Dynamic Graphics and Personalization

A continuation of the discussion on creating graphics dynamically on the Web.
Stock Reporter

Our second mod_perl handler is StockReport.pm (see Listing 2 in the archive). This module uses the portfolio information the user has entered, and creates one or more graphs based on it.

If the user has a portfolio defined, then we iterate through each of the symbols in it. We then SELECT all of the rows in StockValues with that symbol, retrieving them in date order:

my $sql = "SELECT value,date FROM StockValues ";
$sql .=   "WHERE symbol = \"$symbol\" ";
$sql .=   "ORDER BY date ";

Now we iterate through each of the returned rows, adding the value to the @values array and the date to the @dates array. We also calculate the value of the user's holdings on that day (by multiplying the number of shares by the share price) and put that in the @holdings array.

We then plot our data set by creating a @data array, in which the elements are references to @dates, @values and @holdings. @dates will be used as the X axis in our graph, while @values and @holdings will be plotted as well. Because each element of @holdings is bound to be a multiple of its counterpart in @values, we tell GIFgraph to use two Y axes—one for values and one for holdings.

We create the graphs themselves using GIFgraph's plot_to_gif method, which takes a set of data points (the @data array, StockReport.pm), creates a graph in GIF format, then saves it to disk. We set the filename in a variable, so that we can both save the file and refer to it in an IMG tag. Remember, the file must be in the web document tree in order for it to be available to the user's web browser!

It might be tempting to put such files in /tmp, the standard temporary directory for Linux systems, but then the graphics will be unavailable to outside browsers. This directory must be writable by the web server, which often means making it open to more people than the rest of your web hierarchy. If this is the case on your system, make sure only this directory is writable by others, so that you don't run the risk of an intruder viewing or damaging your site's sensitive files.

Creating files in this way works well, but with one major flaw: it has the potential to fill your file system with numerous old graphics. A number of methods can be used to overcome this problem, but perhaps the simplest is to use cron to identify and delete any file older than a certain time. Depending on how busy your site is, you might want to run such a cron job every ten minutes, every hour, or once a month. It all depends on how many visitors you receive and how large your disk is. It is probably better to run such a deleting program more often, so as to avoid a denial-of-service attack that could fill your disks.

While I did not implement it in this version of StockReport, you can probably see how easy it would be to allow users to choose the range of dates in the graph. Using an HTML form, you could allow users to choose the starting and ending dates; the values of those form elements could then be inserted into the SQL query so as to SELECT just those rows between the named dates.

Installing the Modules

Once we have written and installed StockProfile.pm and StockReport.pm into our Perl module hierarchy, we must somehow tell Apache when to use them. We can do this in a number of ways, but my preference is to create special URLs that invoke these modules. That is, every time someone requests the URL “/stock-profile” from our server, they should get the profile editor. By the same token, when someone requests “/stock-report” from our server, they should see a report of their current stocks.

In order to accomplish this, we must first load each of the modules by adding the following two lines to the Apache configuration file, httpd.conf:

PerlModule Apache::StockProfile
PerlModule Apache::StockReport

Once we have done that, we can create new URLs, which do not necessarily correspond with files on the server's file system. For this, we use <Location> sections in httpd.conf. We indicate that the URL in question should be handled by a Perl module (“SetHandler perl-script”), and then tell Apache which specific module to use for that particular URL:

<Location /stock-profile>
   SetHandler perl-script
   PerlHandler Apache::StockProfile
<Location /stock-report>
   SetHandler perl-script
   PerlHandler Apache::StockReport
You will need to restart Apache in order for these new URLs to work. If there is an error in one of the Perl modules, or if mod_perl cannot find one of the modules in the module path @INC, the restart of Apache will fail. This ensures you will not have any compile-time errors when your modules run under mod_perl. At the same time, it requires that you test your modules extensively before including them on a live site, since bringing down the server on a large web site can be embarrassing or financially difficult.