Handling server responses Ajax tutorial | PREV | NEXT

You made your request, your user is happily working in the Web form, and now the server finishes up handling the request. The server looks at the onreadystatechange property and figures out what method to call. Once that occurs, you can think of your application as any other app, asynchronous or not. In other words, you don't have to take any special action writing methods that respond to the server; just change the form, take the user to another URL, or do whatever else you need to in response to the server. In this section, we'll focus on responding to the server and then taking a typical action -- changing on the fly part of the form the user sees.

Callbacks and Ajax

You've already seen how to let the server know what to do when it's finished: Set the onreadystatechange property of the XMLHttpRequest object to the name of the function to run. Then, when the server has processed the request, it will automatically call that function. You also don't need to worry about any parameters to that method. You'll start with a simple method like in Listing 12.

Listing 12. Code the callback method
<script language="javascript" type="text/javascript">
   var request = false;
   try {
     request = new XMLHttpRequest();
   } catch (trymicrosoft) {
     try {
       request = new ActiveXObject("Msxml2.XMLHTTP");
     } catch (othermicrosoft) {
       try {
         request = new ActiveXObject("Microsoft.XMLHTTP");
       } catch (failed) {
         request = false;

   if (!request)
     alert("Error initializing XMLHttpRequest!");

   function getCustomerInfo() {
     var phone = document.getElementById("phone").value;
     var url = "/cgi-local/lookupCustomer.php?phone=" + escape(phone);
     request.open("GET", url, true);
     request.onreadystatechange = updatePage;

   function updatePage() {
     alert("Server is done!");

This just spits out a handy alert, to tell you when the server is done. Try this code in your own page, save the page, and then pull it up in a browser (if you want the XHTML from this example, refer back to Listing 8). When you enter in a phone number and leave the field, you should see the alert pop up (see Figure 3); but click OK and it pops up again ... and again.

Figure 3. Ajax code popping up an alert
Ajax code popping up an alert

Depending on your browser, you'll get two, three, or even four alerts before the form stops popping up alerts. So what's going on? It turns out that you haven't taken into account the HTTP ready state, an important component of the request/response cycle.

HTTP ready states

Earlier, I said that the server, once finished with a request, looks up what method to call in the onreadystatechange property of XMLHttpRequest. That's true, but it's not the whole truth. In fact, it calls that method every time the HTTP ready state changes. So what does that mean? Well, you've got to understand HTTP ready states first.

An HTTP ready state indicates the state or status of a request. It's used to figure out if a request has been started, if it's being answered, or if the request/response model has completed. It's also helpful in determining whether it's safe to read whatever response text or data that a server might have supplied. You need to know about five ready states in your Ajax applications:

As with almost all cross-browser issues, these ready states are used somewhat inconsistently. You might expect to always see the ready state move from 0 to 1 to 2 to 3 to 4, but in practice, that's rarely the case. Some browsers never report 0 or 1 and jump straight to 2, then 3, and then 4. Other browsers report all states. Still others will report ready state 1 multiple times. As you saw in the last section, the server called updatePage() several times and each invocation resulted in an alert box popping up -- probably not what you intended!

For Ajax programming, the only state you need to deal with directly is ready state 4, indicating that a server's response is complete and it's safe to check the response data and use it. To account for this, the first line in your callback method should be as shown in Listing 13.

Listing 13. Check the ready state
   function updatePage() {
     if (request.readyState == 4)
       alert("Server is done!");

This change checks to ensure that the server really is finished with the process. Try running this version of the Ajax code and you should only get the alert message one time, which is as it should be.

HTTP status codes

Despite the apparent success of the code in Listing 13, there's still a problem -- what if the server responds to your request and finishes processing, but reports an error? Remember, your server-side code should care if it's being called by Ajax, a JSP, a regular HTML form, or any other type of code; it only has the traditional Web-specific methods of reporting information. And in the Web world, HTTP codes can deal with the various things that might happen in a request.

For example, you've certainly entered a request for a URL, typed the URL incorrectly, and received a 404 error code to indicate a page is missing. This is just one of many status codes that HTTP requests can receive as a status 403 and 401, both indicating secure or forbidden data being accessed, are also common. In each of these cases, these are codes that result from a completed response. In other words, the server fulfilled the request (meaning the HTTP ready state is 4), but is probably not returning the data expected by the client.

In addition to the ready state then, you also need to check the HTTP status. You're looking for a status code of 200 which simply means okay. With a ready state of 4 and a status code of 200, you're ready to process the server's data and that data should be what you asked for (and not an error or other problematic piece of information). Add another status check to your callback method as shown in Listing 14.

Listing 14. Check the HTTP status code
   function updatePage() {
     if (request.readyState == 4)
       if (request.status == 200)
         alert("Server is done!");

To add more robust error handling -- with minimal complication -- you might add a check or two for other status codes; check out the modified version of updatePage() in Listing 15.

Listing 15. Add some light error checking
   function updatePage() {
     if (request.readyState == 4)
       if (request.status == 200)
         alert("Server is done!");
       else if (request.status == 404)
         alert("Request URL does not exist");
         alert("Error: status code is " + request.status);

Now change the URL in your getCustomerInfo() to a non-existent URL and see what happens. You should see an alert that tells you the URL you asked for doesn't exist -- perfect! This is hardly going to handle every error condition, but it's a simple change that covers 80 percent of the problems that can occur in a typical Web application.

Reading the response text

Now that you made sure the request was completely processed (through the ready state) and the server gave you a normal, okay response (through the status code), you can finally deal with the data sent back by the server. This is conveniently stored in the responseText property of the XMLHttpRequest object.

Details about what the text in responseText looks like, in terms of format or length, is left intentionally vague. This allows the server to set this text to virtually anything. For instance, one script might return comma-separated values, another pipe-separated values (the pipe is the | character), and another may return one long string of text. It's all up to the server.

In the case of the example used in this article, the server returns a customer's last order and then their address, separated by the pipe symbol. The order and address are both then used to set values of elements on the form; Listing 16 shows the code that updates the display.

Listing 16. Deal with the server's response
   function updatePage() {
     if (request.readyState == 4) {
       if (request.status == 200) {
         var response = request.responseText.split("|");
         document.getElementById("order").value = response[0];
         document.getElementById("address").innerHTML =
           response[1].replace(/\n/g, "
} else alert("status is " + request.status); } }

First, the responseText is pulled and split on the pipe symbol using the JavaScript split() method. The resulting array of values is dropped into response. The first value -- the customer's last order -- is accessed in the array as response[0] and is set as the value of the field with an ID of "order." The second value in the array, at response[1], is the customer's address and it takes a little more processing. Since the lines in the address are separated by normal line separators (the "\n" character), the code needs to replace these with XHTML-style line separators, <br />s. That's accomplished through the use of the replace() function along with a regular expression. Finally, the modified text is set as the inner HTML of a div in the HTML form. The result is that the form suddenly is updated with the customer's information, as you can see in Figure 4.

Figure 4. The Break Neck form after it retrieves customer data
The Break Neck form after it retrieves customer data

Before I wrap up, another important property of XMLHttpRequest is called responseXML. That property contains (can you guess?) an XML response in the event that the server chooses to respond with XML. Dealing with an XML response is quite different than dealing with plain text and involves parsing, the Document Object Model (DOM), and several other considerations. You'll learn more about XML in a future article. Still, because responseXML commonly comes up in discussions surrounding responseText, it's worth mentioning here. For many simple Ajax applications, responseText is all you need, but you'll soon learn about dealing with XML through Ajax applications as well.

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