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Use AJAX for Bright and Shiny Web Apps

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AJAX is the hottest new technology to hit Web development in a long time. Well, it's not really new. The technology behind AJAX has been available for years now, but it has languished in relative obscurity until this year, when a company called Adaptive Path coined the term and wrote a seminal essay on the subject.

AJAX stands for Asynchronous JavaScript and XML. Don't worry about the XML part; you can use AJAX without having to write XML, although that is an option if you need it. The asynchronous part is important, though, as I'll explain later on.

AJAX is hot because companies like Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft are exploiting it in powerful ways, demonstrating how it can provide richer and more interactive user experiences on the Web. Applications such as Google Mail, Google Suggest, and Google Maps all use AJAX to great effect. Other simple applications use AJAX also, such as Ta-da Lists, which lets you create and manage customized to-do lists.

So What's All the Fuss About?

Simply put, AJAX lets you create Web applications that respond immediately to user input or events. Suppose, for example, you have a form that requires users to type name and address information. In a non-AJAX application, you'd have them fill in all the details and then click OK to submit the form. Any errors would then be returned, along with the whole page contents, and shown somewhere on the page. This is analogous to green-screen programming, where the server has no interaction with the user until the Enter key is pressed. With AJAX, you can intercept user key strokes or mouse events as they happen and communicate with server-side code immediately. For example, as the user types a ZIP code, you could send that information to the server to do a lookup on city and state, find the info in a table, return it to the page, and update those form fields immediately in the page. This all happens seamlessly--without the page being entirely reloaded and without any annoying or confusing page flickers or clicks. In essence, this is event-driven client/server programming, where the "client" is a browser. So AJAX gives you all the benefits of client/server programming without the attendant headaches of software distribution issues; the client code is always up-to-date with the server code, because the client's just a browser.

How Google Has Popularized AJAX

Let's consider Gmail. Most of us are familiar with Web-based email programs, such as Yahoo's mail or hotmail. In these programs, when you compose an email, you can look up an intended recipient's email address by clicking a button that brings up a separate window with a list of contacts. You probably have many email addresses in your contacts list, and looking for a particular contact involves typing in a search value and clicking a search button or clicking on a letter. You then have to scroll through the subsetted list to find the contact you want and select it. So this involves at least four steps:

  1. Click the Contacts button.
  2. Type the search value or click on a letter of the alphabet to narrow your search.
  3. Click the Search button.
  4. Scan the list and click on the contact's email address.

Gmail has reduced this to two steps:

  1. You start typing the person's name or email address (even if it's just a guess).
  2. Google immediately responds to each character you type and pops up a dynamic list showing you the possibilities. If you see the one you want, you select it by clicking on it. If not, you keep typing.

How does Google do this? At first, I suspected they were loading my entire address list in the page, behind the scenes, and using a client-side script to traverse it. But that seemed unwieldy; it would mean that Google was reading and downloading all 500 of my contacts every time I went to look at my email, even before composing one. In fact, what Google does is to employ AJAX technology in a very simple but powerful way. As I start typing characters in the To box, an AJAX call is made to the server to return up to 15 hits based on what I've typed so far. So in the example image below, you can see I've typed the letter m, and Gmail returns hits with M in them.

http://www.mcpressonline.com/articles/images/2002/Use%20AJAX%20For%20Bright%20and%20Shiny%20Web%20App1V4-11140500.png

(Click images to enlarge.)

If I then type an i, the list is narrowed down further. Each time I type a letter, the browser runs a script to do an AJAX call to the server. The server immediately responds to the AJAX call and returns a new list of hits, which get placed in the page dynamically.

http://www.mcpressonline.com/articles/images/2002/Use%20AJAX%20For%20Bright%20and%20Shiny%20Web%20App1V4-11140501.png

Here's a summary of what happens:

  1. The user types a letter.
  2. The browser traps this event and calls a JavaScript function.
  3. This function invokes an AJAX object that calls a server-side script (which could be a CGI program, a servlet, a PHP script, or any number of things), passing the user value as a parameter.
  4. The server-side script reads records from my Contacts list, finds hits, and then writes them as HTML output, just as it would write HTML to any standard page.
  5. When it's ready, the AJAX object retrieves the HTML output from the server-side script and invokes another JavaScript function.

This function updates a specific portion of the page contents.
As the user types another letter, the whole process repeats itself.

Other Uses for AJAX

Google Maps is another example of AJAX put to good use. In this case, as you zoom in or out of a map, Google makes an AJAX call to retrieve a different map image and display it in your browser. This all looks seamless to you; there's no evident page refresh.

By the way, if you haven't already tried it, you should download Google Earth. This amazing application lets you fly through New York in 3D using satellite imagery, or explore the Grand Canyon, or investigate any other part of the earth. I suspect Google uses AJAX here, too, because advertisers such as hotels and restaurants can plot their points on Google's earth. Google uses AJAX to retrieve these ads from its database as you fly by.

Uses for AJAX in Your Own Business Applications

So you're probably wondering how you can improve your business applications with AJAX. Here are just a few ideas:

  • Dynamic searches/lookups--Consider, for instance, the Gmail example or a customer lookup.
  • Shopping cart updates--Immediately update a specific part of a Web page with an item's price or availability.
  • To-do lists--An example of this on the Web is Ta-da.
  • Customer information retrieval--You can update part of a page with customer details immediately upon selecting a customer number.
  • Real-time error handling--You can validate user input immediately upon acceptance of that input (perhaps when the user tabs to another field or when that input field loses focus).
  • Replacement of unwieldy drop-down boxes--If you have a drop-down box of values that typically contains more than 15 or 20 entries, it may be a good candidate to be replaced with an AJAX implementation. For example, a state abbreviation lookup or a phone number area code lookup will probably provide a better user experience. Try scrolling through a drop-down box that drops off the end of a Web page, and you'll see what I mean.
  • Applications that require periodic background communication with a server--For example, a Web-based chat or messaging program may need to have the client poll the server at intervals of n seconds or minutes to see if any new messages are pending to be received by that client.
  • The sending of "please wait" or "I'm busy" types of messages from the server to the user while a background activity takes place (and then the removal of those messages, of course)
  • Pages that require several repeating lines of input

How Does AJAX Work?

Remember that AJAX stands for Asynchronous JavaScript and XML. So there are three main components to AJAX technology:

Asynchronous

"Asynchronous" describes the communication method between the browser and the server. It lets the browser and server talk to each other in the background while the user interacts with the page. You could deploy AJAX in synchronous mode (even though that's an oxymoron), but in this mode, the user must wait while the browser locks up and waits for a server response. For this reason, most implementations of AJAX are asynchronous. The AJAX object, which is a component of the browser, has properties that make it state-aware, so your code can monitor when it is in a ready state after making a server request. Once in a ready state, the AJAX object can notify some client-side script that it's time to update some page content.

Javascript

AJAX requires the use of some Javascript to initiate an AJAX request to the server and to process the resulting response. In my next AJAX article, I'll explain how to write a set of self-contained Javascript that can be included as an external file in any of your Web pages to implement AJAX.

XML

This part is a little deceiving, because you don't actually have to use any XML at all to deploy AJAX. However, the AJAX object named XMLHTTPRequest (in Mozilla or Firefox) is the central piece in making an AJAX request and receiving the response, hence the X in AJAX. This object can return plain text (with or with HTML tags embedded) or XML that can be parsed. (Microsoft IE also has an object--with a different implementation but a similar name--that does the same thing).

Among the browsers that support AJAX are Microsoft Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Opera, Konqueror, and Apple Safari.

What About Server Workload?

Does using AJAX place an excessive workload on the Web server? In most cases, no. In fact, in many cases, the workload is often considerably less than it would be if an entire page of data had to be reloaded.

You can easily monitor server workload and performance by doing some simple user-interactivity tests. For instance, in the Gmail example, every keystroke initiates a server call. You might choose to implement this same approach for a customer lookup routine, allowing users to type a partial customer name and providing them with an (almost) instant response that returns a list of potential hits. You should probably watch over the shoulders of a couple of typical users to see how many letters on average they have to type in order to find the customer they want. Suppose the average number is three. That involves three server calls per lookup and a total of 45 database accesses (if we use Gmail's approach of returning 15 hits per keystroke). Is this a heavy server load? Well, from a database access perspective, it's negligible. How about Web server job activity due to more frequent CGI requests? My experience is that even a small iSeries can handle more frequent requests with no problem, too. However, if workload does become an issue, you can fine-tune your implementation. For example, instead of making a server call on every keystroke, just do one when the user exits the field (either by tabbing to another field or by moving the mouse).

Can You Implement AJAX on the iSeries?

AJAX is very simple to implement. Since it requires only changes to the way you write client-side code, you can easily include AJAX in iSeries-based Web applications (CGIs or Java-based). You can package the code to implement AJAX as a Javascript include file and create a black box that you can include in any of your Web applications. You write the server-side components of your Web applications in the same manner, whether they are communicating with an AJAX object or not.

In the next article, I'll explain the object that is the key component to AJAX technology and show some sample code you can use to start implementing it in your applications. Meanwhile, here are some links to iSeries programs that use AJAX:

Gmail-like Example
Simple customer lookup example
To-Do List Example

So consider using AJAX to make bright and shiny Web applications with real-time, event-driven functionality and with the coolness factor of Google!

Duncan Kenzie is President and CTO of BCD Technical Support, the development and support group for WebSmart, a popular iSeries Web development tool, and Nexus, a portal product specifically designed for iSeries, i5, and AS/400 servers. Duncan has 28 years of experience on the midrange systems platform creating software for both green-screen and native Web environments.



Duncan Kenzie
Duncan Kenzie is President and CTO of ExcelSystems Software Development Inc. Duncan’s company is responsible for product development and technical support for BCD International Inc.’s (www.bcdsoftware.com) product line. Duncan has a BA in English Literature from the University of Waterloo, Ontario, and enjoys writing on a variety of subjects. Duncan is a frequent public speaker and has been writing articles about the midrange platform since 1985. He has also been involved in producing programmer productivity and business intelligence tools for 25 years and is the technical lead on products such as WebSmart, WebSmart PHP, and Nexus, leading System i Web tools.  Duncan still enjoys programming, and studies in leadership and self-improvement. He can be reached at duncan@excelsystems.com.
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    There’s no shortage of actions you could take, but what tactics will actually deliver the results you need? And how can you find a security strategy that fits your budget and time constraints?
    Join top IBM i security expert Robin Tatam as he outlines the five fastest and most impactful changes you can make to strengthen IBM i security this year.
    Your system didn’t become unsecure overnight and you won’t be able to turn it around overnight either. But quick wins are possible with IBM i security, and Robin Tatam will show you how to achieve them.

  • How to Meet the Newest Encryption Requirements on IBM i

    SB PowerTech WC GenericA growing number of compliance mandates require sensitive data to be encrypted. But what kind of encryption solution will satisfy an auditor and how can you implement encryption on IBM i? Watch this on-demand webinar to find out how to meet today’s most common encryption requirements on IBM i. You’ll also learn:

    • Why disk encryption isn’t enough
    • What sets strong encryption apart from other solutions
    • Important considerations before implementing encryption

     

     

  • Security Bulletin: Malware Infection Discovered on IBM i Server!

    SB PowerTech WC GenericMalicious programs can bring entire businesses to their knees—and IBM i shops are not immune. It’s critical to grasp the true impact malware can have on IBM i and the network that connects to it. Attend this webinar to gain a thorough understanding of the relationships between:

    • Viruses, native objects, and the integrated file system (IFS)
    • Power Systems and Windows-based viruses and malware
    • PC-based anti-virus scanning versus native IBM i scanning

    There are a number of ways you can minimize your exposure to viruses. IBM i security expert Sandi Moore explains the facts, including how to ensure you're fully protected and compliant with regulations such as PCI.

     

     

  • Fight Cyber Threats with IBM i Encryption

    SB PowerTech WC GenericCyber attacks often target mission-critical servers, and those attack strategies are constantly changing. To stay on top of these threats, your cybersecurity strategies must evolve, too. In this session, IBM i security expert Robin Tatam provides a quick recap of IBM i security basics and guides you through some advanced cybersecurity techniques that can help you take data protection to the next level. Robin will cover:

    • Reducing the risk posed by special authorities
    • Establishing object-level security
    • Overseeing user actions and data access

     

     

     

  • 10 Practical IBM i Security Tips for Surviving Covid-19 and Working From Home

    SB PowerTech WC GenericNow that many organizations have moved to a work from home model, security concerns have risen.

    During this session Carol Woodbury will discuss the issues that the world is currently seeing such as increased malware attacks and then provide practical actions you can take to both monitor and protect your IBM i during this challenging time.

     

  • How to Transfer IBM i Data to Microsoft Excel

    SB_HelpSystems_WC_Generic3 easy ways to get IBM i data into Excel every time
    There’s an easy, more reliable way to import your IBM i data to Excel? It’s called Sequel. During this webinar, our data access experts demonstrate how you can simplify the process of getting data from multiple sources—including Db2 for i—into Excel. Watch to learn how to:

    • Download your IBM i data to Excel in a single step
    • Deliver data to business users in Excel via email or a scheduled job
    • Access IBM i data directly using the Excel add-in in Sequel

    Make 2020 the year you finally see your data clearly, quickly, and securely. Start by giving business users the ability to access crucial business data from IBM i the way they want it—in Microsoft Excel.

     

     

  • HA Alternatives: MIMIX Is Not Your Only Option on IBM i

    SB_HelpSystems_WC_GenericIn this recorded webinar, our experts introduce you to the new HA transition technology available with our Robot HA software. You’ll learn how to:

    • Transition your rules from MIMIX (if you’re happy with them)
    • Simplify your day-to-day activities around high availability
    • Gain back time in your work week
    • Make your CEO happy about reducing IT costs

    Don’t stick with a legacy high availability solution that makes you uncomfortable when transitioning to something better can be simple, safe, and cost-effective.

     

     

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  • Backup and Recovery on IBM i: Your Strategy for the Unexpected

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413Robot automates the routine tasks of iSeries backup and recovery, saving you time and money and making the process safer and more reliable. Automate your backups with the Robot Backup and Recovery Solution. Key features include:
    - Simplified backup procedures
    - Easy data encryption
    - Save media management
    - Guided restoration
    - Seamless product integration
    Make sure your data survives when catastrophe hits. Try the Robot Backup and Recovery Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • Manage IBM i Messages by Exception with Robot

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413Managing messages on your IBM i can be more than a full-time job if you have to do it manually. How can you be sure you won’t miss important system events?
    Automate your message center with the Robot Message Management Solution. Key features include:
    - Automated message management
    - Tailored notifications and automatic escalation
    - System-wide control of your IBM i partitions
    - Two-way system notifications from your mobile device
    - Seamless product integration
    Try the Robot Message Management Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • Easiest Way to Save Money? Stop Printing IBM i Reports

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413Robot automates report bursting, distribution, bundling, and archiving, and offers secure, selective online report viewing.
    Manage your reports with the Robot Report Management Solution. Key features include:

    - Automated report distribution
    - View online without delay
    - Browser interface to make notes
    - Custom retention capabilities
    - Seamless product integration
    Rerun another report? Never again. Try the Robot Report Management Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • Hassle-Free IBM i Operations around the Clock

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413For over 30 years, Robot has been a leader in systems management for IBM i.
    Manage your job schedule with the Robot Job Scheduling Solution. Key features include:
    - Automated batch, interactive, and cross-platform scheduling
    - Event-driven dependency processing
    - Centralized monitoring and reporting
    - Audit log and ready-to-use reports
    - Seamless product integration
    Scale your software, not your staff. Try the Robot Job Scheduling Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • ACO MONITOR Manages your IBM i 24/7 and Notifies You When Your IBM i Needs Assistance!

    SB DDL Systems 5429More than a paging system - ACO MONITOR is a complete systems management solution for your Power Systems running IBM i. ACO MONITOR manages your Power System 24/7, uses advanced technology (like two-way messaging) to notify on-duty support personnel, and responds to complex problems before they reach critical status.

    ACO MONITOR is proven technology and is capable of processing thousands of mission-critical events daily. The software is pre-configured, easy to install, scalable, and greatly improves data center efficiency.