| iMatix home page
| Xitami home page
| << | < | > | >>
Xitami Xitami
Version 2.4d7


Writing Web Server Extension (WSX) Agents

What is WSX?

WSX is the Xitami equivalent of protocols like ASAPI, ISAPI, etc. A WSX program is always written as a multithreaded SMT agent, and is linked into the server executable. Unlike the xxAPI protocols, WSX agents are not loaded at runtime from dynamic link libraries, but are bound into the Xitami executable. This is done mainly to keep things simple, but also because SMT does not support dynamically-loaded agents.

A WSX agent handles some specific type of URL, based on the name of the URL. For example, Xitami comes with two standard WSX agents - xiadmin and xierror - which handle URLs starting with "/admin" and "/error" respectively.

Writing WSX agents is not trivial, but it's worth it for certain kinds of work. If you want to write WSX agents, you should take a good look at the SMT documentation, and study the standard WSX agents. WSX is not a 'fast CGI' protocol. A WSX agent is tightly-bound into the web server, while a CGI program is most definitely not. I'll summarise the differences between a CGI program and a WSX agent:

A WSX agent talks to the web server (actually, the smthttp agent) using a set of messages. When a user asks for a URL that matches WSX agent, smthttp sends the agent a WSX_REQUEST or WSX_REQBIN message. The WSX agent processes the request (which can be a HTTP GET or POST), and replies with a WSX_OK, WSX_MULTIPART, WSX_BIN, WSX_MBIN, WSX_ERROR, WSX_REDIRECT, WSX_RESTART, or WSX_KILL message.

The WSX agent gets a bunch of things from the web server: the URL that was asked for, any arguments, the current HTTP symbol table, and the posted data, if any. In return, it provides either the HTML data to show (for WSX_OK, WSX_MULTIPART, WSX_BIN, or WSX_MBIN), a HTTP error code (for WSX_ERROR), a redirected URL (for WSX_REDIRECT), or nothing (for the other messages).

Writing WSX Programs

Single-threaded or Multithreaded?

Like all SMT agents, a WSX agent is either single-threaded or multithreaded. A single-threaded agent is simpler to write than a multithreaded agent, but is more limited in what it can do. The two WSX agents provided with Xitami are both single-threaded. More complex WSX agents, such as the xilrwp agent, are multithreaded.

The main difference is this: a single-threaded agent can only handle one request at a time. A multithreaded agent can handle dozens or hundreds. If the agent can answer a request with little work, a single-thread can be sufficient. If a request implies some 'slow' work, such as making a connection to another process or computer, or sending some message to another agent and waiting for a reply, a multithreaded agent is better.

In terms of programming, a single-threaded agent needs to use some specific SMT notation (such as setting the SINGLE_THREADED macro to TRUE) and does not handle any thread context. A multithreaded agent in contrast works with a thread context block that contains all data for the thread. You'll find details of this in the SMT documentation, as well as examples of both types of agent in the SMT source code. For example, smthttp itself is a multithreaded agent, while smtsock is single-threaded.

Managing Session Context

There are two broad classes of WSX agent: those which have to handle session context, and those that do not. Examples of agents that require session context are:

Examples of agents that do not require session context are:

HTTP is often described as a 'stateless protocol', but there are in fact several ways to implement state. We can define state as a set of variables that the server (or the WSX agent) needs to distinguish one user from another, and to tell what state the user was in. I generally call this the 'context' for a session. Context is necessary if you want a decent level of security, complexity, and ease of use. One commonly-used way to implement context is cookies. These have a bad press: cookies are too often abused to keep track of users' activity on a website. Another method is to encode the context in the URLs used in the form. For instance, each submit button or URL will invoke the same URL, but with an argument (?xxx) that contains the context data. This has several disadvantages: sensitive information that should be kept internally on the server may be sent to the browser; the HTML stream can become very large; and the arguments sent back to the server can also become very large. It has an advantages too: there is no need to save any kind of data in the server.

My preferred technique is to save the context in allocated memory, and then to encode a key in the URL, using the ?xxx technique. When the WSX agent receives the request, it checks whether the key is present and valid, and if so, continues the session with that data. If not, it can choose to show an error screen or reinitialise the session. The HTML stream is not affected by the size of the context, since all that is transmitted is the session context key.

If you encode session in this way, you need to do a few things if you are building a serious server:

One troublesome problem is the browser Back action. There is no way to disable this, and HTTP/1.1 specifically states that there is no way to change the behaviour of a browser's history (which is what this is). The problem arises because when a user uses the Back action, they can resubmit a form that is no longer meaningful in the current context. One solution that we have used in this situation is to refresh the current form when we detect that the user has a valid session key but an invalid 'step' (i.e. has used the Back action). Another solution is to simply redisplay the main form when this happens. In any case, it's worth educating the user -- if only with a small message on the main form -- that the Back action is not a good idea within these forms.

Messages From smthttp

A WSX agent talks to smthttp. The protocol is strictly binary: smthttp sends a WSX_REQUEST or WSX_REQBIN message to the agent; the agent processes this and sends back a reply. Each request has exactly one reply.

The smtmsg.h and smtmsg.c modules provide functions to send and decode WSX messages (as well as all the other SMT messages). These macros are used to send a message to a WSX agent. Normally only smthttp does this, but you may want to chain WSX agents so that one sends messages to another:

send_wsx_request (
    QID  *to,                       /*  Destination thread queue       */
    char *request_url,              /*  URL for admin request          */
    char *arguments,                /*  URL arguments, if any          */
    char *virtual_host;             /*  Virtual host for request       */
    char *post_data,                /*  POSTed data, if any            */
    word  symbols_size,             /*  HTTP symbol table size         */
    byte *symbols_data              /*  HTTP symbol table data         */

send_wsx_reqbin (
    QID  *to,                       /*  Destination thread queue       */
    char *request_url,              /*  URL for admin request          */
    char *arguments,                /*  URL arguments, if any          */
    char *virtual_host;             /*  Virtual host for request       */
    qbyte post_size,                /*  POSTed data size               */
    byte *post_data,                /*  POSTed data body               */
    word  symbols_size,             /*  HTTP symbol table size         */
    byte *symbols_data              /*  HTTP symbol table data         */

The HTTP symbol table is prepared as for a CGI process. That is, it contains the same CGI fields, and the HTTP header fields under the same conditions. Symbol names are converted to uppercase, with hyphens replaced by underlines. For instance, the 'Content-Type:' header value is held as a symbol called 'CONTENT_TYPE'. This block is stored as a table of strings of the format "name=value" and a single null. The table ends with a null string (two nulls in a row). To convert this block back into a usable symbol table you can use the SFL descr2symb() function (from sflsymb.c). To use this you must first prepare a DESCR block (which holds the size and data in a single structure) as follows:

DESCR symbols;
SYMTAB *symtab;

symbols.size = request-> symbols_size;
symbols.data = request-> symbols_data;
symtab = descr2symb (&symbols);
See below for an explanation of how to get the 'request' structure used in this example.

The virtual_host field is NULL if the request was made to the default host; if the request was made to a virtual host, this field contains the name or ip address of the virtual host as defined in the main config file under the [Virtual-Host] section.

The post_data field contains the POSTed HTTP data, if any. In some cases this data may be placed in a temporary file; in this case the post_data field contains '@filename'. The WSX agent should read the data from this file. It does not need to delete the file: this is done by Xitami automatically.

This is the structure of a WSX request:

typedef struct {
    char *request_url;              /*  URL for admin request          */
    char *arguments;                /*  URL arguments, if any          */
    char *virtual_host;             /*  Virtual host for request       */
    char *post_data;                /*  POSTed data, if any            */
    word  symbols_size;             /*  HTTP symbol table size         */
    byte *symbols_data;             /*  HTTP symbol table data         */
} struct_smt_wsx_request;

To unpack a WSX_REQUEST message into this structure, use this function:

int get_smt_wsx_request (byte *buffer, void **params);

This is the structure of a WSX binary request:

typedef struct {
    char *request_url;              /*  URL for admin request          */
    char *arguments;                /*  URL arguments, if any          */
    char *virtual_host;             /*  Virtual host for request       */
    qbyte post_size;                /*  POSTed data size               */
    byte *post_data;                /*  POSTed data body               */
    word  symbols_size;             /*  HTTP symbol table size         */
    byte *symbols_data;             /*  HTTP symbol table data         */
} struct_smt_wsx_request;

To unpack a WSX_REQBIN message into this structure, use this function:

int get_smt_wsx_reqbin (byte *buffer, void **params);

For example:

    *request = NULL;               /*  Incoming smt_wsx request       */

/*  Decode the WSX request using this standard function call          */
get_smt_wsx_request (thread-> event-> body, (void **) &request);

if (request)
    the_next_event = ok_event;
    /*  The request can only be null if there is no memory left       */
    send_wsx_error (&thread-> event-> sender, HTTP_RESPONSE_OVERLOADED);
    the_next_event = exception_event;

When you've finished with a request, you must deallocate it as follows:

/*  We're finished with the request structure - deallocate it         */
free_smt_wsx_request ((void **) &request);

Messages Back To smthttp

The WSX agent can reply to a WSX_REQUEST or WSX_REQBIN with one of these messages:

The following macros prepare and send reply messages:

send_wsx_ok        (QID *to, char *html_data);
send_wsx_multipart (QID *to, char *html_data);
send_wsx_bin       (QID *to, qbyte html_size, byte *html_data);
send_wsx_mbin      (QID *to, qbyte html_size, byte *html_data);
send_wsx_error     (QID *to, dbyte error_code);
send_wsx_redirect  (QID *to, char *new_url);
send_wsx_restart   (QID *to, char *html_data);
send_wsx_kill      (QID *to, char *html_data);

Note that the 'to' argument in these calls is the queue id of the smthttp agent, which sent the original WSX_REQUEST or WSX_REQBIN message.

The code for unpacking these messages (if you're calling a WSX agent) is similar to that described above for WSX_REQUEST and WSX_REQBIN. You can see the details in smtmsg.h.

The WSX_OK, WSX_MULTIPART, WSX_RESTART, and WSX_KILL messages send 'html_data' to the web server. This data should respect the rules for CGI output. Normally it would be a HTML page, e.g.:

<P>Hello World!

You can also start the data with your own HTTP header fields if necessary, using the traditional blank line to separate the header from the body, e.g.:

Cache-control: no-cache

<P>Hello World!

This argument must be a string, so to transfer binary data, Xitami also understands the syntax '@filename', where filename refers to a temporary file that Xitami will parse, send, then delete. The file should start with a 'Content-Type: some/type' header, followed by a blank line, and the file data. A WSX_BIN or WSX_MBIN message is probably more efficient for transferring binary data, unless you already have a temporary file sitting around.

The WSX_BIN and WSX_MBIN messages send a binary block of data back to the web server. This should be formatted with a Content-Type: header, a blank line, and the binary data as follows:

Content-Type: xxxx/yyyy

..binary data..

Starting From A Skeleton Program

If you start writing a new WSX program, start from a skeleton. The xierror program is a simple example of a single-threaded, context-free WSX agent. This is pretty much the simplest example you can make. You should start by copying xierror.l and xierror.c to new files (keep these extensions).

Like any SMT agent, you start the design phase in the dialog (.l file). Look at the dialog file, either using a text editor, or using the Libero tool (which is amply documented in the Libero documentation from the iMatix web site). You'll need to install Libero to make any changes to the agent.

Modifying The Server main() Function

Before you can test a WSX agent you must install it into the server main() function. This is how the xierror agent is defined in the Xitami program (xitami.c). First, we define a prototype near the start of the program:

int xierror_init (void);         /*  Xitami error simulation agent    */

Then we initialise the xierror agent before starting the main HTTP agent. Here is the code which initialises all the WSX agents, then the main smthttp agent:

xiadmin_init ();                 /*  Xitami administration agent      */
xierror_init ();                 /*  Xitami error simulation agent    */
smthttp_init (rootdir, cgidir);

The order of these initialisation functions can be important. For example, if you want to install dynamic WSX aliases (see below) when your agent initialises, you must add the xxxx_init() call after the call to smthttp_init(). This provides smthttp the opportunity to create its main thread.

The Windows 95 and Windows NT source code is available for individual developers and companies at various prices - contact us for details. You can purchase this if you want to make OEM versions of the Windows servers. The OS/2, UNIX, and OpenVMS source code is supplied with the Xitami source package.

Modifying The Server Config Files

To install a 'static' WSX agent you have to change the config files for the server; add an entry to the [WSX] section like this:

Where 'path' is a single word that identifies all URLs passed to this WSX agent, and 'agent' is the agent name (as defined internally in the agent). You can define a different path per virtual host, or organise your site so that specific WSX agents are only available on specific virtual hosts.

It is also possible to add and remove paths at runtime. There are two macros that do this:

send_wsx_install (QID *to, char *vhost, char *path, char *agent);
send_wsx_cancel  (QID *to, char *vhost, char *path);

Note that the 'to' argument in these calls is the queue id of the smthttp agent. You should use the following style of code to identify this queue id:

THREAD *http_thread;

/*  Find 'main' thread in smthttp agent             */
http_thread = thread_lookup (SMT_HTTP, "main");
ASSERT (http_thread);
send_wsx_install (&http_thread-> queue-> qid, NULL, pattern, AGENT_NAME);

The vhost argument tells the smthttp agent what virtual hosts the WSX agent should be accessible to. If this argument is NULL, the agent will be accessible to all virtual hosts. If the argument is a virtual host name or ip address as defined in the [Virtual-Hosts] section of the config file, the agent will be invisible to other virtual hosts. Note that you can send several WSX_INSTALL messages, for different virtual hosts, if required.

Testing And Debugging The WSX Agent

The best way to test and debug a WSX agent (as for any SMT program) is to use the Libero animator. This is a simple code-generation option (-anim) which causes the agent to display every step it goes through to handle the request. Animation output is sent to the console or to one of the log files, depending on the way you set-up the server.

Since the effects of a bug in a WSX agent will show-up as browser error messages, or other funny reactions, you can also set the server:debug option on. This causes all headers to be logged - a useful way of seeing what is actually being sent back to the browser.

Writing Efficient WSX Agents

The basic rules of multithreaded SMT programming apply. Your program should not block. For example, it'd be a bad idea to try to access a relational database and execute some SQL code. The entire web server would block while the SQL request was being satisfied.

If you need to do database access, there are other, more efficient ways to do this. The best way we know is to work with more than one process; the web server passes requests (transactions) to a second process that handles them one by one. You can scale this model up to very large systems handling tens of transactions per second. This is the type of approach that is well- implemented using a WSX agent.

| << | < | > | >>
| Welcome To Xitami | Table Of Contents | Installing Xitami | Administration | Configuration | Using The Common Gateway Interface (CGI) | Using SSI and Filters | Image Maps | Virtual Hosts | The FTP Service | A Beginner's Guide | Writing Web Server Extension (WSX) Agents | Extending Xitami with External Peer Processes | FAQ | Technical Implementation | Getting Support | Release History | License Agreement
Copyright © 1996-99 iMatix Corporation