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[whatwg] html5 state handling: overview and extensions

From: Mike Wilson <mikewse@hotmail.com>
Date: Mon, 15 Jun 2009 15:33:22 +0200
Message-ID: <BAY116-DAV4E7DCE878C73F3048D352A43E0@phx.gbl>
INTRODUCTION

HTML5 provides a number of constructs to transfer and manage 
application state. In this post I attempt to classify these 
constructs in a consistent manner to identify what kinds of state 
management is taken care of, and what is not. My goal is to 
discuss the uncovered areas to see if we can address them with 
suitable additions to HTML5.


DEFINITIONS

State
  To simplify this overview I limit myself to only addressing 
  internal state that the application stores to keep track of the 
  user's interaction with it, and that isn't directly accessible by
  the user. 

  This means f ex that hidden input fields are included in this 
  overview (as these usually represent some internal state) but 
  editable input fields are not (as these correspond more to page 
  parameters than page state). I know this distinction may not be 
  perfect, and at some point we might want to include the other 
  parts, but I think it is good to start out with these 
  restrictions.

  State can be stored in many different ways, and many different 
  things can be regarded as state, so consider the below scenario 
  to understand what I regard as state in this post:
  - a user makes some navigation action that makes the browser 
    navigate to, and request http://host/page1
  - when returning the response for page1, the server may include 
    some state ("ServerState") to be stored in the browser through
    some state construct
  - during the lifetime of the returned page in the browser, 
    additional state may be produced by script ("ScriptState") and
    stored by some other state construct
  - to qualify as state constructs in this overview, the constructs
    used to store ServerState and ScriptState above should support
    that the state survives the following actions:
    . navigating away from, and then back again, to the current 
      session history entry in the browsing context, including 
      scenarios where the document objects have been discarded in 
      the meantime
    . page reload/refresh of the current page (this follows from 
      the first point)
    (there are many other actions that could be mentioned but the 
    above two are enough for this overview)
  State that survives these criteria is "real" state in the 
  browser.

Server-controlled state
  This is state which is created by the server application and then
  transmitted to the browser where it is stored, to later be 
  transparently sent back to the server for identification or 
  processing. As it is under server control it should not rely on 
  script execution in the browser, so state constructs need to have
  a mechanism that both automatically stores the state in browser,
  and automatically transfers it back from browser to server when 
  appropriate. Typically the transfer back and forth between server
  and browser takes place on at least every page request and 
  response.

Script-controlled state
  This is state created and stored by script in the browser. The 
  preservation of state only applies to other script reading the 
  data and any mechanism for transfer back and forth to the server
  is optional.

Scopes
  State can be stored on different scopes, or contexts, to control
  its reach and lifetime. HTML5 offers the following scopes where 
  a higher item on the list encloses lower items:
  - User agent (an application containing a collection of top-level
    browsing contexts)
  - Browsing context (has session history with a number of 
    Documents)
  - Document (corresponds to one page load from server but can be 
    associated with multiple session history entries with different
    navigational states)
  - Session history entry (a single navigational state for a 
    Document)

  Apart from the different scopes, state is also kept separated by
  origin, to not allow different sites to interfere with each 
  other's state. I will just assume origin is in effect for the 
  rest of this post.

User visibility
  For different scenarios it may, or may not, be desired to 
  indicate the current state to the user through the browser user 
  interface. This could f ex mean being part of the URL for 
  bookmarkability etc. It is an advantage if the application author
  can choose between state constructs both with and without user 
  interface exposure.

Request type (http method)
  Some state constructs are unique to a certain http method. In 
  this overview I list GET and POST methods.


FEATURE TABLES

Below are tables comparing properties of different state 
constructs. There are many alternatives to how these tables could 
be organized but I've tried to keep things simple and only add 
columns for the most important properties for this discussion.


SERVER-CONTROLLED STATE

Scope             Visibility  Request : State construct
-----             ----------  -------   ---------------------
user agent,       invisible,  GET     : cookie
user agent,       invisible,  POST    : cookie
browsing context, invisible,  GET     : -
browsing context, invisible,  POST    : -
document,         invisible,  GET     : -
document,         invisible,  POST    : form hidden input *
document,         url,        GET     : url path/query (redir)
document,         url,        POST    : url path/query (redir)

Notes:
- the session history entry scope is not listed here as it is not 
  available to server code
- url-based state is only listed for Document as this isn't 
  applicable to user agent or browsing context

Cookies
  Cookies apply to the user agent level, which typically means all
  browsing contexts belonging to the same process, or in f ex 
  Google Chrome's case, group of processes. Actually, I haven't 
  found any good definition of the relation between user agent and 
  browsing contexts wrt the possibility of multiple user agent 
  instances with their own sets of browsing contexts and cookies. 
  The cookie spec at
  http://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc2965
  only mentions "user agent" in a singular form.

Form hidden input *
  Hidden form data is transferred from server to browser in the 
  response body and is transparently sent back to the server at 
  postback. It is marked with (*) as it violates transparency on history 
  navigation with discarded state, or on page refresh, if the 
  initial page itself was served with POST, due to the "do you 
  want to resubmit?" question asked by browser user interface.
  The resubmission question problem could be mitigated either by 
  allowing the author control over when forms need to ask for 
  resubmission, or by extending GET to allow for invisible state 
  (discussed below) so PRG can be used without losing state.

URL path/query (redirect)
  URL path/query redirects can be used to transfer (small) server 
  state to the browser, f ex:
  . http://host/randomsudoku
  . application determines a suitable sudoku for this user and 
    redirects to:
  . http://host/sudoku?no=72

Browsing context state
  There currently is no support for associating state with a 
  browsing context. Many web application frameworks try to 
  workaround this "multiple windows/tabs" problem, with mixed 
  success. Here's a random link discussing this topic:
  http://www.mail-archive.com/users at myfaces.apache.org/msg50204.html

  Use-cases for browsing_context-oriented state constructs include
  distinguishing between multiple conversations in different 
  windows/tabs, or f ex allowing the the user to be logged in on 
  different accounts in different windows/tabs.

  A naive solution for this would be to add something similar to a
  browser_context-scoped cookie.

Invisible Document state for GET requests
  There currently is no support for associating invisible state 
  with a Document delivered with GET. This is also an area where 
  web frameworks have worked around this problem, and typical 
  workarounds are to use url-based (visible) state or to switch to
  POST instead. See f ex Spring Web Flow for an example on using 
  the url (_flowExecutionId parameter):
  http://www.javalobby.org/articles/spring-webflow/
  or JSF and ASP.NET using "view states" hidden in form posts:
  http://www.dotnetjohn.com/articles.aspx?articleid=71
 
http://books.google.com/books?id=Iv9r-CT6ZwwC&pg=PA20&source=gbs_search_r&ca
d=1_1#PPA20,M1 (see "Saving and restoring state")
  (View state requirements is not an exact match to this topic but
  similar enough to deserve a mention. A typical ugly pattern seen
  together with this is overriding all links in a page with script,
  to submit the form containing the view state to ensure it is sent
  back to server.)

  Use-cases include keeping state for coordinating multiple 
  selections over a number of steps in session history, to restore
  the correct selections when going back or forward in history. 
  Examples of this is found in the second half of this article:
 
http://magazine.redhat.com/2007/10/31/continuing-the-conversation-understand
ing-seam-nested-conversations/

  A naive solution for this would be to add something similar to a
  Document-scoped cookie.


SCRIPT-CONTROLLED STATE

Scope             Visibility : State construct
-----             ----------   ---------------------
user agent,       invisible  : WS localStorage
browsing context, invisible  : window.name, WS sessionStorage
document,         invisible  : -
history entry,    invisible  : history state
history entry,    url,       : url hash

Notes:
- url-based state is only listed for history entries within the 
  same Document as any other url change would navigate away from 
  the current Document with the executing script

WebStorage
  WebStorage's localStorage and sessionStorage take care of the two
  first scopes.

Window.name
  In addition, window.name is actually also a state construct that
  can share data between different Documents in the same browsing 
  context.

History state
  HTML5's History.pushState takes care of invisible state 
  associated with history entries.

URL hash
  Traditional hash urls http://host/page#state take care of url-
  visible state asociated with history entries.

Document state
  There currently is no support for associating script state on the
  Document level. Any state saved in DOM or script global object 
  will be lost on a page reload.

  Use cases would include single-page Ajax applications that want 
  to store data independent of a certain history entry, but at the
  same time not sharing it with other page loads (Documents) of the
  same application in the history of the same browsing context 
  (otherwise sessionStorage could be used).

  Possible solutions would be to add a new "documentStorage" to 
  WebStorage, or to offer a History.setDocumentState method.


I welcome any discussion about the missing pieces, and possible 
solutions, in these state construct listings.

Best regards
Mike Wilson
Received on Monday, 15 June 2009 06:33:22 UTC

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