Writing Web Applications with Web Services and Ajax

An Ajax primer with Perl and PostgreSQL.

The select.pl, delete.pl and update.pl services are very similar, as shown in Listings 6, 7 and 8, respectively.

The select.pl service shown in Listing 6 takes a single parameter—the id number of the record to be retrieved. The result is an XML file containing all the fields in the record and the appropriate values. This allows us to call the function with a record id and retrieve all the fields of that record for later manipulation.

The delete.pl service shown in Listing 7 takes a record id and deletes the record with that id. Then, the program finds the next lowest record number and returns that record id.

Finally, the update.pl service shown in Listing 8 takes a record id, a field name and a new value as parameters. Then, the program updates the given field of the selected record with the new value. The new field value is then returned via XML.

Granted, our little application is fairly trivial, but it does perform all of the basic functions that need to be performed on a database: insert, delete, update and search. More important, no single element of this application is difficult to write, debug or understand. In fact, with a few improvements that I outline next, the Web Service scripts and much of the JavaScript can be reused for other parts of a larger application or even many different applications. The Web Services simply become bricks that are glued together with JavaScript to build applications, and this is what makes using Web Services such an elegant method of Web development.

From the user's perspective, using Ajax to perform the database functions is a major win. As mentioned before, once the application is loaded, users never have to incur the cost of re-downloading it and having their browsers re-render it. On more complex pages, this can be a significant delay. Furthermore, because the results of a given operation are returned in small snippets of XML, the bandwidth requirements are minimal. It's arguable that not only would users perceive this type of application as faster, but it also would put lower demands on the server and network infrastructure that provide the application.

But, how hard would it be to add a new field, perhaps an e-mail address, to our application? Well, we'd have to add an appropriate field to our database table scheme. Then, we'd have to add the field, with the same name, to our HTML document. We could use the other form fields as a template of course. And, that should just about do it.

So, how could we improve our code? First, we'd need to take care of some glaring security issues. Our Web Services should use some form of authentication to make sure that only authorized users can perform database functions. More subtly though, the Web Services need to perform some basic validation on the parameters they receive. The delete.pl service accepts a record number in the form of id=25 as a parameter. What if someone wanted to be mean and, instead, sent id=25 or 1=1 to our service? Well, our database would be gone because 1=1 is always true, and our program would delete all records. So, we would have to take care of such issues before we could use these services in the wild.

You may have noticed that all of the fields in our database are of type varchar(20). That's not very flexible or efficient. To be truly useful, our services would need to be able to query the database to determine what data type a given field was and act appropriately. For example, chars and varchars need to be quoted, but integers and booleans do not. The service should be able to determine how to handle these situations.

Finally, by simply sending the name of the table as one of the parameters, we can build a Web Service that can modify database tables other than our contacts table. We'd be able to use the same services to update a shopping list, inventory or calendar. Generalizing our Web Services like this would make our simple contacts application easy to write as well as any other application in which we chose to use them.

So, by coupling Ajax with our own brand of Web Services, we're able to write applications that are more responsive to user input, less taxing on the server infrastructure, and much easier to write and maintain.

Mike Diehl is a contractor at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he writes network management software. Mike lives with his wife and two small boys and can be reached via e-mail at mdiehl@diehlnet.com.


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!