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17. HTTP Overview

HTTP Basics
Client Requests
Server Responses

The Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) is the language that Web clients and Web servers use to communicate with each other. It is essentially the backbone of the Web.

While HTTP is largely the realm of server and client programming, a firm understanding of HTTP is also important for CGI programming. In addition, sometimes HTTP filters back to the users--for example, when server error codes are reported in a browser window. In this book, we cover HTTP in four chapters:

17.1 HTTP Basics

All HTTP transactions follow the same general format. Each client request and server response has three parts: the request or response line, a header section, and the entity body. The client initiates a transaction as follows:

  1. The client contacts the server at a designated port number (by default, 80). Then it sends a document request by specifying an HTTP command called a method, followed by a document address, and an HTTP version number. For example:

    GET /index.html HTTP/1.0

    uses the GET method to request the document index.html using version 1.0 of HTTP. HTTP methods are discussed in more detail later in this chapter.

  2. Next, the client sends optional header information to inform the server of its configuration and the document formats it will accept. All header information is given line by line, each with a header name and value. Chapter 19, HTTP Headers lists the valid HTTP headers. For example, this header information sent by the client indicates its name and version number and specifies several document preferences:

    User-Agent: Mozilla/2.02Gold (WinNT; I)
    Accept: image/gif, image/x-xbitmap, image/jpeg, image/pjpeg, */*

    The client sends a blank line to end the header.

  3. After sending the request and headers, the client may send additional data. This data is mostly used by CGI programs using the POST method. It may also be used by clients like Netscape Navigator-Gold, to publish an edited page back onto the Web server.

The server responds in the following way to the client's request:

  1. The server replies with a status line containing three fields: HTTP version, status code, and description. The HTTP version indicates the version of HTTP that the server is using to respond. The status code is a three digit number that indicates the server's result of the client's request. The description following the status code is just human-readable text that describes the status code. For example, this status line:

    HTTP/1.0 200 OK

    indicates that the server uses version 1.0 of HTTP in its response. A status code of 200 means that the client's request was successful and the requested data will be supplied after the headers. Chapter 18, Server Response Codes contains a listing of the status codes and their descriptions.

  2. After the status line, the server sends header information to the client about itself and the requested document. HTTP headers are covered in Chapter 19, HTTP Headers. For example:

    Date: Fri, 20 Sep 1996 08:17:58 GMT
    Server: NCSA/1.5.2
    Last-modified: Mon, 17 Jun 1996 21:53:08 GMT
    Content-type: text/html
    Content-length: 2482

    A blank line ends the header.

  3. If the client's request is successful, the requested data is sent. This data may be a copy of a file, or the response from a CGI program. If the client's request could not be fulfilled, additional data may be a human-readable explanation of why the server could not fulfill the request.

    In HTTP 1.0, after the server has finished sending the requested data, it disconnects from the client and the transaction is over unless a Connection: Key Admin header is sent. In HTTP 1.1, however, the default is for the server to maintain the connection and allow the client to make additional requests. Since many documents embed other documents as inline images, frames, applets, etc., this saves the overhead of the client having to repeatedly connect to the same server just to draw a single page. Under HTTP 1.1, therefore, the transaction might cycle back to the beginning, until either the client or server explicitly closes the connection.

    Being a stateless protocol, HTTP does not maintain any information from one transaction to the next, so the next transaction needs to start all over again. The advantage is that an HTTP server can serve a lot more clients in a given period of time, since there's no additional overhead for tracking sessions from one connection to the next. The disadvantage is that more elaborate CGI programs need to use hidden input fields (as described in Chapter 10, HTML Form Tags) or external tools such as Netscape cookies (as described in Chapter 12, Cookies) to maintain information from one transaction to the next.

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