The introduction of any new Web technology will affect a network's infrastructure in ways that range from inconsequential to earth shattering. Ajax is one of the more disruptive new Web technologies traveling across networks today. To help you minimize future surprises on your network, we've outlined the 10 things you should take to heart about Ajax. (Also see our slideshow illustrating tips for deploying Ajax applications effectively.)
1) Ajax is an idea, not an acronym
3) XML is not required
Of course, it is possible and certainly reasonable to use XML, but it is far from required. Using binary formats for uploading files is not supported yet by the XMLHttpRequest object, but considering that Flash uses a binary format called Action Message Format, it is likely that similar features will be found in Ajax applications soon enough. You should know which format is being passed around the network, because it isn't always XML. Also, make sure you can analyze the format for performance and security.
4) Plan for an increase in HTTP requests
The most obvious issue for the network administrator supporting Ajax applications is that the architectural programming pattern has changed the network utilization of Web applications from a batch-like, somewhat infrequent response of a few hundred kilobytes, to a more continuous exchange of smaller HTTP responses. This means that network-bound Web and application servers may find themselves even busier than before. What Ajax will do to your server and network utilization certainly will depend on how the application is built — make sure your developers understand the network impact of their applications.
5) Optimize Ajax requests carefully
Web applications should adhere to the network delivery principle of sending less data, less often. That doesn't mean that this principle is widely followed by developers, however. Fortunately for the network, HTTP compression of Ajax responses can reduce response size and is supported in all modern browsers. Because of dynamic compression's overhead, however, speed may not improve much if responses are indeed relatively small. This means that it would be wise for network administrators to turn on compression on their Web server, but they need to understand that with Ajax applications, their gains won't be as big as with traditional Web applications.
To send data less often, we generally would employ caching. Most Ajax implementations can be openly hostile to caching, however, given certain assumptions made by browsers regarding not re-fetching URLs during the same session. Rather than work with caching, many Ajax developers will work aggressively to defeat caching via the header setting or URL uniqueness.
6) Acknowledge the two-connection limit
Ajax applications are limited by HTTP to two simultaneous connections to the same URL. This is the way the HTTP protocol is designed, not some browser bug or limitation. The good news is that it keeps many Ajax developers from swamping a server accidentally, though Microsoft's Internet Explorer 8 is supposed to go well beyond the limit. Chatty Ajax applications can be trouble, and with browsers changing the rules, network administrators need to keep a close eye on the number of requests made, and work with application developers to avoid employing such design patterns as fast polling or long-held connections.
7) Watch out for response ordering
With traditional Web applications, the network effects of TCP/IP communications — such as the lack of order in which individual HTTP responses are received — generally are not noticed by developers or users. The base unit, the HTML document, is received before other objects, and it then triggers the request. Any subsequent request triggers a whole new base document, thereby guaranteeing order. Ajax takes such implicit ordering away, however, so that an application dependent on proper sequencing requires a response queue. Ajax frameworks, however, are not consistent in acknowledging this network concern. So, again, make sure Ajax application developers understand such network-level concerns.
8) Acknowledge the effects of eliminating "Layer 8" error correction
For years, users have been correcting Web-delivery quality by reloading pages or pressing the Back button. Simply put, users doing this help mitigate network problems because errors occur generally at expected moments between page paints. With Ajax, however, application failure is no longer that obvious. Worse yet, users often are misinformed about errors, because the simple, animated-GIF spinning circle provides little information about the true status of the request.
9) Old security threats get a second exposure
If you listen to the pundits, Ajax may appear to produce more attack surface, but it really isn't any less secure than traditional Web-application development environments, because the HTTP inputs to the trusted server side are the same — headers, query string and message body. If implicitly trusting client-side code and entered data is not verboten already in your Web development group, however, Ajax may push things in that direction.
Cross Site Request Forgery likewise isn't new with Ajax, but if your application developers aren't checking the HTTP Referer (sic) header and managing sessions properly within Ajax applications, you've already been open to it, although it might be worse now.
10) Abide by same origin for your protection
The SOP will severely hamper a developer's ability to perform some Web-service efforts on the client side as well. Clearly the best approach is to use a proxy on the server to bounce requests to other servers and combine the results. However, many Ajax developers attempt to break the same-origin restrictions. Using the <script> tag as a transport instead of the XMLHttpRequest object introduces dangerous trust assumptions, and that leads to the origin of much of the concern about overall Ajax security.
Now, with such browsers emerging as Firefox 3 and Internet Explorer 8 employing native cross-domain request facilities, there is certain to be more trouble on the horizon. As is the case with Java's security-sandbox concept, SOP restrictions are introduced just to keep developers from destroying security. Go around such safeguards with extreme caution.
Watch what you wish for
Powell is the founder of PINT, a San Diego Web development and consulting firm and the author of the recently published Ajax: The Complete Reference (ajaxref.com). He is also a member of the Network World Lab Alliance and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story, "10 Things IT Needs to Know About Ajax" was originally published by Network World.