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Meet AJAX: Intelligent Web Applications with AJAX

A peek into modern technologies for browser-based applications

Browser-based applications are widely used and we like the fact that we can access them from anywhere. But from the users' perspective, the productivity level of Web applications still doesn't approximate the productivity of desktop programs. The good news is the gap is closing: the accumulated potential of multiple technologies has boosted a whole new breed of HTML-based apps that are as powerful as the desktop ones. Meet AJAX.

What Is AJAX?
The name stands for Asynchronous JavaScript + XMLHTTPRequest and means you can establish socket communication between browser-based JavaScript and the server. AJAX isn't a new technology. It's a successful branding of possibilities implanted in several technologies available in modern browsers. All AJAX applications deliver a rich UI via extensive JavaScript manipulation of the HTML Document Object Model based on the precision-pointed data retrieval via XMLHttpRequest. Typical examples of AJAX applications are Google Maps and Google Suggest from Google Labs (http://labs.google.com). These applications actively monitor user input and provide real-time page updates. Most importantly, this happens without a page refresh while the user navigates through the map or types a search string.

In fact, the technologies behind these wonders have been around for a while, although they require sophisticated skills in using browser-specific tricks. Proprietary offerings with similar capabilities - Macromedia Flash plug-in, Java Applets or .NET runtime - have been available for quite some time too. The idea of integrating a scriptable transport component talking to the server into the browser was pioneered by IE 5.0. Then Firefox and other popular browsers joined the club of browsers in supporting XMLHTTPRequest as a built-in object. With cross-browser availability, these technologies gained visibility and in March of 2004 a company called Adaptive Path introduced AJAX.

In short, backing from Google and having the right browser technologies available out-of-the-box tipped the scale: these days everyone is adding client-side technologies to Web applications for a "better user experience."

AJAX vs. Classical Applications
A classic Web application model is literally a triumph of form over substance: users are forced to submit forms in exchange for pages. That said, the form submission and page delivery aren't guaranteed: worse case the user clicks again though some pages specifically warn against that. It's quite different with AJAX, where the data travels across the wire instead of entire HTML pages. This data exchange is scripted via a specific browser object - XMLHttpRequest; the appropriate logic handles the outcome of each data request, the specific region of the page is updated instead of the entire page. The results are more speed, less traffic, and better control of information delivery.

Traditional "click-refresh" Web applications force users to interrupt the work process while waiting for the page to reload. With AJAX, a client-side script can asynchronously talk to the server while the user keeps entering data. Besides being transparent to the user, such asynchrony means more time for the server to process the request.

Classic Web applications delegate all processing to the server and force the server to manage the state. AJAX allows flexible partitioning of the application logic and state management between the client and the server. This eliminates a "click-refresh" dependency and provides better server scalability. When the state is stored on the client-side you don't have to maintain sessions across the servers or save/expire state: the lifespan is defined by client.

AJAX: Distributed MVC
Although AJAX applications rely on JavaScript for the presentation layer, the processing power and knowledge base remain on the server. For that matter, AJAX applications talk heavily to J2EE servers, feeding data to and from Web Services and servlets. The difference between J2EE applications with an AJAX-based presentation tier and standard J2EE application is that in the first case MVC is distributed over the wire. With AJAX, View is local, while Model and Controller are distributed giving the developer the flexibility to decide which components will be client-based. Specifically, a local View renders graphics by manipulating with HTML DOM; the controller handles user input locally and at the developer's discretion extends the processing to the server via HTTP requests (Web Services, XML/RPC or others); the remote part of the Model is downloaded as needed to the client achieving in-place real-time updates of the client page; and state is collected on the client.

In future AJAX articles we'll talk about each of these components in depth and provide examples of how they came to play together. Now, without further ado, let's dive into a simple AJAX example.

Zip Codes Validation and Lookup
We'll create an HTML page containing three INPUT fields: Zip, City, and State. We'll make sure that as soon as the user enters the first three digits of the zip code, the state will get populated with the first matching state value. Once the user types in all five zip digits, we'll instantly determine and populate the appropriate city. If the zip code isn't valid (not found in the server's database), we'll turn the zip's border color to red. Such visual clues are helpful to users and have become standard in modern browsers (as an example, Firefox finds matching words in an HTML page by highlighting them in the browser search field while you type).

Let's start with a simple HTML containing three input fields: zip, city, and state. Please note that the method zipChanged() is called as soon as a character is entered in the zip field. In turn, the JavaScript function zipChanged() (see below) calls the function updateState() when the zip length is three and up-dateCity() when the length of the zip is five. Both updateCity() and updateState() delegate most of the work to another function - ask().

Zip:<input id="zipcode" type="text" maxlength="5" onKeyUp="zipChanged()"
style="width:60"/>
City: <input id="city" disabled maxlength="32" style="width:160"/>
State:<input id="state" disabled maxlength="2" style="width:30"/>

<script src="xmlhttp.js"></script>
<script>
var zipField = null;
function zipChanged(){
zipField = document.getElementById("zipcode")
var zip = zipField.value;
zip.length == 3?updateState(zip):zip.length == 5?updateCity(zip):"";

}
function updateState(zip) {
var stateField = document.getElementById("state");
ask("resolveZip.jsp?lookupType=state&zip="+zip, stateField, zipField);
}
function updateCity(zip) {
var cityField = document.getElementById("city");
ask("resolveZip.jsp? lookupType=city&zip="+zip, cityField, zipField);
}
</script>

More Stories By Victor Rasputnis

Dr. Victor Rasputnis is a Managing Principal of Farata Systems. He's responsible for providing architectural design, implementation management and mentoring to companies migrating to XML Internet technologies. He holds a PhD in computer science from the Moscow Institute of Robotics. You can reach him at [email protected]

More Stories By Anatole Tartakovsky

Anatole Tartakovsky is a Managing Principal of Farata Systems. He's responsible for creation of frameworks and reusable components. Anatole authored number of books and articles on AJAX, XML, Internet and client-server technologies. He holds an MS in mathematics. You can reach him at [email protected]

More Stories By Igor Nys

Igor Nys is a Director of Technology Solutions at EPAM Systems, Inc, a company combining IT consulting expertise with advanced onshore-offshore software development practices. Igor has been working on many different computer platforms and languages including Java, C++, PowerBuilder, Lisp, Assembler since the mid 80's. Igor is currently managing a number of large distributed projects between US and Europe. In addition Igor is the author of the award-winning freeware system-management tools, and he was closely involved in the development of XMLSP technology - one of the AJAX pioneers.

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Most Recent Comments
SYS-CON India News Desk 02/19/06 07:05:30 PM EST

Browser-based applications are widely used and we like the fact that we can access them from anywhere. But from the users' perspective, the productivity level of Web applications still doesn't approximate the productivity of desktop programs. The good news is the gap is closing: the accumulated potential of multiple technologies has boosted a whole new breed of HTML-based apps that are as powerful as the desktop ones. Meet AJAX.

Anatole Tartakovsky 12/26/05 06:15:32 PM EST

I received number of questions on the future of the AJAX recently - tried to give my personal view on the possible development in the blog - http://anatolet.blogspot.com

Frank 12/19/05 07:04:50 PM EST

You mention the need to destroy the request and callback objects, but my O'Reilly reference says there is no need to clean up in javascript. Which is correct.

How do you destroy the request and especially the callback objects (can I destroy the callback in the callback!!!)?

Halans 10/15/05 06:25:27 PM EDT

Nice, to the point, Ajax article.
Though some comments (nitpicking)... Wasn't the term 'Ajax' introduced in the Adaptive Path article from february 2005, not march 2004?
You add style attributes with values 'width:30', but you should add 'px' ('width:30px') to make it standards compliant and make firefox display it correctly (IE is way too lax).
Wouldn't you best upon readyState==4 also check the http status 200 before continuing?
You should best add an existing default url to the iframe (ex 'blank.html'), because when you would do this over https (without a url to begin with) you would get an ugly security message in IE, making you pull your hair out to solve this (I lost a bunch one time).
While you did the iframe example, you might have integrated it with the xmlhttprequest for gracefull degradation in an (corporate) IE environment with ActiveX disabled, no?
But like I said, nitpicking.
Looking forward for the upcoming Ajax articles.

Victor Rasputnis 10/04/05 08:04:22 AM EDT

Anand, you are right. The example was meant to be the most obvious, to avoid problems with getRealPath() or explanation around getResourseAsStream() etc. You have a good eye :), thanks again.

Anand 10/03/05 01:42:54 PM EDT

Thanks Victor. I had figured out application instead of using getServletContext() on BEA. However my problem was with the

properties.load(new java.io.FileInputStream(key + ".property"));

I had the file in the same folder and thought that I did not need to provide it with an explicit path such as c:\\ but I guess that is not the case. Also one more change to the html file that I figured in the line:
zip.length = 3 ? updateState(zip) : zip.length == 5 ? updateCity(zip):"";

should be

zip.length == 3 ? updateState(zip) : zip.length == 5 ? updateCity(zip):"";

Victor Rasputnis 09/30/05 10:31:34 PM EDT

Anand, getServletContext() is available in Tomcat JSP, but not in WebLogic (WL -getServletConfig().getServletContext()). Anyway, I replaced gSC() to _application_ for simplicity. Please download again. Most importantly, please also download the DATA files or ZIP will remain red, no matter what :).

Kind Regards,
Victor Rasputnis

Anand 09/29/05 08:42:16 AM EDT

I tried doing this sample using both IE 6 and Firefox. Everytime I type in 3 digits (valid zip code) it paints the box red. It does not populate the city and state. Using BEA I got an error on the JSP page saying that getServletContext() was not recognized. On Tomcat I did not get any error but the program won't work.
Any suggestions ?

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