Introduction to Ajax

Prototype enables you to deal with Ajax calls in a very easy and fun way that is also safe (cross-browser). Besides simple requests, this module also deals in a smart way with JavaScript code returned from a server and provides helper classes for polling.

Ajax functionality is contained in the global Ajax object. The transport for Ajax requests is XmlHttpRequest, with browser differences safely abstracted from the user. Actual requests are made by creating instances of the Ajax.Request object.

new Ajax.Request('/some_url', { method:'get' });

The first parameter is the URL of the request; the second is the options hash. The method option refers to the HTTP method to be used; default method is POST.

Remember that for security reasons (i.e., preventing cross-site scripting attacks), Ajax requests can only be made to URLs of the same protocol, host and port of the page containing the Ajax request. Some browsers might allow arbitrary URLs, but you shouldn't rely on support for this.

Ajax response callbacks

Ajax requests are by default asynchronous, which means you must have callbacks that will handle the data from a response. Callback methods are passed in the options hash when making a request:

new Ajax.Request('/some_url', {
  method:'get',
  onSuccess: function(transport) {
    var response = transport.responseText || "no response text";
    alert("Success! \n\n" + response);
  },
  onFailure: function() { alert('Something went wrong...'); }
});

Here, two callbacks are passed in the hash that alert of either success or failure; onSuccess and onFailure are called accordingly based on the status of the response. The first parameter passed to both is the native xmlHttpRequest object from which you can use its responseText and responseXML properties, respectively.

You can specify both callbacks, one or none - it's up to you. Other available callbacks are:

  • onUninitialized,
  • onLoading,
  • onLoaded,
  • onInteractive,
  • onComplete, and
  • onException.

They all match a certain state of the xmlHttpRequest transport, except for onException which fires when there was an exception while dispatching other callbacks.

Also available are onXXX callbacks, where XXX is the HTTP response status like 200 or 404. Be aware that, when using those, your onSuccess and onFailure won't fire because onXXX takes precedence, therefore using these means you know what you're doing.

The onUninitialized, onLoading, onLoaded, and onInteractive callbacks are not implemented consistently by all browsers. In general, it's best to avoid using these.

Parameters and the HTTP method

You can pass the parameters for the request as the parameters property in options:

new Ajax.Request('/some_url', {
  method: 'get',
  parameters: {company: 'example', limit: 12}
});

Parameters are passed in as a hash (preferred) or a string of key-value pairs separated by ampersands (like company=example&limit=12).

You can use parameters with both GET and POST requests. Keep in mind, however, that GET requests to your application should never cause data to be changed. Also, browsers are less likely to cache a response to a POST request, but more likely to do so with GET.

One of the primary applications for the parameters property is sending the contents of a FORM with an Ajax request, and Prototype gives you a helper method for this, called Form.serialize:

new Ajax.Request('/some_url', {
  parameters: $('id_of_form_element').serialize(true)
});

If you need to push custom HTTP request headers, you can do so with the requestHeaders option. Just pass name-value pairs as a hash or in a flattened array, like: ['X-Custom-1', 'value', 'X-Custom-2', 'other value'].

If, for some reason, you have to POST a request with a custom post body (not parameters from the parameters option), there is a postBody option exactly for that. Be aware that when using postBody, parameters passed will never be posted because postBody takes precedence as a body - using the option means you know what you're doing.

Evaluating a JavaScript response

Sometimes the application is designed to send JavaScript code as a response. If the content type of the response matches the MIME type of JavaScript then this is true and Prototype will automatically eval() returned code. You don't need to handle the response explicitly if you don't need to.

Alternatively, if the response holds a X-JSON header, its content will be parsed, saved as an object and sent to the callbacks as the second argument:

new Ajax.Request('/some_url', {
  method:'get',
  onSuccess: function(transport, json){
    alert(json ? Object.inspect(json) : "no JSON object");
  }
});

Use this functionality when you want to fetch non-trivial data with Ajax but want to avoid the overhead of parsing XML responses. JSON is much faster (and lighter) than XML.

Global responders

There is an object that is informed about every Ajax request: Ajax.Responders. With it, you can register callbacks that will fire on a certain state of any Ajax.Request issued:

Ajax.Responders.register({
  onCreate: function(){
    alert('a request has been initialized!');
  }, 
  onComplete: function(){
    alert('a request completed');
  }
});

Every callback matching an xmlHttpRequest transport state is allowed here, with an addition of onCreate. Globally tracking requests like this can be useful in many ways: you can log them for debugging purposes using a JavaScript logger of your choice or make a global exception handler that informs the users of a possible connection problem.

Updating your page dynamically with Ajax.Updater

Developers often want to make Ajax requests to receive HTML fragments that update parts of the document. With Ajax.Request with an onComplete callback this is fairly easy, but with Ajax.Updater it's even easier!

Suppose you have this code in your HTML document:

<h2>Our fantastic products</h2>
<div id="products">(fetching product list ...)</div>

The 'products' container is empty and you want to fill it with HTML returned from an Ajax response. No problem:

new Ajax.Updater('products', '/some_url', { method: 'get' });

That's all, no more work. The arguments are the same of Ajax.Request, except there is the receiver element in the first place. Prototype will automagically update the container with the response using the Element.update() method.

If your HTML comes with inline scripts, they will be stripped by default. You'll have to pass true as the evalScripts option in order to see your scripts being executed.

But what if an error occurs, and the server returns an error message instead of HTML? Often you don't want insert errors in places where users expected content. Fortunately, Prototype provides a convenient solution: instead of the actual container as the first argument you can pass in a hash of 2 different containers in this form: { success:'products', failure:'errors' }. Content will be injected in the success container if all went well, but errors will be written to the failure container. By using this feature your interfaces can become much more user-friendly.

You might also choose not to overwrite the current container contents, but insert new HTML on top or bottom like you would do with Insertion.Top or Insertion.Bottom. Well, you can. Just pass the insertion object as the insertion parameter to Ajax:

new Ajax.Updater('products', '/some_url', {
  method: 'get',
  insertion: Insertion.Top
});

Ajax.Updater will use the given object to make the insertion of returned HTML in the container ('products') element. Nifty.

Automate requests with the Ajax.PeriodicalUpdater

You find the Ajax.Updater cool, but want to run it in periodical intervals to repeatedly fetch content from the server? Prototype framework has that, too - it's called Ajax.PeriodicalUpdater, and basically it's running Ajax.Updater at regular intervals.

new Ajax.PeriodicalUpdater('products', '/some_url', {
  method: 'get',
  insertion: Insertion.Top,
  frequency: 1,
  decay: 2
});

Two new options here are frequency and decay. Frequency is the interval in seconds at which the requests are to be made. Here, it's 1 second, which means we have an Ajax request every second. The default frequency is 2 seconds. Our users might be happy because the responsiveness of the application, but our servers might be taking quite a load if enough people leave their browsers open on the page for quite some time. That's why we have the decay option — it is the factor by which the frequency is multiplied every time when current response body is the same as previous one. First Ajax request will then be made in 1 second, second in 2, third in 4 seconds, fourth in 8 and so on. Of course, if the server always returns different content, decay will never take effect; this factor only makes sense when your content doesn't change so rapidly and your application tends to return the same content over and over.

Having frequency falloff can take the load off the servers considerably because the overall number of requests is reduced. You can experiment with this factor while monitoring server load, or you can turn it off completely by passing 1 (which is default) or simply omitting it.

Move along

Learn more about Ajax.Request, Ajax.Updater and Ajax options.