherwise it will be unknown. And, you should set the Content-Disposition header to attachment if you want a Save As dialog, otherwise the client will attempt to display it inline. Finally just write the file content to the response output stream.

Here’s a basic example of such a servlet:

public class FileServlet extends HttpServlet {

    protected void doGet(HttpServletRequest request, HttpServletResponse response)
        throws ServletException, IOException
        String filename = URLDecoder.decode(request.getPathInfo().substring(1), "UTF-8");
        File file = new File("/path/to/files", filename);
        response.setHeader("Content-Type", getServletContext().getMimeType(filename));
        response.setHeader("Content-Length", String.valueOf(file.length()));
        response.setHeader("Content-Disposition", "inline; filename=\"" + file.getName() + "\"");
        Files.copy(file.toPath(), response.getOutputStream());


When mapped on an url-pattern of for example /files/*, then you can call it by This way you can have more control over the requests than the DefaultServlet does, such as providing a default image (i.e. if (!file.exists()) file = new File("/path/to/files", "404.gif") or so). Also using the request.getPathInfo() is preferred above request.getParameter() because it is more SEO friendly and otherwise IE won’t pick the correct filename during Save As.

You can reuse the same logic for serving files from database. Simply replace new FileInputStream() by ResultSet#getInputStream().

Hope this helps.

See also:

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