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Implementing AJAX Using ASP.NET 1.1

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Introduction

You've heard of it. It is the latest buzz term for web programmers these days. AJAX is an acronym that stands for Asynchronous JavaScript and XML. AJAX gains its popularity by allowing data on a page to be dynamically updated without having to make the browser reload the page. I will describe more about how AJAX works, and then go into some sample code to try out.

This term has been made famous by some of Google's latest web apps. At the top of this list is Google Suggest, which gives you suggestions (go figure) on what you are searching for as you type based on popularity of the search term. If you aren't familiar with Google Suggest, check it out.

There is more going on here than just AJAX however. The actual drop down list is an additional DHTML piece that we will not be covering in this article.

Is AJAX a new technology? Yes and no would both be incorrect answers. A proper answer would be a new application of current technologies, with emphasis on plurality. This list of technologies includes standard HTML controls, JavaScript, an XML HTTP component, and XML data structures.

The Steps

The following is an outline of the sequence of events when using AJAX:

  1. Web page is rendered
  2. A trigger executes a JavaScript function call (i.e. onKeyUp, button click, setTimeout, page load, etc.)
  3. JavaScript instantiates an XML HTTP object
  4. XML HTTP object calls a remote page
  5. Remote Page transforms an XML structure using XSLT and returns the result
  6. JavaScript accepts the results and applies it to the page
  7. Tada! No page reload, just magical dynamic data

Get To It Already!

These steps are great, but without a sample application it is tough to envision. Being the responsible author that I am, I have of course included a sample of the steps discussed.

I think that it is important to discuss the XML HTTP object to gain a better understanding of what is going on here. XML HTTP allows code to connect to a remote location and perform GET and POST requests asynchronously. This means that we can connect to a remote host, send a request, and continue on with additional logic. When the remote host returns a response, a function designated to handle the return event is able to accept the data and make decisions based on what was received. The data passed to and from the remote host does not have to be in an XML format. XML is simply a well-formatted string. I have found on multiple occassions that passing a string that is not in an XML format is most appropriate for the given task. The XML HTTP object will not be compatible on all browsers or operating systems. Being that this is a client side function the client machine is responsible for the implementation as opposed to the server.

I have been utilizing this object since ASP 3.0 for making remote calls from a web page. Imagine the power here. Data and processes are accessed on disparate locations without the client ever having to leave the comfort of the domain or page that he/she is on.

The JavaScript

The JavaScript is the real meat and potatoes in AJAX. It handles the change detection, data request and receipt, and placing the data on the page.

Be sure to update the requestURL variable with the path that you will be accessing the aspx file from.

The following is the JavaScript code used:

<script>
    var xmlHttp;
    var requestURL = 'http://localhost/misctest/getusernames.aspx?q=';
    var is_ie = (navigator.userAgent.indexOf('MSIE') >= 0) ? 1 : 0;
    var is_ie5 = (navigator.appVersion.indexOf("MSIE 5.5")!=-1) ? 1 : 0;
    var is_opera = ((navigator.userAgent.indexOf("Opera6")!=-1)||(navigator.userAgent.indexOf("Opera/6")!=-1)) ? 1 : 0;
    //netscape, safari, mozilla behave the same???
    var is_netscape = (navigator.userAgent.indexOf('Netscape') >= 0) ? 1 : 0;

    function show_data(strName){
        if (strName.length > 0){
            //Append the name to search for to the requestURL
            var url = requestURL + strName;
            
            //Create the xmlHttp object to use in the request
            //stateChangeHandler will fire when the state has changed, i.e. data is received back
            // This is non-blocking (asynchronous)
            xmlHttp = GetXmlHttpObject(stateChangeHandler);
            
            //Send the xmlHttp get to the specified url
            xmlHttp_Get(xmlHttp, url);
        }
        else {
            //Textbox blanked out, clear the results
            document.getElementById('nameList').innerHTML = '';
        }
    }

    //stateChangeHandler will fire when the state has changed, i.e. data is received back
    // This is non-blocking (asynchronous)
    function stateChangeHandler()
    {
        //readyState of 4 or 'complete' represents that data has been returned
        if (xmlHttp.readyState == 4 || xmlHttp.readyState == 'complete'){
            //Gather the results from the callback
            var str = xmlHttp.responseText;

            //Populate the innerHTML of the div with the results
            document.getElementById('nameList').innerHTML = str;
        }
    }

    // XMLHttp send GET request
    function xmlHttp_Get(xmlhttp, url) {
        xmlhttp.open('GET', url, true);
        xmlhttp.send(null);
    }

    function GetXmlHttpObject(handler) {
        var objXmlHttp = null;    //Holds the local xmlHTTP object instance

        //Depending on the browser, try to create the xmlHttp object
        if (is_ie){
            //The object to create depends on version of IE
            //If it isn't ie5, then default to the Msxml2.XMLHTTP object
            var strObjName = (is_ie5) ? 'Microsoft.XMLHTTP' : 'Msxml2.XMLHTTP';
            
            //Attempt to create the object
            try{
                objXmlHttp = new ActiveXObject(strObjName);
                objXmlHttp.onreadystatechange = handler;
            }
            catch(e){
            //Object creation errored
                alert('IE detected, but object could not be created. Verify that active scripting and activeX controls are enabled');
                return;
            }
        }
        else if (is_opera){
            //Opera has some issues with xmlHttp object functionality
            alert('Opera detected. The page may not behave as expected.');
            return;
        }
        else{
            // Mozilla | Netscape | Safari
            objXmlHttp = new XMLHttpRequest();
            objXmlHttp.onload = handler;
            objXmlHttp.onerror = handler;
        }
        
        //Return the instantiated object
        return objXmlHttp;
    }

    function UseValue(strVal){
        document.frmStuff.txtName.value = strVal;
    }
</script>

The Client Page (HTML)

The client page, excluding the JavaScript, is about as basic as it gets. A simple form with an onKeyUp event in a text box is all that is really required.  I included a DIV tag to display the resulting data.  The HTML has been provided:

<html>
<head>
<title>Ian Suttle's AJAX Sample</title>
    <style>
        body, input {font-family: arial; font-size: 12px;}
    </style>

    <!-- Insert JavaScript Here -->

</head>
<body>
    <form name="frmStuff" id="Form1">
        <table border="0" cellpadding="4" cellspacing="0" id="Table2">
            <tr>
                <td width="100">Name:</td>
                <td><input type="text" name="txtName" id="txtName" autocomplete="off" onkeyup="show_data(this.value);"></td>
            </tr>
            <tr>
                <td width="100" valign="top">Suggestions:</td>
                <td>
                    <div id="nameList"></div>
                </td>
            </tr>
        </table>
    </form>
</body>
</html>

The Remote Page

When a request is made from the JavaScript, it makes contact with the "remote page." A query string variable, "q", is included representing the data that was keyed by the user. I am going to construct an XML string, only including those elements that are valid based on the search term. To relieve the client side script from doing any formatting, I have applied an XSL transformation on the XML data. Formatting the XML on the server side is a much better solution than formatting within the JavaScript on the client side. A major point to recognize is that certain browsers will not support XML and XSL objects. Assuming you want your data to always be formatted the same, stick with the server side logic.

Create a page called GetUsernames.aspx. Be sure to remove ALL HTML from the page except the required @Page line. The code-behind will create the output to display on the page. Add the following code to the code-behind file:

using System;
using System.Collections;
using System.ComponentModel;
using System.Data;
using System.Drawing;
using System.Web;
using System.Web.SessionState;
using System.Web.UI;
using System.Web.UI.WebControls;
using System.Web.UI.HtmlControls;
using System.Xml;
using System.Xml.Xsl;
using System.Xml.XPath;

namespace MiscTest
{
    /// <summary>
    /// Summary description for GetUsernames.
    /// </summary>
    public class GetUsernames : System.Web.UI.Page
    {
        private void Page_Load(object sender, System.EventArgs e)
        {
            GetUsernameList();
        }

        #region Web Form Designer generated code
        override protected void OnInit(EventArgs e)
        {
            //
            // CODEGEN: This call is required by the ASP.NET Web Form Designer.
            //
            InitializeComponent();
            base.OnInit(e);
        }
        
        /// <summary>
        /// Required method for Designer support - do not modify
        /// the contents of this method with the code editor.
        /// </summary>
        private void InitializeComponent()
        {
            this.Load += new System.EventHandler(this.Page_Load);
        }
        #endregion

        private void GetUsernameList()
        {
            //Get the request query
            string strQuery = Request["q"].ToString();

            //Create the XML-like string to be sent back to the request
            string strXmlNames = "";
            
            //An arbitrary array of names that will be written to an XML Document.
            string[] arrStrNames = new string[5]{"Ian Suttle", "John Doe", "Alex Wright", "Albert Einstein", "Sierra Tracy"};

            //Loop through the names, creating a psuedo XML element for each
            foreach(string strName in arrStrNames)
            {
                //If the request matches the beginning of a name, then add it to the string
                // otherwise it shouldn't be a valid match
                if (strName.ToLower().Substring(0, strQuery.Length) == strQuery.ToLower())
                    strXmlNames += "<user><name>" + strName + "</name></user>";
            }

            //Prepend and append the parent element
            strXmlNames = "<?xml version=\"1.0\" ?><users>" + strXmlNames + "</users>";

            //Create an XmlDocument object to store the XML string that we created
            XmlDocument xDoc = new XmlDocument();
            xDoc.LoadXml(strXmlNames);

            //Create a navigator object to use in the XSL transformation
            XPathNavigator xPathNav = xDoc.CreateNavigator();

            //Create the XSLTransform object
            XslTransform xslt = new XslTransform();
            xslt.Load(Server.MapPath("Names.xslt"));

            //Do the transformation and send the results out to the Response object's output stream
            xslt.Transform(xPathNav, null, Response.OutputStream);
        }
    }
}

The XSL Stylesheet

The XSL document is used to format the XML data to a defined presentation. The code to do the transformation is included here, although great detail on how this works is not the topic of this article. Create a new XSL document called Names.xslt and paste the following code into it:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8" ?>
<xsl:stylesheet version="1.0" xmlns:xsl="http://www.w3.org/1999/XSL/Transform">
    <xsl:template match="/">
        <xsl:for-each select="users/user">
            <xsl:value-of select="name" /><br />
        </xsl:for-each>
    </xsl:template>
</xsl:stylesheet>

Conclusion

So once again, AJAX is nothing more than an application of technologies that have been around for a number of years. ASP.NET isn't the wizard behind this curtain. There is nothing here that can't be done in ASP Classic and JavaScript. Not that given a choice one would revert to ASP Classic :). Additionally, ASP.NET 2.0 will have a completely different approach to making remote calls from a page.

The possible implications of AJAX are very impressive. Updating notices, checking email, monitoring processes, etc... The limits of application are virtually up to the imagination of the developer.