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If you really want to take control of the XMLHttpRequest object, consider this one last stop -- add HEAD requests to your repertoire. In the previous two articles, I showed you how to make GET requests; in an upcoming article, you'll learn all about sending data to the server using POST requests. In the spirit of enhanced error handling and information gathering, though, you should learn how to make HEAD requests.

Making the request

Actually making a HEAD request is quite trivial; you simply call the open() method with "HEAD" instead of "GET" or "POST" as the first parameter, as shown in Listing 9.

Listing 9. Make a HEAD request with Ajax
   function getSalesData() {
     var url = "/boards/servlet/UpdateBoardSales";"HEAD", url, true);
     request.onreadystatechange = updatePage;

When you make a HEAD request like this, the server doesn't return an actual response as it would for a GET or POST request. Instead, the server only has to return the headers of the resource which include the last time the content in the response was modified, whether the requested resource exists, and quite a few other interesting informational bits. You can use several of these to find out about a resource before the server has to process and return that resource.

The easiest thing you can do with a request like this is to simply spit out all of the response headers. This gives you a feel for what's available to you through HEAD requests. Listing 10 provides a simple callback function to output all the response headers from a HEAD request.

Listing 10. Print all the response headers from a HEAD request
   function updatePage() {
     if (request.readyState == 4) {

Check out Figure 7, which shows the response headers from a simple Ajax application that makes a HEAD request to a server.

Figure 7. Response headers from a HEAD request
Response headers from a HEAD request

You can use any of these headers (from the server type to the content type) individually to provide extra information or functionality within an Ajax application.

Checking for a URL

You've already seen how to check for a 404 error when a URL doesn't exist. If this turns into a common problem -- perhaps a certain script or servlet is offline quite a bit -- you might want to check for the URL before making a full GET or POST request. To do this, make a HEAD request and then check for a 404 error in your callback function; Listing 11 shows a sample callback.

Listing 11. Check to see if a URL exists
   function updatePage() {
     if (request.readyState == 4) {
       if (request.status == 200) {
         alert("URL exists");
       } else if (request.status == 404) {
         alert("URL does not exist.");
       } else {
         alert("Status is: " + request.status);

To be honest, this has little value. The server has to respond to the request and figure out a response to populate the content-length response header, so you don't save any processing time. Additionally, it takes just as much time to make the request and see if the URL exists using a HEAD request as it does to make the request using GET or POST than just handling errors as shown in Listing 7. Still, sometimes it's useful to know exactly what is available; you never know when creativity will strike and you'll need the HEAD request!

Useful HEAD requests

One area where you'll find a HEAD request useful is to check the content length or even the content type. This allows you to determine if a huge amount of data will be sent back to process a request or if the server will try to return binary data instead of HTML, text, or XML (which are all three much easier to process in JavaScript than binary data).

In these cases, you just use the appropriate header name and pass it to the getResponseHeader() method on the XMLHttpRequest object. So to get the length of a response, just call request.getResponseHeader("Content-Length");. To get the content type, use request.getResponseHeader("Content-Type");.

In many applications, making HEAD requests adds no functionality and might even slow down a request (by forcing a HEAD request to get data about the response and then a subsequent GET or POST request to actually get the response). However, in the event that you are unsure about a script or server-side component, a HEAD request can allow you to get some basic data without dealing with response data or needing the bandwidth to send that response.

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