10 things IT needs to know about Ajax

Web development expert says watch for security, network performance issues in new Ajax applications

The introduction of any new Web technology will have an effect on the network infrastructure that could range from inconsequential to earth shattering. Ajax is one of the more disruptive new Web technologies traveling across the network these days. To help you mitigate future surprises on your network, we've outlined the 10 things you should take to heart about Ajax.

The introduction of any new Web technology will affect a network's infrastructure in ways that range from inconsequential to earth shattering. Ajax is one of the more disruptive new Web technologies traveling across networks today. To help you minimize future surprises on your network, we've outlined the 10 things you should take to heart about Ajax. (Also see our slideshow illustrating tips for deploying Ajax applications effectively.)

1) Ajax is an idea, not an acronym

While Ajax commonly is spelled out as Asynchronous JavaScript and XML, the full name is not entirely appropriate because it oversimplifies the history of the technology and the implementation options that lie at its heart. More exactly, Ajax encompasses the idea that Web applications can be built to opt out of the typical post-wait-repeat cycle used in server-side-focused Web applications. Ajax lets Web applications move to a more responsive, continuous, but incremental style of updating. Ajax provides users a richer, more interactive way of experiencing the underlying Web application. This goodness for the user might mean that more monitoring and security oversight might be required of network professionals, as well as, potentially, server and network alterations.

2) It's really all about JavaScript

Ajax applications are written in JavaScript and usually rely on the XMLHttpRequest object for communications, which is making its way through the World Wide Web Consortium process. Because, like many Web technologies, it now is only an ad hoc industry standard, notable differences can be found in various browsers' implementations of it. It's also possible to use other data transport mechanisms — with and without widespread industry support — with Ajax applications, including traditional frame and image-cookie methods, as well as the use of binary bridges to Flash or Java.

Regardless of the transport approach used by the developer, Ajax has raised JavaScript to a more important position within a Web application than it previously held. JavaScript now is responsible for important data-collection, communication and consumption duties, so it no longer can be treated as a second-class Web technology without serious repercussions.

Developers who think the JavaScript technology is toxic can try to avoid the language by having a tool or framework generate it from some other language like Java (Google Web Toolkit, for example), or hide the code behind components or tags (such as with .Net or Ruby). At the end of the day, however, JavaScript still will be in the application. It's better to understand the language and embrace it directly, because if you are going to use Ajax, you ultimately are using lots of JavaScript.

Ajax is intertwined with the network, so bad code is going to mean lots of troubleshooting by network administrators, as well as developers: The bottom line is to encourage good, network-aware coding! The same organizational "rules and tools" -- coding standards, testing regimes and source-code control — that are in place for other languages must be applied to JavaScript to ensure that Ajax applications are supportable and robust.

3) XML is not required

Despite the "x" in the acronym, Ajax does not require XML. The XMLHttpRequest object can transport any arbitrary text format. For many Ajax developers, JavaScript Object Notation or even raw JavaScript code fragments make more sense as a data format, given that JavaScript is the consuming environment. For direct input into documents, other developers may favor raw text or HTML fragments. Still others will use such data formats as the less-known YAML markup language or such old standbys as comma-separated values.

Of course, it is possible and certainly reasonable to use XML, but it is far from required. Using binary formats for uploading files is not supported yet by the XMLHttpRequest object, but considering that Flash uses a binary format called Action Message Format, it is likely that similar features will be found in Ajax applications soon enough. You should know which format is being passed around the network, because it isn't always XML. Also, make sure you can analyze the format for performance and security.

4) Plan for an increase in HTTP requests

The most obvious issue for the network administrator supporting Ajax applications is that the architectural programming pattern has changed the network utilization of Web applications from a batch-like, somewhat infrequent response of a few hundred kilobytes, to a more continuous exchange of smaller HTTP responses. This means that network-bound Web and application servers may find themselves even busier than before. What Ajax will do to your server and network utilization certainly will depend on how the application is built — make sure your developers understand the network impact of their applications.

5) Optimize Ajax requests carefully

Web applications should adhere to the network delivery principle of sending less data, less often. That doesn't mean that this principle is widely followed by developers, however. Fortunately for the network, HTTP compression of Ajax responses can reduce response size and is supported in all modern browsers. Because of dynamic compression's overhead, however, speed may not improve much if responses are indeed relatively small. This means that it would be wise for network administrators to turn on compression on their Web server, but they need to understand that with Ajax applications, their gains won't be as big as with traditional Web applications.

To send data less often, we generally would employ caching. Most Ajax implementations can be openly hostile to caching, however, given certain assumptions made by browsers regarding not re-fetching URLs during the same session. Rather than work with caching, many Ajax developers will work aggressively to defeat caching via the header setting or URL uniqueness.

It is possible to address caching concerns with a client-side Ajax cache written in JavaScript, but most Ajax libraries do not implement such a feature. Network professionals should show developers the benefit of caching, because Ajax probably will benefit more from that than from compression.

6) Acknowledge the two-connection limit

Ajax applications are limited by HTTP to two simultaneous connections to the same URL. This is the way the HTTP protocol is designed, not some browser bug or limitation. The good news is that it keeps many Ajax developers from swamping a server accidentally, though Microsoft's Internet Explorer 8 is supposed to go well beyond the limit. Chatty Ajax applications can be trouble, and with browsers changing the rules, network administrators need to keep a close eye on the number of requests made, and work with application developers to avoid employing such design patterns as fast polling or long-held connections.

7) Watch out for response ordering

With traditional Web applications, the network effects of TCP/IP communications — such as the lack of order in which individual HTTP responses are received — generally are not noticed by developers or users. The base unit, the HTML document, is received before other objects, and it then triggers the request. Any subsequent request triggers a whole new base document, thereby guaranteeing order. Ajax takes such implicit ordering away, however, so that an application dependent on proper sequencing requires a response queue. Ajax frameworks, however, are not consistent in acknowledging this network concern. So, again, make sure Ajax application developers understand such network-level concerns.

8) Acknowledge the effects of eliminating "Layer 8" error correction

For years, users have been correcting Web-delivery quality by reloading pages or pressing the Back button. Simply put, users doing this help mitigate network problems because errors occur generally at expected moments between page paints. With Ajax, however, application failure is no longer that obvious. Worse yet, users often are misinformed about errors, because the simple, animated-GIF spinning circle provides little information about the true status of the request.

Developers are at a loss because many libraries aren't effective at acknowledging that timeouts happen, retries must occur, and server and data errors crop up. JavaScript diagnostics showing communication and code errors are rarely in place on the client side, so blissful ignorance is the norm. More application-level monitoring is required for administrators to support Ajax properly.

9) Old security threats get a second exposure

If you listen to the pundits, Ajax may appear to produce more attack surface, but it really isn't any less secure than traditional Web-application development environments, because the HTTP inputs to the trusted server side are the same — headers, query string and message body. If implicitly trusting client-side code and entered data is not verboten already in your Web development group, however, Ajax may push things in that direction.

Cross-site scripting (XSS) isn't a vulnerability new with Ajax; it is just more common, especially if an application allows state data to be manipulated with JavaScript. HTML input should be disallowed in most cases, and HTTP Only Cookies should be applied immediately to reduce cookie hijacking and other attacks via XSS.

Cross Site Request Forgery likewise isn't new with Ajax, but if your application developers aren't checking the HTTP Referer (sic) header and managing sessions properly within Ajax applications, you've already been open to it, although it might be worse now.

Hackers, like developers, now are more interested in using and abusing JavaScript, which increases the potential for exploits. Network professionals should make sure developers are aware that client-side code can be manipulated even with obfuscation in place, so data inputs should always be filtered and sanitized, Ajax or not.

10) Abide by same origin for your protection

On the positive side of security, JavaScript's same-origin policy (SOP) is fully enforced in an XMLHttpRequest-based Ajax application. This policy makes sure that scripts cannot talk to domains outside of those from which they are issued. From the developer's point of view, this can be quite annoying because it means that pages served, for example, from ajaxref.com can't talk to a URL hosted on www.ajaxref.com; even if it is the same machine, it isn't the same exact domain. DNS equivalency doesn't matter here; it is a string-check employed by the SOP.

The SOP will severely hamper a developer's ability to perform some Web-service efforts on the client side as well. Clearly the best approach is to use a proxy on the server to bounce requests to other servers and combine the results. However, many Ajax developers attempt to break the same-origin restrictions. Using the <script> tag as a transport instead of the XMLHttpRequest object introduces dangerous trust assumptions, and that leads to the origin of much of the concern about overall Ajax security.

Now, with such browsers emerging as Firefox 3 and Internet Explorer 8 employing native cross-domain request facilities, there is certain to be more trouble on the horizon. As is the case with Java's security-sandbox concept, SOP restrictions are introduced just to keep developers from destroying security. Go around such safeguards with extreme caution.

Watch what you wish for

With Ajax, rich-application widgets will win a project, but bad plumbing may sink it. If the promise of a rich Ajax application is delivered in a network environment that is occasionally fragile, users will become disillusioned with the perceived instability of the application regardless of its slick interface. To enable desktop-like quality, network professionals must educate Ajax developers about certain network and security fundamentals and provide a solid and constantly monitored delivery platform that includes client-side diagnostics on JavaScript functioning and network performance from the user perspective. Users regularly see rich Web applications done right — like those coming from Google, for example — so anything less is a risky endeavor.

Powell is the founder of PINT, a San Diego Web development and consulting firm and the author of the recently published Ajax: The Complete Reference (ajaxref.com). He is also a member of the Network World Lab Alliance and can be reached at tpowell@pint.com.

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