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Working with URLs
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12.4 Writing a Protocol Handler

A URL object uses a protocol handler to establish a connection with a server and perform whatever protocol is necessary to retrieve data. For example, an HTTP protocol handler knows how to talk to an HTTP server and retrieve a document; an FTP protocol handler knows how to talk to an FTP server and retrieve a file. All types of URLs use protocol handlers to access their objects. Even the lowly "file" type URLs use a special "file" protocol handler that retrieves files from the local filesystem. The data a protocol handler retrieves is then fed to an appropriate content handler for interpretation.

While we refer to a protocol handler as a single entity, it really has two parts: a java.net.URLStreamHandler and a java.net.URLConnection. These are both abstract classes we will subclass to create our protocol handler. (Note that these are abstract classes, not interfaces. Although they contain abstract methods we are required to implement, they also contain many utility methods we can use or override.) The URL looks up an appropriate URLStreamHandler, based on the protocol component of the URL. The URLStreamHandler then finishes parsing the URL and creates a URLConnection when it's time to communicate with the server. The URLConnection represents a single connection with a server, and implements the communication protocol itself.

12.4.1 Locating Protocol Handlers

Protocol handlers are organized in a package hierarchy similar to content handlers. But unlike content handlers, which are grouped into packages by the MIME types of the objects that they handle, protocol handlers are given individual packages. Both parts of the protocol handler (the URLStreamHandler class and the URLConnection class) are located in a package named for the protocol they support.

For example, if we wrote an FTP protocol handler, we might put it in an exploringjava.protocolhandlers.ftp package. The URLStreamHandler is placed in this package and given the name Handler; all URLStreamHandlers are named Handler and distinguished by the package in which they reside. The URLConnection portion of the protocol handler is placed in the same package and can be given any name. There is no need for a naming convention because the corresponding URLStreamHandler is responsible for creating the URLConnection objects it uses.

As with content handlers, Java locates packages containing protocol handlers using the java.protocol.handler.pkgs system property. The value of this property is a list of package names; if more than one package is in the list, use a vertical bar (|) to separate them. For our example, we will set this property to include exploringjava.protocolhandlers.

12.4.2 URLs, Stream Handlers, and Connections

The URL, URLStreamHandler, URLConnection, and ContentHandler classes work together closely. Before diving into an example, let's take a step back, look at the parts a little more, and see how these things communicate. Figure 12.4 shows how these components relate to each other.

Figure 12.4: The protocol handler machinery

Figure 12.4

We begin with the URL object, which points to the resource we'd like to retrieve. The URLStreamHandler helps the URL class parse the URL specification string for its particular protocol. For example, consider the following call to the URL constructor:

URL url = new URL("protocol://foo.bar.com/file.ext"); 

The URL class parses only the protocol component; later, a call to the URL class's getContent() or openStream() method starts the machinery in motion. The URL class locates the appropriate protocol handler by looking in the protocol-package hierarchy. It then creates an instance of the appropriate URLStreamHandler class.

The URLStreamHandler is responsible for parsing the rest of the URL string, including hostname and filename, and possibly an alternative port designation. This allows different protocols to have their own variations on the format of the URL specification string. Note that this step is skipped when a URL is constructed with the "protocol," "host," and "file" components specified explicitly. If the protocol is straightforward, its URLStreamHandler class can let Java do the parsing and accept the default behavior. For this illustration, we'll assume that the URL string requires no special parsing. (If we use a nonstandard URL with a strange format, we're responsible for parsing it ourselves, as I'll show shortly.)

The URL object next invokes the handler's openConnection() method, prompting the handler to create a new URLConnection to the resource. The URLConnection performs whatever communications are necessary to talk to the resource and begins to fetch data for the object. At that time, it also determines the MIME type of the incoming object data and prepares an InputStream to hand to the appropriate content handler. This InputStream must send "pure" data with all traces of the protocol removed.

The URLConnection also locates an appropriate content handler in the content-handler package hierarchy. The URLConnection creates an instance of a content handler; to put the content handler to work, the URLConnection's getContent() method calls the content handler's getContent() method. If this sounds confusing, it is: we have three getContent() methods calling each other in a chain. The newly created ContentHandler object then acquires the stream of incoming data for the object by calling the URLConnection's getInputStream() method. (Recall that we acquired an InputStream in our x_tar content handler.) The content handler reads the stream and constructs an object from the data. This object is then returned up the getContent() chain: from the content handler, the URLConnection, and finally the URL itself. Now our application has the desired object in its greedy little hands.

To summarize, we create a protocol handler by implementing a URLStreamHandler class that creates specialized URLConnection objects to handle our protocol. The URLConnection objects implement the getInputStream() method, which provides data to a content handler for construction of an object. The base URLConnection class implements many of the methods we need; therefore, our URLConnection needs only to provide the methods that generate the data stream and return the MIME type of the object data.

Okay. If you're not thoroughly confused by all that terminology (or even if you are), let's move on to the example. It should help to pin down what all these classes are doing.

12.4.3 The crypt Handler

In this section, we'll build a crypt protocol handler. It parses URLs of the form:


type is an identifier that specifies what kind of encryption to use. The protocol itself is a simplified version of HTTP; we'll implement the GET command and no more. I added the type identifier to the URL to show how to parse a nonstandard URL specification. Once the handler has figured out the encryption type, it dynamically loads a class that implements the chosen encryption algorithm and uses it to retrieve the data. Obviously, we don't have room to implement a full-blown public-key encryption algorithm, so we'll use the rot13InputStream class from Chapter 10. It should be apparent how the example can be extended by plugging in a more powerful encryption class.

The Encryption class

First, we'll lay out our plug-in encryption class. We'll define an abstract class called CryptInputStream that provides some essentials for our plug-in encrypted protocol. From the CryptInputStream we'll create a subclass called rot13CryptInputStream, that implements our particular kind of encryption:

package exploringjava.protocolhandlers.crypt;

import java.io.*;
abstract class CryptInputStream extends InputStream {
    InputStream in;
    OutputStream out;
    abstract public void set( InputStream in, OutputStream out );
class rot13CryptInputStream extends CryptInputStream {
    public void set( InputStream in, OutputStream out ) {
        this.in = new exploringjava.io.rot13InputStream( in );
    public int read() throws IOException {
        return in.read();

Our CryptInputStream class defines a method called set() that passes in the InputStream it's to translate. Our URLConnection calls set() after creating an instance of the encryption class. We need a set() method because we want to load the encryption class dynamically, and we aren't allowed to pass arguments to the constructor of a class when it's dynamically loaded. (We noticed this same issue in our content handler previously.) In the encryption class, we also provide for the possibility of an OutputStream. A more complex kind of encryption might use the OutputStream to transfer public-key information. Needless to say, rot13 doesn't, so we'll ignore the OutputStream here.

The implementation of rot13CryptInputStream is very simple. set() just takes the InputStream it receives and wraps it with the rot13InputStream filter. read() reads filtered data from the InputStream, throwing an exception if set() hasn't been called.

The URLStreamHandler

Next we'll build our URLStreamHandler class. The class name is Handler; it extends the abstract URLStreamHandler class. This is the class the Java URL looks up by converting the protocol name (crypt) into a package name. Remember that Java expects this class to be named Handler, and to live in a package named for the protocol type.

package exploringjava.protocolhandlers.crypt;

import java.io.*;
import java.net.*;

public class Handler extends URLStreamHandler {

    protected void parseURL(URL url, String spec, int start, int end) {
        int slash = spec.indexOf('/');
        String crypType = spec.substring(start, slash-1);
        super.parseURL(url, spec, slash, end);
        setURL( url, "crypt:"+crypType, url.getHost(), 
            url.getPort(), url.getFile(), url.getRef() );

    protected URLConnection openConnection(URL url) throws IOException {
        String crypType = url.getProtocol().substring(6);
        return new CryptURLConnection( url, crypType );

Java creates an instance of our URLStreamHandler when we create a URL specifying the crypt protocol. Handler has two jobs: to assist in parsing the URL specification strings and to create CryptURLConnection objects when it's time to open a connection to the host.

Our parseURL() method overrides the parseURL() method in the URLStreamHandler class. It's called whenever the URL constructor sees a URL requesting the crypt protocol. For example:

URL url = new URL("crypt:rot13://foo.bar.com/file.txt"); 

parseURL() is passed a reference to the URL object, the URL specification string, and starting and ending indexes that show what portion of the URL string we're expected to parse. The URL class has already identified the simple protocol name; otherwise, it wouldn't have found our protocol handler. Our version of parseURL() retrieves our type identifier from the specification and stores it temporarily in the variable cryptype. To find the encryption type, we take everything between the starting index we were given and the character preceding the first slash in the URL string (i.e., everything up to the colon in ://). We then defer to the superclass parseURL() method to complete the job of parsing the URL after that point. We call super.parseURL() with the new start index, so that it points to the character just after the type specifier. This tells the superclass parseURL() that we've already parsed everything prior to the first slash, and it's responsible for the rest. Finally we use the utility method setURL() to put together the final URL. Most everything has already been set correctly for us, but we need to call setURL() to add our special type to the protocol identifier. We'll need this information later when someone wants to open the URL connection.

Before going on, we'll note two other possibilities. If we hadn't hacked the URL string for our own purposes by adding a type specifier, we'd be dealing with a standard URL specification. In this case, we wouldn't need to override parseURL(); the default implementation would have been sufficient. It could have sliced the URL into host, port, and filename components normally. On the other hand, if we had created a completely bizarre URL format, we would need to parse the entire string. There would be no point calling super.parseURL(); instead, we'd have called the URLStreamHandler's protected method setURL() to pass the URL's components back to the URL object.

The other method in our Handler class is openConnection(). After the URL has been completely parsed, the URL object calls openConnection() to set up the data transfer. openConnection() calls the constructor for our URLConnection with appropriate arguments. In this case, our URLConnection object is named CryptURLConnection, and the constructor requires the URL and the encryption type as arguments. parseURL() put the encryption type in the protocol identifier of the URL. We recognize this and pass the information along. openConnection() returns the reference to our URLConnection, which the URL object uses to drive the rest of the process.

The URLConnection

Finally, we reach the real guts of our protocol handler, the URLConnection class. This is the class that opens the socket, talks to the server on the remote host, and implements the protocol itself. This class doesn't have to be public, so you can put it in the same file as the Handler class we just defined. We call our class CryptURLConnection; it extends the abstract URLConnection class. Unlike ContentHandler and StreamURLConnection, whose names are defined by convention, we can call this class anything we want; the only class that needs to know about the URLConnection is the URLStreamHandler, which we wrote ourselves.

class CryptURLConnection extends URLConnection {
    static int defaultPort = 80;
    CryptInputStream cis;

    public String getContentType() {
        return guessContentTypeFromName( url.getFile() );

    CryptURLConnection ( URL url, String crypType ) throws IOException {
        super( url );
        try {
            String classname = "exploringjava.protocolhandlers.crypt." 
                + crypType + "CryptInputStream";
            cis = (CryptInputStream)Class.forName(classname).newInstance();
        } catch ( Exception e ) { 
            throw new IOException("Crypt Class Not Found: "+e);

    public void connect() throws IOException { 
        int port = ( url.getPort() == -1 ) ? defaultPort : url.getPort();
        Socket s = new Socket( url.getHost(), port );

        // Send the filename in plaintext
        OutputStream server = s.getOutputStream();
        new PrintWriter( new OutputStreamWriter( server, "8859_1" ), true
            ).println( "GET " + url.getFile() );

        // Initialize the CryptInputStream
        cis.set( s.getInputStream(), server );
        connected = true;

    public InputStream getInputStream() throws IOException {
        if (!connected)
        return ( cis ); 

The constructor for our CryptURLConnection class takes as arguments the destination URL and the name of an encryption type. We pass the URL on to the constructor of our superclass, which saves it in a protected url instance variable. We could have saved the URL ourselves, but calling our parent's constructor shields us from possible changes or enhancements to the base class. We use crypType to construct the name of an encryption class, using the convention that the encryption class is in the same package as the protocol handler (i.e., exploringjava.protocolhandlers.crypt); its name is the encryption type followed by the suffix CryptInputStream.

Once we have a name, we need to create an instance of the encryption class. To do so, we use the static method Class.forName() to turn the name into a Class object and newInstance() to load and instantiate the class. (This is how Java loads the content and protocol handlers themselves.) newInstance() returns an Object; we need to cast it to something more specific before we can work with it. Therefore, we cast it to our CryptInputStream class, the abstract class that rot13CryptInputStream extends. If we implement any additional encryption types as extensions to CryptInputStream and name them appropriately, they will fit into our protocol handler without modification.

We do the rest of our setup in the connect() method of the URLConnection. There, we make sure we have an encryption class and open a Socket to the appropriate port on the remote host. getPort() returns -1 if the URL doesn't specify a port explicitly; in that case we use the default port for an HTTP connection (port 80). We ask for an OutputStream on the socket, assemble a GET command using the getFile() method to discover the filename specified by the URL, and send our request by writing it into the OutputStream. (For convenience, we wrap the OutputStream with a PrintWriter and call println() to send the message.) We then initialize the CryptInputStream class by calling its set() method and passing it an InputStream from the Socket and the OutputStream.

The last thing connect() does is set the boolean variable connected to true. connected is a protected variable inherited from the URLConnection class. We need to track the state of our connection because connect() is a public method. It's called by the URLConnection's getInputStream() method, but it could also be called by other classes. Since we don't want to start a connection if one already exists, we check connected first.

In a more sophisticated protocol handler, connect() would also be responsible for dealing with any protocol headers that come back from the server. In particular, it would probably stash any important information it can deduce from the headers (e.g., MIME type, content length, time stamp) in instance variables, where it's available to other methods. At a minimum, connect() strips the headers from the data so the content handler won't see them. I'm being lazy and assuming that we'll connect to a minimal server, like the modified TinyHttpd daemon I discuss below, which doesn't bother with any headers.

The bulk of the work has been done; a few details remain. The URLConnection's getContent() method needs to figure out which content handler to invoke for this URL. In order to compute the content handler's name, getContent() needs to know the resource's MIME type. To find out, it calls the URLConnection's getContentType() method, which returns the MIME type as a String. Our protocol handler overrides getContentType(), providing our own implementation.

The URLConnection class provides a number of tools to help determine the MIME type. It's possible that the MIME type is conveyed explicitly in a protocol header; in this case, a more sophisticated version of connect() would have stored the MIME type in a convenient location for us. Some servers don't bother to insert the appropriate headers, though, so you can use the method guessContentTypeFromName() to examine filename extensions, like .gif or .html, and map them to MIME types. In the worst case, you can use guessContentTypeFromStream() to intuit the MIME type from the raw data. The Java developers call this method "a disgusting hack" that shouldn't be needed, but that is unfortunately necessary in a world where HTTP servers lie about content types and extensions are often nonstandard. We'll take the easy way out and use the guessContentTypeFromName() utility of the URLConnection class to determine the MIME type from the filename extension of the URL we are retrieving.

Once the URLConnection has found a content handler, it calls the content handler's getContent() method. The content handler then needs to get an InputStream from which to read the data. To find an InputStream, it calls the URLConnection's getInputStream() method. getInputStream() returns an InputStream from which its caller can read the data after protocol processing is finished. It checks whether a connection is already established; if not, it calls connect() to make the connection. Then it returns a reference to our CryptInputStream.

A final note on getting the content type: the URLConnection's default getContentType() calls getHeaderField(), which is presumably supposed to extract the named field from the protocol headers (it would probably spit back information connect() had stored away). But the default implementation of getHeaderField() just returns null; we would have to override it to make it do anything interesting. Several other connection attributes use this mechanism, so in a more general implementation, we'd probably override getHeaderField() rather than getContentType() directly.

Trying it out

Let's try out our new protocol! Compile all of the classes and put them in the exploringjava.protocolhandlers package somewhere in your class path. Now set the java.protocol.handler.pkgs system property in HotJava to include exploringjava.protocolhandlers. Type a "crypt" style URL for a text document; you should see something like that shown in Figure 12.5.

Figure 12.5: The crypt protocol handler at work

Figure 12.5

This example would be more interesting if we had a rot13 server. Since the crypt protocol is nothing more than HTTP with some encryption added, we can make a rot13 server by modifying one line of the TinyHttpd server we developed earlier, so that it spews its files in rot13. Just change the line that reads the data from the file; replace this line:

f.read( data ); 

with a line that reads through a rot13InputStream:

new example.io.rot13InputStream( f ).read( data ); 

We'll assume you placed the rot13InputStream example in a package called exploringjava.io, and that it's somewhere in your class path. Now recompile and run the server. It automatically encodes the files before sending them; our sample application decodes them on the other end.

We hope that this example and the rest of this chapter have given you some food for thought. Content and protocol handlers are among the most exciting ideas in Java. It's unfortunate that we have to wait for future releases of HotJava and Netscape to take full advantage of them. In the meantime, you can experiment and implement your own applications.

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