Building a Web Application with Velocity

Velocity is often used to generate web pages in applications, usually as a direct replacement for JSP. Some of the benefits of using Velocity to generate web pages are:

  • Simplicity - The pages can be written and maintained by non-technical web designers.
  • Ease of maintainance - Scripting is removed from web pages with the recommended MVC approach.
  • Access both methods and properties - Web designers can reference methods as well as properties of objects in a context.
  • Consistency - Velocity can be used for other text generation tasks (such as sending email) providing a consistent way to mark up text.

This document provides some basic info on getting started with Velocity in a web application.

Use a Framework

The primary purpose of the Velocity engine is simply to generate text based on a template. Consequently, Velocity does not contain any web-related functionality in and of itself. To make a web application, you will need a framework to respond to HTTP requests, handle user authentication, make business logic calls, and generate a response. There are several strong contenders.

  1. Velocity Tools / VelocityViewServlet - The easiest way to get started is to download the companion Velocity Tools subproject and use the VelocityViewServlet . This servlet is easy to configure and install. You create a directory of templates on your web server, edit an XML file that lists various "Tools" to place in the context and you are off. More details can be found in the tutorial below.
  2. Velocity Tools / VelocityStruts - You may be familiar with the popular Struts framework, originally designed to provide much needed application functionality to JSP. With the VelocityStruts module of Velocity Tools you can substitute Velocity for JSP as the page template language. This allows you to take advantage of the large base of Struts infrastructure while designing pages using Velocity.
  3. Third party frameworks - There are a number of third party frameworks listed on the PoweredByVelocity wiki page. Of these, Spring is probably the most sophisticated and well known. Jakarta Turbine has many features and can also be very useful. It was built with Velocity as the primary page language, which is not surprising since many of the original Velocity developers were involved in creating it. Simpler alternative are the Click or Maverick frameworks, which provide a simple Controller architecture that integrates nicely with Velocity.
  4. Build your own - A final alternative is to build your own framework. Create a dispatcher servlet, retrieve templates from a file or database, integate with your business logic and send the results back to the user. Often you'll have an easier time starting with one of the existing frameworks and customizing it. In particular you can add new functionality to the VelocityViewServlet simply by creating a subclass.

As a side note, you may also come across references to VelocityServlet, which is a deprecated servlet that was included in the Velocity Engine up to version 1.4. Since VelocityServlet is no longer being maintained we strongly recommend you use VelocityViewServlet in Velocity Tools instead.

Web-Specific Issues

There are a few issues with Velocity that are specific to web applications. Here is a brief discussion of the most commonly encountered issues.

Changing Object State - Don't!

Velocity provides the ability to call any method of an object acting as a reference. This can be useful when displaying information into the page but is dangerous when object or application state is modified.

For example, the following code safely calls the size() method of a list and displays the result.

There are $users.size() currently logged in.

An example of an unsafe operation concerns a financial web page with an object in the context that calculates data year by year. The method calculateNextYear() calculates data for the next year and advances an internal counter:

2005 data: $
2006 data: $

The problem with this approach is that the code cannot be repeated in multiple parts of the page. You may not intend to do so, but it's easy to forget this when cutting and pasting or writing control statements (such as #if or #foreach). This becomes more of an issue when you are dealing with application or session-level state.

The (strongly) recommended practice is to only use Velocity for inserting information into text. Method calls can be useful to retrieve information. However, it's generally a bad idea to use a method call to change object state, and it's always a bad idea to change application state.

If you find yourself needing to change object state (as in the previous example) try precalculating all the possible values in the controller and putting them in a List or Map. Any changes to application state should always be done by the controller.

On a related note, you should always put a List or Set into the context instead of an Iterator or Enumeration. This allows the collection to be used more than once in the page with no change in behavior.

Escaping HTML/XML Entities

Any user-entered text that contains special HTML or XML entities (such as <, >, or &) needs to be escaped before included in the web page. This is required, both to ensure the text is visible, and also to prevent dangerous cross-site scripting . Unlike, for example, JSTL (the Java Standard Tag Language found in Java Server Pages), Velocity does not escape references by default.

However, Velocity provides the ability to specify a ReferenceInsertionEventHandler which will alter the value of a reference before it is inserted into the page. Specifically, you can configure the EscapeHtmlReference handler into your file to escape all references (optionally) matching a regular expression. The following example will escape HTML entities in any reference that starts with "msg" (e.g. $msgText).

eventhandler.referenceinsertion.class =
eventhandler.escape.html.match = /msg.*/

Note that other kinds of escaping are sometimes required. For example, in style sheets the @ character needs to be escaped, and in Javascript strings the single apostrophe ' needs to be escaped.

Securing the Application

Since a web application is running on a central server, that typically has multiple users and confidential resources, care must be taken to make certain that the web application is secure. Most standard web security principles apply to a web application built with Velocity. A few specific issues (such as system configuration, more on cross-site scripting, and method introspection) are written up in this article on Building Secure Applications with Velocity . In particular, you may want to prevent template designers from including "dangerous" reflection-related methods by specifying the SecureUberspector to get/set properties and execute method calls.

runtime.introspector.uberspect = org.apache.velocity.util.introspection.SecureUberspector

Log Files

A minor point is that (in some circumstances) Velocity, in the absence of any log-related configuration, creates a log file in the current directory. When Velocity is used in a web application the "current directory" is usually the current directory from which the application server is started. If you start seeing the file "velocity.log" files in random places on your server filesystem, check the Velocity log configuration. This is due to the default use of the Avalon Log Kit when present in the classpath. Typically this occurs when Velocity is used within a web application outside of web page generation (e.g. for sending email). To solve this problem, remove any file labeled "avalon-logkit" from the classpath or properly configure the log file location.


What follows is a brief tutorial on building a simple web app with VelocityViewServlet. Note that it suggests you compile VelocityViewServlet from the source. This isn't actually required to use VelocityViewServlet but we recommend it in this case in order to see the source and then compile the example files.

Prerequisites for doing the following include the Java Developer's Kit (JDK) and Apache Ant .

For more information, consult the Velocity Tools documentation.

  1. Download the Velocity Tools project source (you need the source for the examples) from the download page .
  2. Build the Velocity Tools jar and the "simple" example by typing:
    ant example.simple
  3. Take a look at the "examples" directory. You will see a file "index.vm". Here's an excerpt:
    I'm a velocity template.
    #if( $XHTML )
      #set( $br = "<br />" )
      #set( $br = "<br>" )
    Here we use a custom tool: $toytool.message
    Here we get the date from the DateTool:  $date.medium
    You can copy any additional velocity files into this same directory. In examples/WEB-INF you will see a file "toolbox.xml". This specifies a list of "Tools" that are automatically included in the context.
      <data type="number">
      <data type="boolean">
      <data type="string">
        <value>this is foo.</value>
      <data type="string">
        <value>this is bar.</value>
    And finally the web.xml file specifies the name of the servlet and location of
  4. Copy this directory into your "webapps" directory on Tomcat. You could also copy "simple.war", but copying in the entire directory will let you experiment with changes. You should now be able to access your simple one-page webapp with this URL. (or something similar):
  5. Experiment with adding new Velocity pages. Note that you can access any velocity page just by changing the URL. Try changing the entries in toolbox.xml or creating your own tools. Consult the Velocity Tools documentation and the Wiki for more info on the wide variety of tools available.