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CGI Programming on the World Wide Web

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10.8 Magic Cookies

In Chapter 8, we introduced you to some of the problems of working with multiple forms, and presented a few possible solutions. In this chapter, we approach the problem again, using our new familiarity with clients and servers.

An interface consisting of multiple forms presents thorny problems for CGI. How do you remember the information stored on different forms? A normal graphical interface application (running on a local machine) simply displays forms and stores results, as shown in Figure 10.4.

Figure 10.4: A local application handling multiple forms

[Graphic: Figure 10-4]

It is easy to store information from successive forms when a client and a server are not involved. But when you use CGI, the server invokes the program repeatedly each time a form is submitted. Instead of a single running program, you have multiple instances, as shown in Figure 10.5.

Figure 10.5: Multiple forms over a server

[Graphic: Figure 10-5]

The problem you face is how to tell each instance of the program what data was retrieved by the previous runs.

Temporary files are a simple solution, but a messy one. The program has to know which file to read and write each time. Knowing the right file is complicated when multiple users are running the program at the same time. Furthermore, the information is not very secure, because the files are visible on the system. The time required to access the files can slow down the operation. Finally, you have to remember to clean up the files, when the user goes away and does not finish the session.

A much more elegant solution involves a special server whose job is to maintain state for CGI programs. This server runs continuously, like any other server. CGI programs of all types and purposes can use this server to store information. The big advantage that a server has over temporary files is that the data remains in memory. This makes operations faster and keeps the data much more secure.

The heart of the server approach is that a CGI program knows how to retrieve data that a previous instance of the program sent to the server. Each instance of the program needs a kind of handle so it can find the data. To furnish this access, the server associates a unique identifier with each user who runs the CGI program. The program supplies the identifier when it stores the data, and another instance of the program supplies the identifier again to retrieve the data. Given to colorful language, computer people like to call such identifiers "magic cookies." Using a single cookie, a CGI program can keep track of any amount of data. So the server is called a cookie server, while the CGI program is called the cookie client.

Another major problem has to be solved to use cookies. One instance of the CGI program has to pass the cookie to the next instance. If you look at Figure 10.5, you may see the solution in the arrows: Pass the cookie to the next form, and have the form pass it back. This is the solution we will use in this book. When the CGI program builds each form, it embeds the cookie in a hidden field. When the user submits the form, it passes back the hidden field. The new instance of the program, when it starts up, can retrieve the cookie like any other field, and ask the server for the data. The procedure is shown in Figure 10.6.

Figure 10.6: Cookie server interaction with a Web client and server

[Graphic: Figure 10-6]

Let's trace a cookie, and the data associated with it, through a complete session.

This is our strategy. Understanding this, you should not have much trouble following the code that is about to follow.

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