Customizing the Request

Services like Backslash and RSS work because not a lot of input is needed. The same document is requested repeatedly. This is acceptable for retrieving documents from a file system on a remote server, but sometimes a little more customization is required. The client not only wants to request an XML document. It wants to parameterize that document. For instance, it might want to ask for headlines that include certain keywords or articles posted between two dates. The standard HTTP means of accomplishing this is to place the request parameters in a query string that is either attached to the end of the URL or included as the body of the HTTP request.


There are other ways to encode request parameters. For instance, Amazon let’s you query their database by putting the ISBN number in the path of the URL. However, this requires a relatively specialized HTTP server. The two methods I discuss here are the standard approaches supported by most servers.

Query Strings

A query string is just a list of name=value pairs, much like attributes in an XML document except that the values aren’t quoted and names can be repeated. In a query string, the fields are separated from each other by ampersands. For example, this is a query string with four fields: one named page with the value xml, one named mode with the value stock, one named symbol with the value IBM, and another named symbol with the value SUNW:


The characters allowed in URLs, including their query string parts, are the ASCII letters A to Z in both upper and lower case, the digits 0 through 9 and the punctuation characters - _, ., !, ~, *, ', (, and ). Except for these 71 characters, all other characters used in query string names and values must be x-www-form-urlencoded. ( :, /, &, ?, #, and = can also be used but only in specific roles within the URL. When used as parts of file names or query string values, they have to be encoded too.) In x-www-form-urlencoding, each character is first converted to UTF-8, and then each byte in the UTF-8 representation of that character is replaced by a percent sign and the two-hexadecimal digits that represent that byte.

For example, the dollar sign has Unicode code point 36 or 0x24 in hexadecimal. Its UTF-8 representation is the single byte with that value. Thus it is escaped in URLs as %24. The Greek letter ψ has Unicode code point 968, 3C8 in hexadecimal. It is encoded in UTF-8 as two bytes, 207 and 136. Thus, after converting these bytes to hexadecimal, ψ is encoded as %CF%88. As a special case, the space character can be replaced by the plus sign. Java includes a class that can encode any string in this format. Java 1.2 and later also includes a class that can decode a string in this format.

The simplest way to attach a query string to an HTTP request is to append it to a URL, separated from the rest of the URL by a question mark. For example, the NASDAQ makes quotes available in XML from their server at To request a quote for a stock, you ask the server for the file quotes.dll; and you pass it a query string with three fields: page, mode, and symbol. Set the page field to xml, the mode field to stock, and the symbol field to the stock symbol for the company you’re interested in. For example, to get a quote for Red Hat, you would load the URL into your browser as shown in Figure 2.2. If you’re connecting to the server manually, you would request the document /quote.dll?page=xml&mode=stock&symbol=RHAT like this:

GET /quote.dll?page=xml&mode=stock&symbol=RHAT HTTP/1.0
Accept: text/xml, application/xml
Accept-Language: en, fr;q=0.50
Accept-Charset: ISO-8859-1, utf-8;q=0.66, *;q=0.66

HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Server: Microsoft-IIS/5.0
Date: Mon, 16 Jul 2001 21:51:32 GMT
Content-Length: 2057
Content-Type: text/xml

<?xml version="1.0" ?>
<!DOCTYPE nasdaqamex-dot-com 
  SYSTEM "">
<equity-quote symbol="RHAT" ilx-symbol="RHAT" 
    hyperfeed-symbol="RHAT" telesphere-symbol="RHAT">
<issue-name>Red Hat, Inc.</issue-name>
<issue-type-code>Common Stock</issue-type-code>
<best-bid-price session-type="AfterHours">3.76</best-bid-price>
<best-ask-price session-type="AfterHours">3.86</best-ask-price>
<trade-datetime>20010716 16:00:00</trade-datetime>
 2600 Meridian Parkway</issuer-address-line1-txt>
  Durham NC 27713 USA</issuer-city-state-zip-txt>
<issuer-phone-num> 919-547-0012</issuer-phone-num>
<option-root-symbol symbol=""/>
<tick-code tick-type="last-sale"></tick-code>
<tick-code tick-type="best-bid"></tick-code>
<tick-code tick-type="best-ask"></tick-code>

Figure 2.2. NASDAQ Stock Data Retrieved via a Query String

Most of the hard work here is on the server side. From a client perspective, you just appear to be requesting a file with a slightly different name. This approach to sending a query string to a server is sometimes known as CGI GET, though it’s not necessarily a CGI program that responds to the request. It could be a servlet, a PHP page, an ASP page, or something else.

When the response needs to be customized for different users but the information the client sends to the server isn’t too large, then don’t underestimate the power of CGI GET. It can be simpler to send a query string than a full XML document because you can take advantage of the many client and server side CGI libraries already available to you. The JDK includes standard classes for encoding and decoding data in the x-www-form-urlencoded format. However, limitations in much software does mean that query strings embedded in URLs are limited to about 200 characters. Furthermore, the data they can encode is pretty flat. A query string cannot represent complex, hierarchical structures very well. XML, of course, is ideal for such structures. To encode the request in XML as well as the response, we need to explore an alternative to the GET method called POST.

How POST Works

HTTP GET accounts for 90%+ of normal web browsing. The browser sends a small request for a document and the server sends an HTTP header followed by the requested document, or perhaps an error message. However, when you fill out a form and click the submit button, the process is a little different. In particular if the form uses the POST method, then the browser not only sends the request line and the HTTP header. It also sends the form data as the request body, separated from the header with a blank line. Customarily browsers send an x-www-form-urlencoded query string as the body of the request. A typical POST form submission looks something like this:

POST /cartmgr.cgi HTTP/1.1
User-Agent: Mozilla/5.0 (Windows; U; WinNT4.0; en-US; rv:0.9.2) 
Accept: application/xml, text/html;q=0.9, image/png, */*;q=0.1
Accept-Language: en, fr;q=0.50
Accept-Encoding: gzip,deflate,compress,identity
Accept-Charset: ISO-8859-1, utf-8;q=0.66, *;q=0.66
Keep-Alive: 300
Connection: keep-alive
Content-type: application/x-www-form-urlencoded
Content-Length: 264


Normally you have to send an x-www-form-urlencoded data query string in the body of a POST request because that’s what the server expects, and the CGI program on the server has to be prepared to read x-www-form-url-encoded query strings because that’s what browsers will send. However, if you control both the server and the client, then you aren’t limited to this format. You can send any kind of data you like in the HTTP request body, including a complete XML document! And indeed this is exactly what both XML-RPC and SOAP do.


The class, query strings, x-www-form-urlencoding, the GET and POST methods, HTTP headers, HTTP response codes, and many other aspects of working with HTTP in Java are covered in much more detail in my book [Java Network Programming, O’Reilly & Associates, 2000, ISBN 0-13-089468-0]

Copyright 2001, 2002 Elliotte Rusty Haroldelharo@metalab.unc.eduLast Modified July 26, 2001
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