Writing Web Applications with Web Services and Ajax

An Ajax primer with Perl and PostgreSQL.

If you've done any Web development at all recently, you've no doubt heard the buzz going on about Web Services and Ajax. The industry hype is so prevalent that you'd almost think people were talking about the next Microsoft operating system. Fortunately, they're not. Web Services and Ajax are two Web technologies that allow developers to create more interesting Web applications as well make the development easier and less error-prone.

Now that I've added to the hype, let me take some time to outline what we mean when we say “Web Services and Ajax”.

A Web Service is a program that is accessible over the Internet and provides a specific service, such as searching a library's collection or getting bid history from eBay. We're not talking about a full-fledged application, but rather a Web-based Application Programming Interface (API) that can can be called over the Internet by a given program to perform a needed function. Often, the results of the call to a given Web Service are returned in XML format, which the calling program can manipulate easily.

When people discuss Web Services, they often mention things like JSON, REST, SOAP or XML-RPC. These are simply a few of the protocols available for calling a Web Service. Being familiar with these protocols lets you make use of some of the really powerful Web Services being provided by the likes of Amazon, Google and eBay. However, for my personal Web development, I've found these protocols to be a bit heavy.

Ajax is a mechanism that allows a Web page to make calls back to the server without refreshing the page or using hidden frames. For example, if a user changes the value of a form field, the Web page could tell the server to make a change to a database, without having to refresh the Web page, as would be needed in the case of a standard CGI script. From the user's perspective, the update just happens.

In this article, I outline a set of very primitive Web Services that perform specific functions on a database. The calls to the Web Services will be done via Ajax. Essentially, we're going to build a simple contact management program that stores a person's first name, last name and phone number. We'll be able to move up and down through the database, make additions and corrections and delete records. The neat thing is that once the page is initially loaded, we won't have to refresh it again, even when we make changes.

Before we can get started though, we need to have a table in a database in which to store the information. I happen to use PostgreSQL as my preferred DBMS. For our simple application, we need only one table (Listing 1).

The snippet of SQL in Listing 1 creates a sequence and a table. The table structure is pretty straightforward for our simple application. The only thing worth mentioning is the id field. By default, when records are inserted into our contacts table, the value of the id field is set to the next number in the contacts_id_seq sequence. The end result is that each of our contact records has a unique integer number that can be used to locate it.

Now that we have the database table defined, we can start to flesh out the actual application. Listing 2 shows the HTML for our simple application, and Figure 1 shows what the application looks like in a Web browser.

Figure 1. The No-Frills Web Page for This Sample Application

As you can see, our simple application is just that, simple. I've stripped it down to the bare necessities to make our discussion easier.

Figure 1 shows how our application allows us to insert a new contact record or delete the current record by pressing the buttons at the top. At the bottom of the application, we can move to the previous or next record in the database. Of course, we have input fields to hold the first and last name as well as the phone number. We also have a form field to display the record id number. In a real application, I'd probably make this a hidden field, but for the sake of instruction, I've left it visible.

Referring back to Listing 1, you can see that the page is fairly straightforward. Aside from importing the contacts.js JavaScript, the first part of the page is standard boilerplate. Things get interesting when we get to the form buttons and fields.

Let's look at the “New” button:

<input type=button name=new value="New"

This button simply calls a JavaScript function called insert_record() any time a user presses the button. The Delete, Previous and Next buttons all work similarly. The magic is in the JavaScript. Let's look at the JavaScript first (Listing 3).


Mike Diehl is a freelance Computer Nerd specializing in Linux administration, programing, and VoIP. Mike lives in Albuquerque, NM. with his wife and 3 sons. He can be reached at mdiehl@diehlnet.com


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eddysand's picture

thx for the great stuff


Darren Wiebe's picture

This helps me a whole bunch with a little project I'm working on!