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Use AJAX for Bright and Shiny Web Apps, Part 2

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In my previous article, I explained how AJAX is transforming Web applications by providing a much richer and more responsive user experience. We looked at how Google and other major players are effectively using AJAX to provide functionality and ease-of-use not previously found in Web applications.

In this article, I'll help you tap into the power of AJAX by providing you with the code necessary to create the essential communications link between client (browser) and server (iSeries, etc.) that is the heart of any AJAX application.

Implement AJAX Today!

Once you have written the initial code to use an AJAX object, AJAX is very simple to implement. As I stated in the last article, 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). In addition, all the browser infrastructure needed to implement AJAX is already available in just about every modern browser. Here's what I'll do in this article in order to help you implement AJAX right away:

  1. Explain the core AJAX object
  2. Walk through code for using it
  3. Show you how to wrap that code in a self-contained "black box"
  4. Show sample uses of that black box

These steps assume some degree of familiarity with writing server-side code for Web applications using any Web server language, such as CGIDEV2 (RPG CGI), PHP, ASP, JSP, or Java servlets. My server-side code is written using WebSmart, which runs on the AS/400 or iSeries as RPG CGI code. By way of acknowledgment, some of the code in this article is derived from code at Apple's Developer's site. I've improved on it by making it more generic so that it's easy to use in several different ways on any given page.

The Core AJAX Object

The core AJAX object is a JavaScript object called XMLHttpRequest. So, in order to implement AJAX, you'll need some JavaScript. Don't worry if you don't know how to code JavaScript; the basic syntax is fairly straightforward. (For more information about what JavaScript is, see the sidebar at the end of this article.) And I've provided links to a downloadable zip file that contains complete code you can plug in to your applications, along with a sample implementation Web page.

Figure 1 shows an example conversation using an AJAX object embedded in a Web page to provide the kind of auto-complete feature used by Google's Gmail. Usually, browser content is sent from the server to the client in entire pages. In the AJAX model, it's sent as content fragments that you can use to update portions of a page without reloading the entire thing.


http://www.mcpressonline.com/articles/images/2002/Use%20AJAX%20for%20Bright%20and%20Shiny%20Web%20Apps%20Part%202%20djk%201215%20versionV400.jpg

Figure 1: Here's an example of a conversation.

Internet Explorer (IE) browsers implement the XMLHttpRequest object differently than Mozilla-based browsers (such as Firefox). IE implements it as a native ActiveX (one that is automatically included in the browser code base), while Firefox implements it as a JavaScript native object. The differences are purely cosmetic, but any robust script that uses AJAX needs to take the different browser implementations into account. Fortunately, this is fairly easy. You can check for the existence of the object by using a browser-feature detection technique. Note that this technique is now much preferred over examining a variable that describes the browser, as it is much more reliable and not subject to changes in browser names or release levels. Here's the initial JavaScript code:

var _ms_AJAX_Request_ActiveX = ""; //  global variable: holds type of ActiveX to

instantiate 
// code for Mozilla, etc.
if (window.XMLHttpRequest) {
   var xmlhttp=new XMLHttpRequest();
  }

// code for IE
else if (window.ActiveXObject) {
      // Instantiate the latest MS ActiveX Objects
      if (_ms_AJAX_Request_ActiveX)  {
         xmlhttp = new ActiveXObject(_ms_AJAX_Request_ActiveX);
      } 
  else {
     // loops through the various versions of XMLHTTP to ensure we're using 

the latest
     var versions = ["Msxml2.XMLHTTP.7.0", "Msxml2.XMLHTTP.6.0", 

"Msxml2.XMLHTTP.5.0", "Msxml2.XMLHTTP.4.0", "MSXML2.XMLHTTP.3.0", 

"MSXML2.XMLHTTP", "Microsoft.XMLHTTP"];
          for (var i = 0; i < versions.length ; i++) {
            try {
// Try to create the object. If it doesn't work, we'll try again
// if it does work, we'll save a reference to the proper one to speed 

up future instantiations
              xmlhttp  = new ActiveXObject(versions[i]);
                 if (xmlhttp) {
                   _ms_AJAX_Request_ActiveX = versions[i];
                   break;
                 }
               }
               catch (objException) {
                  // trap -  try next one
               } 
            }
         }
   }


Explanation of Code

We will eventually embed this script in a function that is easily called. Here's what it does: First, it checks for support for the XMLHttpRequest native object. If this succeeds (returns true), then the browser is Mozilla-based, and we create a new instance of the object, named xmlhttp. If that check fails, it checks for an IE ActiveX version. (Microsoft has deployed different versions over time, which is why the code loops through an array to find the correct one.) Once the correct version is found, we instantiate a new object instance with the same name, xmlhttp.

So in either case, Mozilla or IE, we create an object called xmlhttp. This object is the core AJAX component. It has several properties and methods, all well-documented at the aforementioned Apple Web page and at Microsoft's developer site. Fortunately, most of the important methods and properties are shared by both the Mozilla and IE implementations, so we don't have to worry about writing a lot of branched code to handle different browsers.

Walkthrough of Code Fragments for Using the AJAX Object

OK, now we have an instance of our core AJAX object, xmlhttp. The next piece of code is a complete function that includes the above fragment and makes an AJAX call to the server:


1 function AJAX_Update(url, obj, func)
{
2  if (!url) return false;  // Don't run if missing the url parm. 
 // ... earlier code to instantiate xmlhttp goes here 
    if (!xmlhttp) return false;
3   if (func) 
    xmlhttp.onreadystatechange = function(){
4      if (xmlhttp.readyState != 4) return;
5    if (xmlhttp.status == 200)
        func(obj, xmlhttp.responseText);
      else 
        alert("An error occurred" + http.status);
    };
    else
6      xmlhttp.onreadystatechange = function() { return; }
    
7 xmlhttp.open('GET', url, true);
     xmlhttp.send(null);
      return false;
}

Explanation of Code

Point 1
The entire AJAX interface is encapsulated in a function called AJAX_Update, which uses three mandatory parameters:
● url—The string that contains the URL of the server-side program to call. For example, custsearch.pgm?task=search&searchval=FRED
● obj—The object reference to an HTML element on the page. This is the section of the page that will be updated by the AJAX request. For example, if we have an HTML element with an ID of "ajaxresponse" (like this

Response from AJAX call goes in here
), then the value of obj would be "ajaxresponse".
● func—The name of a JavaScript function in our page that will update the page contents with the AJAX response. For example, AJAX_Update(myurl, mydiv, Receive_AJAX_Response); would call this function:

function Receive_AJAX_Response(mydiv, response )
{
 document.getElementById(mydiv).innerHTML = response; 
}

This last parameter might be a little strange to RPG programmers. JavaScript allows us to reference a function through the contents of a variable, rather than as a hard-coded value. This means we can invoke our function (AJAX_Update) any number of times in the page and have it call different functions to update page content. This is like using procedure pointers in RPG. We'll see how this is used in the description of point 5 in the code.
Point 2
Since the URL parameter is mandatory, its absence will cause the function to exit gracefully. After point 2, we insert our code to instantiate the AJAX (xmlhttp) object described earlier.
Point 3
The third parameter is the function that handles the response. If present, we assign an "anonymous" function (an ad hoc one, with no name) to an event handler for the AJAX object for when the "ready" state of the object changes. The ready state will change as a result of a server call , which actually takes place in point 7.
Point 4
This point assigns an event handler to the AJAX object's ready state. The event indicating that the state is changed is fired when the code has done a server call and gotten a response from the server (initiated in step 7). If the new state is not 4, we exit (4 is a valid ready state; any other is not).
Point 5
If the returned status from the server is 200, then we have a valid response from the server and we can continue. If not, we send an alert box notifying the user that an error occurred. In production code, we might want to handle this more gracefully. Possible return codes are ones such as the infamous "404 — page not found." This could happen if the URL you attempt to reference is incorrect, for example. These are standard responses according to the HTTP protocol. The key line of code at this point is func(obj, xmlhttp.responseText);

This invokes the function we passed as the third parameter in point 1 in this case: Receive_AJAX_Response. Note that it requires two parameters: the AJAX response data and the ID of some HTML element on the page that is to be updated. In our example, the code looks like this:

function Receive_AJAX_Response(mydiv, response )
{
 document.getElementById(mydiv).innerHTML = response; 
}

This function takes the contents of the variable response (the server's response from the AJAX call) and updates the inner contents of the HTML element identified by variable mydiv. So, if mydiv = ajaxresponse, then this div's inner HTML contents will get replaced with whatever HTML or text was returned by the server:

Response from AJAX call goes in here


Point 6
This is the graceful exit if no parameter for the receiving function was passed.
Point 7
The "open" method of the AJAX object prepares for the actual call to the server, while the "send" method actually does it. You can think of this as being the invisible squirrel in your browser who is clicking on a hidden link or form button behind the scenes.

The first parameter of the open method determines whether to use 'GET' or 'PUT' to make the request. This equates to the ACTION keyword on the HTML

tag.

The second parameter is the URL we want to go to. As you'll see in the implementation code, it will typically be a call to a server program such as a CGI or a servlet. Here's an example of constructing a URL that calls a WebSmart program called findcust:

var myurl += "findcust.pgm?task=ajaxresponse&searchval=" + 

encode(field.value); 

The third parameter (true) tells the AJAX object to operate asynchronously with respect to other page activity. This is the first A in the acronym AJAX (asynchronous), and it's very important. It allows the browser to remain unlocked so the user can continue to interact with it while the server communicates with the AJAX object. Depending on your implementation, several AJAX calls could be queued up at one time while the user is still typing. For example, the Google approach does a server call on every user key stroke. By using the asynchronous setting, you free up the browser while the background work of sending and receiving responses is queued and executed. Most implementations of AJAX use an asynchronous design (otherwise, they would be SJAX, I suppose!).

Using the Script in Your Pages

I've encapsulated the above script in an external JavaScript file so that AJAX_Update can be treated as a "black box." (Click here to download it, and then change the file extension from .txt to .js.) You can easily reference it in your pages like this:



(Here, "mypath" is your own path to the script.)

This simple Customer lookup example uses the external file ajax_update.js. You can click on the link and then view the source in your browser to see all the script.

These are the important code fragments to implement this:

1. Attach event handler for when the user leaves the Customer number input field:

onBlur="Send_AJAX_Request(this);">

2. Event handler code for customer number input field:

function Send_AJAX_Request(target) 

// pass the query the user has typed. 
// Also, pass the id for a div to update, and the function to 

call to update this div. 
var myurl = 

"ajaxcst4.pgm?task=ajaxresp&cstno="+encodeURIComponent(target.value);
//  
mydiv = document.getElementById("result_div"); 

// Fire request for data and populate div: 
AJAX_Update(myurl, mydiv, Receive_AJAX_Response); 

3. Function to update the page contents ( the result div) :

function Receive_AJAX_Response(mydiv, response )
{
  // display the div at the proper position 
mydiv.innerHTML = response;
}

There are lots of variations on when you might want to invoke the AJAX object. For example, in Google mail, it gets invoked for every keystroke, not just when the user exits a field. You can trap for a keystroke event using the onKeyUp event handler. A detailed explanation of that is beyond the scope of this article, but you can review the source in the examples from the last article to see how it's done.

Ready, Set, Go!

Now you have all the tools to start implementing AJAX in your Web applications. Be creative and judicious in your use of AJAX and you can bring a whole new richness to your users' Web experiences, providing Windows-like functionality in a browser.

Sidebar: What JavaScript Really Is

JavaScript is not Java. Although there are some syntactical similarities and both have "Java" in the name, that's where the similarity ends. JavaScript is a scripting (interpretive) language that runs inside your browser. You can think of it as similar to early incarnations of BASIC or Visual Basic in that a run-time interpreter parses and executes the script. Usually, JavaScript is coded using typical procedural language coding techniques, but you can also write it using object-oriented programming concepts and constructs. All modern browsers support JavaScript, and the majority of users allow JavaScript to run in their pages. JavaScript execution can be turned off via browser security settings, but only really paranoid users will do that. Since you are likely to be writing business applications for the Web, you can probably get away with imposing a corporate standard that the user's browser must have JavaScript support turned on.

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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    • 3 ways to stop re-keying data
    • Data automation in practice

    Plus, see how HelpSystems data automation software will help you stop re-keying data.

     

  • The Top Five RPG Open Access Myths....BUSTED!

    SB_Profound_WC_GenericWhen it comes to IBM Rational Open Access: RPG Edition, there are still many misconceptions - especially where application modernization is concerned!

    In this Webinar, we'll address some of the biggest myths about RPG Open Access, including:

    • Modernizing with RPG OA requires significant changes to the source code
    • The RPG language is outdated and impractical for modernizing applications
    • Modernizing with RPG OA is the equivalent to "screen scraping"

     

  • Time to Remove the Paper from Your Desk and Become More Efficient

    SB_HelpSystems_WC_GenericToo much paper is wasted. Attempts to locate documents in endless filing cabinets.And distributing documents is expensive and takes up far too much time.
    These are just three common reasons why it might be time for your company to implement a paperless document management system.
    Watch the webinar to learn more and discover how easy it can be to:

    • Capture
    • Manage
    • And distribute documents digitally

     

  • IBM i: It’s Not Just AS/400

    SB_HelpSystems_WC_Generic

    IBM’s Steve Will talks AS/400, POWER9, cognitive systems, and everything in between

    Are there still companies that use AS400? Of course!

    IBM i was built on the same foundation.
    Watch this recorded webinar with IBM i Chief Architect Steve Will and IBM Power Champion Tom Huntington to gain a unique perspective on the direction of this platform, including:

    • IBM i development strategies in progress at IBM
    • Ways that Watson will shake hands with IBM i
    • Key takeaways from the AS/400 days

     

  • Ask the RDi Experts

    SB_HelpSystems_WC_GenericWatch this recording where Jim Buck, Susan Gantner, and Charlie Guarino answered your questions, including:

    • What are the “hidden gems” in RDi that can make me more productive?
    • What makes RDi Debug better than the STRDBG green screen debugger?
    • How can RDi help me find out if I’ve tested all lines of a program?
    • What’s the best way to transition from PDM to RDi?
    • How do I convince my long-term developers to use RDi?

    This is a unique, online opportunity to hear how you can get more out of RDi.

     

  • Node.js on IBM i Webinar Series Pt. 2: Setting Up Your Development Tools

    Profound Logic Software, Inc.Have you been wondering about Node.js? Our free Node.js Webinar Series takes you from total beginner to creating a fully-functional IBM i Node.js business application. In Part 2, Brian May teaches you the different tooling options available for writing code, debugging, and using Git for version control. Attend this webinar to learn:

    • Different tools to develop Node.js applications on IBM i
    • Debugging Node.js
    • The basics of Git and tools to help those new to it
    • Using NodeRun.com as a pre-built development environment

     

     

  • Inside the Integrated File System (IFS)

    SB_HelpSystems_WC_GenericDuring this webinar, you’ll learn basic tips, helpful tools, and integrated file system commands—including WRKLNK—for managing your IFS directories and Access Client Solutions (ACS). We’ll answer your most pressing IFS questions, including:

    • What is stored inside my IFS directories?
    • How do I monitor the IFS?
    • How do I replicate the IFS or back it up?
    • How do I secure the IFS?

    Understanding what the integrated file system is and how to work with it must be a critical part of your systems management plans for IBM i.

     

  • Expert Tips for IBM i Security: Beyond the Basics

    SB PowerTech WC GenericIn 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

    Don't miss this chance to take your knowledge of IBM i security beyond the basics.

     

     

  • 5 IBM i Security Quick Wins

    SB PowerTech WC GenericIn today’s threat landscape, upper management is laser-focused on cybersecurity. You need to make progress in securing your systems—and make it fast.
    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.