Using Ajax to Develop Web Applications

Wednesday 29th of March 2017 05:12:10 AM

By Jonathan Fenocchi

In the past, web applications were limited because a web page had to be reloaded (or another page loaded in its place) in order for new data to be obtained. Other methods were available (without loading another page), but the techniques weren’t well supported and had a tendency to be buggy. In recent months, a technique that had not been widely supported in the past has become available to a large number of web surfers, giving developers more freedom to develop cutting-edge web applications. These applications, which asynchronously retrieve XML data via JavaScript, are affectionately known as “Ajax applications” (Asynchronous Javascript and XML applications). In this article, I will explain how to retrieve a remote XML file via Ajax to update a web page, and as this series continues, I will discuss more ways that Ajax technology can be used to take your web applications to the next level.

The first step is to create an XML file with some data. We’ll call this file data.xml. It’s a simple XML file and would most certainly be more complex in a real-world application, but for clarity our examples will be simple and concise.

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<root>
  <data>
    This is some sample data. It is stored in an XML file and retrieved by JavaScript.
  </data>
</root>

Now let’s create a simple web page containing some sample data. This is the page that all our JavaScript will be in, and the page that users will visit to see the Ajax script in action. Let’s call this file ajax.html.

<!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.01//EN"
  "http://www.w3.org/TR/html4/strict.dtd">
<html lang="en" dir="ltr">
  <head>
    <meta http-equiv="Content-Type" content="text/html; charset=iso-8859-1">
    <title>Developing Web Applications with Ajax - Example</title>
  </head>
  <body>
    <h1>Developing Web Applications with Ajax</h1>
    <p>This page demonstrates the use of Asynchronous Javascript and XML (Ajax) technology to
    update a web page's content by reading from a remote file dynamically -- no page reloading
    is required. Note that this operation does not work for users without JavaScript enabled.</p>
    <p id="xmlObj">
    This is some sample data. It is the default data for this web page. <a href="data.xml"
    title="View the XML data." onclick="ajaxRead('data.xml'); this.style.display='none'; return false">View XML     data.</a>
    </p>
  </body>
</html>

Note that we link to the data.xml file for users without JavaScript. For users with JavaScript, the function “ajaxRead” is called, the link is hidden, and the link does not redirect to the data.xml file. The function “ajaxRead” isn’t defined yet, so if you test the example code above, you’ll get a JavaScript error. Let’s go ahead and define that function (and another) so you can see how Ajax works. The following SCRIPT goes in your HEAD tags:

<script type="text/javascript"><!--
function ajaxRead(file){
  var xmlObj = null;
  if(window.XMLHttpRequest){
      xmlObj = new XMLHttpRequest();
  } else if(window.ActiveXObject){
      xmlObj = new ActiveXObject("Microsoft.XMLHTTP");
  } else {
      return;
  }
  xmlObj.onreadystatechange = function(){
    if(xmlObj.readyState == 4){
       updateObj('xmlObj', xmlObj.responseXML.getElementsByTagName('data')[0].firstChild.data);
     }
    }
    xmlObj.open ('GET', file, true);
    xmlObj.send ('');
  }
  function updateObj(obj, data){
   document.getElementById(obj).firstChild.data = data;
  }
  //--></script>

That’s quite a bit, so let’s take this one piece at a time. The first function is “ajaxRead” – what we call from our “View XML data” link on the web page. In the function, we define an “xmlObj” variable – this will be the middleman between the client (user viewing the web page) and the server (the web site itself). We define this object in an if/else chunk:

if(window.XMLHttpRequest){
   xmlObj = new XMLHttpRequest();
} else if(window.ActiveXObject){
   xmlObj = new ActiveXObject("Microsoft.XMLHTTP");
} else {
   return;
}

This is just a test for the availability of different objects – some browsers implement the XMLHttpRequest object differently, so when we define “xmlObj” as our XMLHttpRequest object, we have to define it depending on what browser implementation is available. If no XMLHttpRequest object is available, we end the function with a “return” statement to avoid errors. Most of the time, this check will return an XMLHttpRequest object – this particular code should work in almost every browser out there, with the exception of some older browsers (it works in IE 5.01, but will cease to function in Netscape 4).

Next is this block:

xmlObj.onreadystatechange = function(){
  if(xmlObj.readyState == 4){
      updateObj('xmlObj', xmlObj.responseXML.getElementsByTagName('data')[0].firstChild.data);
  }
}

How to Develop Web Applications with Ajax, Pt. 1

Each time the state of the XMLHttpRequest changes, the “onreadystatechange” event is triggered. By using “xmlObj.onreadystatechange = function(){ … }” we build and run a function on-the-fly each time the state of the XMLHttpRequest object changes. There are a total of 5 states, starting with 0 and going through 4.

0 – uninitialized (before the XMLHttpRequest begins)

1 – loading (once the XMLHttpRequest has been initialized)

2 – loaded (once the XMLHttpRequest has gotten a response from the server)

3 – interactive (while the XMLHttpRequest object is connected to the server)

4 – complete (after the XMLHttpRequest has done everything it was told to and is finished working)

The fifth state (number 4) is when we are certain that data will be available, so we check the xmlObj.readyState for “4” to see if data is available. If it is, we run the updateObj function. That function takes two parameters: an element ID on the current web page (the element on the current web page to update) and the data to fill in that element. The way this function works will be explained in more detail later.

Our web page’s P tag has an ID of “xmlData,” that’s the paragraph we’re going to update. The data we’re getting is from the XML file, but it’s a bit complicated. Here’s how it works.

The xmlObj.responseXML property is a DOM object – it’s a lot like the NAME="top"&gt; &lt;/a&gt;)
Use anchors to improve navigability, but remember that multiplelinked pages will download quicker than one huge page requiring lots ofanchor tags!Here's a link to the top of this page.  I stucka hidden anchor tag there: <A NAME="top"> </A>  Use anchorsto improve navigability, but remember that multiple linked pages will downloadquicker than one huge page with lots of anchor tags!  “document” object, except it’s for the remote XML file. In other words, xmlObj.responseXML is the “document” object if you ran a script in data.xml. Since we know this, we can retrieve any XML node via the “getElementsByTagName” method. The data is contained in the XML node is accurately named “<data>” so our task is simple: retrieve the first (and only) data node. Thus, xmlObject.responseXML.getElementsByTagName(“data”)[0] returns the first <data> node in the XML file.

Note: it returns the XML node, not the data within that node – the data must be extracted by accessing properties of that XML node, which is the next step.

After that, it’s as simple as retrieving the data by specifying “firstChild.data” (firstChild refers to the text node which is contained within the <data> node, and the “data” property is the actual text of that text node).

xmlObj.open ('GET', file, true);
xmlObj.send ('');

This is the last bit in our ajaxRead function. What does it say? Well, the “open” method of the xmlObj opens a connection to the server (via a specific protocol, specified here as “GET” – you can use “POST” and others as well), requests a file (in our case, the variable “file” that was sent as a parameter to the ajaxRead function – data.xml), and whether JavaScript should handle the request synchronously (false) or asynchronously (true, the default). Since this is asynchronous Javascript and XML, we will be using the default asynchronous method – using since synchronous won’t work in this case.

The last line of our function simply sends an empty string literal back to the server. Without this line, the ready state of xmlObj will never get to 4, so your page will never update. The send method can be used for other things, but today we are only retrieving data from the server – not sending to it – so I won’t go into any more detail about the send method in this article.

function updateObj(obj, data){
  document.getElementById(obj).firstChild.data = data;
}

Now to explain the updateObj function a little more: this function updates any specific element on the current web page with a new value. Its first parameter, “obj,” is simply a specific ID of an element on the current web page – this is the object that will be updated; its second parameter, “data,” is a string that specifies the new value to be placed in the object that is to be updated (“obj”). Normally, it would be advisable to check and be sure that an element on the current page has the ID specified in “obj,” but that check isn’t necessary due to the level of isolation of our script. The way this function updates is similar to the way we retrieved data from the “data” node in the XML file earlier – it locates the element it wants to update (this time by that element’s ID instead of its tag name and index on the page) and sets the data of the first child (the text node) of that element to the new data. If you wanted to update an object with HTML instead of just plain text, you could also use document.getElementById(obj).innerHTML = data.

That’s all there is to it

The concept is simple, and the code isn’t too difficult. You want to read a file from somewhere else without having to reload the web page. There is enough flexibility to allow you to do all sorts of things, including posting data from forms without reloading the web page and using a server-side language to generate the XML file dynamically. If you want to be a step ahead, remember that a reference is always helpful – oh, and remember that Google is your friend. In another article, I’ll explain how you can further use Ajax with server-side technologies to make powerful web applications.

succeeding elements. Navigator 4.x, however, will display theelements with the usual blank line between them, as you can see inFigure 7-26. This is because it's adding thezero values to its own default margins.

Figure 7-26

Figure 7-26. Navigator 4.x and margins

If you want to overcome this space, you can always use negativemargins. Here's one possible declaration:

H1 {margin-bottom: 0;}

While it's nice to haveshorthand properties like border-color andborder-style, they aren't always a whole lotof help. For example, you might want to set all H1elements to have a thick, gray, solid border, but only along thebottom. There are two ways to accomplish this:

H1 {border-bottom: thick solid gray;}

This will apply the values to the bottom border alone, as shown infrom previous discussions, padding, margins, and borders may all beapplied to inline nonreplaced elements, and they don'tinfluence the line-height at all. If we were toapply some borders to a SPAN element without anymargins or padding, we'd get results such as that shown inFigure 8-57.

Figure 8-57

Figure 8-57. Inline borders and line-box layout

The borders are placed as they are because the border edge of inlineelements is controlled by the font-size, not the