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The ASP.NET Component
The JavaScript Component
The Web Services Component
The Dynamic HTML Component


ASP.NET AJAX is the name of Microsoft’s AJAX solution, and it refers to a set of client and server technologies that focus on improving web development with Visual Studio. Other companies have their own AJAX solution, often taking a radically different approach, but Microsoft has sought to build upon the popular ASP.NET technology by developing a comprehensive set of script libraries as well as server programming enhancements. One piece, the Microsoft AJAX Library, is a JavaScript library that works on a variety of browsers and serves to simplify JavaScript development. It provides you with the capability to easily write JavaScript using an object-oriented programming approach similar to code-behind programming in ASP.NET. You can use the functions of the Microsoft AJAX library to interact with the DOM, dynamically update portions of the page, communicate with the web server asynchronously, and write rich animations on the page. You’ll learn about the client features in Chapters 6 and 7, but for now think of the Microsoft AJAX Library as a type system and set of class libraries that simplify writing JavaScript to enhance the user experience, manipulate the DOM, and communicate with the web server. The huge benefit in using this library is that it abstracts the tedious low-level DHTML programming into an OOP model that is much easier to work with.


Book Excerpt: Developing Next-Generation Web Applications
Chapter Contents

This excerpt from Professional ASP.NET 2.0 AJAX  by Matt Gibbs, Dan Wahlin, is printed with
permission from Wrox Publication.

The other part of the ASP.NET AJAX release is the server-side ASP.NET 2.0 AJAX Extensions. These extensions build on top of the ASP.NET classes and controls and leverage the Microsoft AJAX Library sent to the browser. They make it easy to quickly take advantage of AJAX technologies to enrich an application. Through a set of standard web services, ASP.NET AJAX is also able to leverage server-based application services such as authentication and user profile storage. The extensions both extend some of the existing ASP.NET controls by adding new behaviors and include a new set of server controls that make it easy to do asynchronous updates to a page and leverage server resources.

The client and server pieces of ASP.NET are shown in Figure 1-3. ASP.NET is built on top of the Microsoft Internet Information Services (IIS) web server. ASP.NET AJAX builds on top of that and the web services it includes. The Microsoft AJAX Library runs in the browser to manipulate the DOM, communicate asynchronously with the web server, and take advantage of ASP.NET services.

The ASP.NET Component

The ASP.NET Component

The original (ASP) Active Server Pages technology was released as part of Internet Information Server 3.0. It was then improved with support for transactions and access to COM objects with the release of the NT 4.0 Option Pack almost ten years ago. At the time, most websites consisted of static HTML pages. To the extent that there were any dynamic applications, they were CGI (Common Gateway Interface) or ISAPI (Internet Server API) applications typically written in C and C++. With the release of Active Server Pages (ASP), developers could use JavaScript or VBScript on the server to leverage a set of intrinsic objects provided by ASP. “Classic ASP,” as it is now called, provided a session object so that developers didn’t need to worry about the stateless nature of HTTP. It had Request and Response objects that provided for easy access to data coming from forms on the client and a way to send updated information back. The Server and Application objects were an avenue for accessing information from the web server and utilizing a common set of COM objects across the application.

Although Classic ASP was a big win for developers, developers soon found that developing complex applications became difficult. The lack of support for modularization meant that applications ended up with such complex interdependencies in script that developers often referred to it as “spaghetti code.” Debugging support was severely lacking, and there were no rich design tools for developing applications. Performance also suffered because ASP used a slow scripting model, and syntax errors could only be detected at runtime. ASP.NET is a big leap forward. It provides compatibility for existing applications by including the same set of intrinsic objects found in Classic ASP but moves from interpreting JavaScript and VBScript on the fly to using a compiled set of pages and modules written in C# and VB.NET. Classic ASP simply executed script in order from the top to the bottom of the page; ASP.NET is an event-driven model with a page lifecycle, making it more like writing a desktop application. Now, instead of including separate JavaScript files to represent business objects, you can create objects in any .NET language and access them directly from ASP.NET.

ASP.NET takes a set of pages that contain code and markup and generates a Page class that is then compiled and cached. For each request to the page, the class is instantiated and a complete page lifecycle is executed. A set of events are executed, some of which have been overridden by the generated Page class. Controls in the page also participate in the lifecycle, databinding to backend databases, reacting to user input, and dealing with changes to their state from the user’s previous view. To react to user actions, the developer has only to provide an event handler for the given action. For example, the button control exposes a Click event. When using it, you don’t need to write code to examine all form variables on a page to know if the button was clicked. Instead, you just provide code for an event handler override. The event handler code can then update the HTML for the page or the properties and data of other controls on the page.

The JavaScript Component

AJAX technologies take advantage of the common support for JavaScript found in modern browsers. Because there is a standard that is supported across the various browsers, you can write scripts knowing that they will run. This wasn’t always the case.

In the mid 1990’s, Netscape and Microsoft (along with others) collaborated on a standard for a scripting language that they would support in their web browsers. The standard is called EcmaScript. Microsoft’s implementation is called JScript, but the language is generally referred to as JavaScript, as it was called in Netscape. (It has nothing to do with Java, but someone must have thought the association was useful for marketing purposes.) JavaScript program snippets are sent down to the browser along with the HTML, and they run inside the user’s browser to affect how the page is processed on the client.

JavaScript is not compiled; it is interpreted. There is no static type-checking like you get in C++ and C#. You can declare a variable without needing to specify a type, and the type to which the variable refers can change at any time. This makes it easy to get started programming in JavaScript, but there’s inevitably a certain amount of danger in allowing the data type of a variable to change dynamically at runtime. In the following snippet, notice that the variable can reference any type without difficulty:

var something = 1;
something = true;
something = “a string”;

JavaScript is a dynamic language. Types can actually be extended during program execution by other code. This means that you can write code that creates types on the fly. Because there is no enforcement of type safety, your code can receive these types as parameters or return values without any problem. This provides a great degree of flexibility and coding power.

The fundamental types in JavaScript are strings, numbers, Booleans, and functions. There is also support for objects and arrays, which are collections of the fundamental types. Some additional objects are included that are considered essential for many programming tasks. This includes support for regular expressions and date and time operations.

You can use the plus operator on strings in JavaScript to concatenate them:

var theEnd = “THE END.”;
var result = “Beginning, “ + “middle, and “ + theEnd;

In this example, the result variable is now the string: “Beginning, middle, and THE END.”

JavaScript interpreters use the IEEE floating-point standard for storing numbers. Ignoring the gory details, you can assume that for most programming tasks you won’t have any trouble.

The Boolean type in JavaScript is about what you would expect it to be but maybe not exactly so. The Boolean represents whether or not an expression is true, but it uses the C-style convention using integer values 0 and 1.

Variables can exist in JavaScript without having a value, and a variable may simply be undefined, which can produce unexpected results. In this piece of JavaScript, three variables are declared, and all of these comparisons are designed to return a true value.

<script type=”text/javascript”>
var one = 1;
var zero = 0;
var undefinedVar;
      alert(“1 is true”);

      alert(“0 is false”);

       // this test tells us that “undefinedVar” either contains 0,
       // or is really undefined: both of which equate to false
       alert(“undefinedVar is false”);

if(one != zero) 
      alert(“one and zero are not the same”);

You can check specifically to see if a variable has been defined like this:

if( typeof(undefinedVar ) == “undefined” )
       alert(“undefinedVar is undefined”);

Variables can also have a null value, which is not the same thing as being undefined, as a null value does constitute a value.

Functions are also real types in JavaScript. They can accept arguments and return values. Functions can be passed to other functions and can be created dynamically by other script code.

Here are two equivalent definitions for a function called Add that will take two variables and return the result of applying the plus operator. Notice that I didn’t state that it takes two numbers. Remember, JavaScript variables don’t have a defined type, so I could just as easily pass two strings and get them concatenated by my Add function.

<script type=”text/javascript”>
function Add(x, y)
     return x + y;
var AddAgain = function(x, y) { return x + y; }

Once either of these styles is used to create a function, it can be called from that scope and any nested scope to perform the addition. There is no advantage to one of these forms over the other. You can simply choose to use the syntax that you prefer.

<script type=”text/javascript”>
var result = Add(36, 24);
alert(result); //displays 60
var stringResult = Add(“Hello “, “there.”);
alert(stringResult); //displays “Hello there.”

Objects and arrays are just collections of other types. Array types do not require that the values they hold be named; instead, you can access them by index. The values held in an object are referenced by field or property names. Objects can also hold functions (which can be accessor functions to give public visibility to local variables), which lets you create data structures that represent entities in JavaScript code. Missing from this sort of object-oriented programming is a concept of type inheritance. The Microsoft AJAX Library provides a set of classes and recommended patterns for achieving inheritance in JavaScript, making it more natural for switching between JavaScript and other high-level languages. The following code example includes a definition for an Album object that holds and returns the artist and album title. An array is then used to store information about several albums.

<script type=”text/javascript”>

// define an object named Album – note that this object is typeless
Album = function(title, artist) {
var _title = title;
var _artist = artist;
this.get_title = function() { return _title; }
this.get_artist = function() { return _artist; }

// create object instances by calling the constructor
var albumA = new Album(“Rift”, “Phish”);
var albumB = new Album(“A Picture of Nectar”, “Phish”);

// create an array to hold the instances (also typeless)
var albumArray = new Array();

albumArray[0] = albumA;
albumArray[1] = albumB;

// iterate over the array to show the album titles
for(var i = 0; i < albumArray.length; i++) {
       alert((albumArray[i]).get_title()); // call get_title accessor


The Web Services Component

The fundamental concept of web services is powerful and continues to evolve and advance. The original SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) standard is the use of the HTTP protocol to pass XML-formatted data to the server from a client and receive XML-formatted results in return. This can be from within a web browser using the XmlHttpRequest object or directly from a desktop application or another server. Before web services became widely adopted, it was not uncommon for developers to programmatically request a page as an HTML document and extract the desired data from it, a technique known as screen-scraping. This causes all sorts of frustrations as sites are continually updated and the screen-scraping clients must try to keep up by modifying their parsing code to adapt to the new HTML the target site is rendering.

This produced frustration, as sites that presented data using HTML visual pages were prone to modifying those pages and this would break the screen-scraping program, which expected to see the data in the original format. Web services were created as a nonvisual way to transfer data over the web, and they are the natural way to isolate remote method calls from the presentation layer. Now, instead of screenscraping, you are able to call a web service and get XML-formatted data returned that is easily consumed by a program.

By passing plain text data formatted as XML and by eliminating the visual elements, data passed in web services is much easier to parse than HTML. And, since XML can contain an embedded schema, code can inspect the schema and use it to determine the structure and types used in the data. You can extend the schema passed with the data being returned without worrying that consuming applications will be broken, and therefore XML readers can be somewhat tolerant of modifications that would have certainly caused a screen-scraper a great deal of grief!

The schema for data can be extended without requiring all consumers to be updated. Consumers can easily get the parts of the XML document they wish to process and disregard the rest. This has progressed beyond simple XML formats. Unlike previous implementations of web services, you can now define web service contracts to be built to employ arbitrary encoding and utilize any one of a number of wire protocols. What drives the web service concept is the ability to access data easily from various applications in a loosely coupled way, and the new Microsoft Windows Communication Foundation (WCF) takes this concept to a whole new level, allowing the contract to specify wire protocols, deployment strategies, and logging infrastructure, along with providing support for transactions.

ASP.NET AJAX provides a set of JavaScript proxy objects to access some new web services built-in to ASP.NET. Profile information, membership services, and role management can be easily accessed from the client. Developers don’t need to create their own infrastructure to support these fundamental application services, but can include a few lines of code to take advantage of server resources from JavaScript code running in the browser, thereby dramatically extending the reach of ASP.NET to include both the client and the server. And because the JavaScript libraries are designed to be easy to use for developers already familiar with server-side .NET programming, all of this extra functionality comes in a friendly package that is easy to leverage.

The Dynamic HTML Component

Dynamic HTML is not a freestanding technology. It is the use of a set of technologies in a specific way. HTML is returned to the browser following a web server request. The browser then renders the page, and the user is able to view it. The browser also exposes the Document Object Model (DOM) that represents the structure of the HTML being displayed. The DOM can be accessed from JavaScript embedded in, or referenced by, the page. The appearance of the HTML is affected by applying CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) that control colors, fonts, position, visibility, and more. You can bind JavaScript code to events that the browser will raise when users perform certain actions, such as hovering over a particular element or entering text in a textbox. The JavaScript code can update text or manipulate the CSS settings for elements within the page. And, of course, it can communicate with the server to expand the dynamic nature of the page even further. The user will see a dynamically changing user interface that responds to his actions in real-time, which will greatly enhance his overall experience, thereby increasing his productivity and satisfaction with the application.

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