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JDC pull-down menu

Recently the Java Developer Connection (JDC) added convenient navigation to all of its pages. Some of those links sit within pull-down menus to save space on the left hand side of the screen. The menus are typical JavaScript menus, but presented two common problems:

  • JavaScript does not work if the browser cannot support it.
  • JavaScript does not work if the client has the JavaScript option toggled off.

Server-side help was needed for the pull-down menu to ensure JDC users could get to a chosen destination. If you have JavaScript toggled off and select a menu item, you then click the Go button, which calls servlet that sends the client to the requested page.

Java Servlet technology handles this functionality. Servlets enable client/server communication, and because they're written in the Java programming language, they can use the power of the core Java APIs.

This article discusses:

  • Servlet basics, such as the servlet life cycle, the relationship between the form and servlet, and the methods overridden for functionality.
  • How to write a URL redirection servlet, using the JDC RedirectServlet as an example

Some knowledge of Java programming language syntax is necessary to follow the examples, and a basic understanding of HTML is assumed, though the HTML code for the examples is provided. If you need to learn or brush up on basic Java programming syntax, please refer to Trail: Learning the Java Language,or other sections of the New-to-Java Programming Center.


What You Need to Write Servlets

As server-side applications written in the Java programming language, servlets can create interactive web pages, process forms, search web sites, manage sessions, cookies, and logins, and provide back-up for other technologies such as JavaScript.

To develop and test servlets, you will need special software and editing tools:

  • Java2 Platform, Standard Edition, version 1.2.
    This is needed for writing most types of applications written in the Java programming language.

  • Tomcat@Jakarta
    This download enables you to run servlets and JavaServer Pages for development and testing.

  • JavaServer Web Development Kit
    Develop and test your servlets and JavaServer Pages with this download.

  • A simple text editor like TextPad or Notepad, or one that comes with HTML development software.

To run servlets on a server, you will need a Java technology-enabled server with a standalone, add-on, or embedded servlet engine.

Servlet Life Cycle Basics

Servlets versus CGI Scripts What can be done with a servlet can also be done with a CGI script, but servlets have a distinct, important advantage--once a servlet is invoked, it is NOT necessary to start a new server process with each request since the servlet stays in memory. CGI scripts, on the other hand, use heavyweight server processes for each request. Low traffic sites may not notice much difference between a script versus a servlet, but a site with heavy traffic loads would have a noticeable performance improvement by using servlets instead of CGI scripts.

The first thing to understand is how a servlet begins and ends. Similar to an applet, the life cycle of the servlet begins with an automatic call to its init method. The init method is called once by the server for initialization and not again for each user request. Because the server creates a single class instance that handles every request of the servlet, performance is greatly improved, eliminating the need to create overhead that would otherwise be necessary if each request required the server to create a new object.

Next, the service method is called, performing the work of the servlet, and passing ServletRequest and ServletResponse objects as needed. These objects collect or pass information such as the values of the named attributes, theIP address of the agent, or the port number on which the request was received.

Lastly, like an applet, it is time to remove a previously loaded servlet instance, the servlet's destroy method is called. This gives the servlet a chance to close database connections, save information to a log file, or perform other cleanup tasks before it is shut down. If you have special cleanup tasks you'd like your servlet to perform before being removed from memory, the destroy is the place to write those instructions.

All three methods, init, service, and destroy, can be overridden.

If you need a servlet to load with customized initialization behavior, you can override the init method using either of the following two formats:

  1. No argument format:

    public void init()throws ServletException{

  2. Takes ServletConfig object:
     public void init(ServletConfig config)
                 throws ServletException {
            //Initialization code . .

The latter is used when the servlet needs to be initialized with server information such as:

  • Password files
  • A hit count number
  • Serialized cookie information
  • Data from previous requests

When using the ServletConfig format, create a call to the super.init so that the super class registers the information where the servlet can find it later.

Which format you use depends on what information needs to be known at initialization time. If no information is needed when the servlet is first invoked, then the no argument format may be used.

The Heart of the Servlet

The javax.servlet package and the javax.servlet.http package provide the classes and interfaces to define servlets. HTML servlet classes extend the javax.servlet.http.HttpServlet abstract class, which provides a framework for handling HTTP protocol. Because HttpServlet is abstract your servlet must extend it and override at least one of the following methods:

  • doGetget information such as a document, the results of a database query, or strings passed from the browser.
  • doPost posts information such as data to be stored in a database, user login and password information, or other strings passed from the browser.
  • doPutplaces documents directly on the server.
  • doDelete deletes information or documents from the server.
  • getServletInfo returns descriptive information about the servlet, possibly its purpose, author, or version number.

These methods are the heart of the servlet, where instructions and the purpose of the servlet are carried out. You will likely only need to use, or override, a few of the methods. RedirectServlet overrides doGet and doPost, but does not need any of the other methods.

public class Example extends HttpServlet {
    public void doGet ( HttpServletRequest req, 
                        HttpServletResponse res)

When a client calls a servlet by typing the URL in the browser, submitting a form, or clicking a button on a menu, the servlet's service method checks the HTTP request type, such as POST or GET. This in turn calls doGet, doPOST, doPUT, or doDelete as needed.

You can override the service method without implementing doGet and doPost, but it's generally better to call both doGet and doPost. See the JDC RedirectServlet.

The doPost and doGet Methods

The doPost or doGet methods instruct the server about what it must do, whether printing information back to the client's browser, writing to a database, or simply redirecting the client to a requested URL. Within these methods you will use Java programming syntax to give specific instructions for the servlet to interact between the client and the server.

Servlets to Process Forms

A form is a powerful web site tool, enabling clients to take polls, enter personal information for online shopping, or subscribe to an e-newsletter. In other words, forms turn static web pages into dynamic pages. But a form cannot give instructions to a server. Without an application between the form and the server, the form is useless.

Servlets process form information in three steps:

  1. Retrieve or request the data
  2. Store or passing the data
  3. Respond to the request

Creating the Form

JDC pull-down menu

Starting with form creation makes understanding the servlet easier. This example uses a form, a simple menu, requesting only one parameter name, highlighted in blue:

Form and the HTML:

<FORM ACTION=" /servlet/RedirectServlet" METHOD="POST">
<B>Technology Centers</B>
<BR> <SELECT NAME=" url" ONCHANGE="goFunction()" ONBLUR="return options[0].selected=true">
<OPTION VALUE="/developer/products/j2me/">- Consumer &</OPTION>
<OPTION VALUE="/developer/products/j2me/"> Embedded</OPTION>
<OPTION VALUE="/developer/products/j2me/"> </OPTION>
<OPTION VALUE="/developer/products/j2ee/wireless.html">- wireless</OPTION>
<OPTION VALUE="/developer/products/j2ee/wireless.html"> </OPTION>
<OPTION VALUE="/developer/products/">- more . . . </OPTION>
<DIV ALIGN="left">
<INPUT TYPE="image" SRC="/images/go.gif" BORDER="0" ALT="Go">

When you select a destination and click the Go button, the menu form invokes the servlet by through the Action line, highlighted in purple. This line contains the path to where the servlet lives on the server or testing servlet engine.

Note: Tomcat or JavaServer Web Development Kit use localhost:8080 as the host and port. Read the software documentation to find out what directories the servlets and the HTML pages should be saved in.

NAME attributes should be descriptive of the information that is entered into the values, or values that are given. In this example, url describes what the values contain, a URL.

Other types of form fields, like radio buttons or check boxes, provide the value, as in the following example:

What is your favorite season?<P>
<INPUT TYPE=radio NAME=season VALUE=winter>Winter<BR>
<INPUT TYPE=radio NAME=season VALUE=summer>Summer<BR>

Make certain that NAME and its values are meaningful so if the data is written to email messages, log files, or databases the information makes sense to the user viewing them.

The RedirectServlet uses the URL of the chosen destination for its value, so the value is not provided until the user select an item from the menu.

Anatomy of the JDC RedirectServlet Servlet

As with most servlets, the JDC RedirectServlet imports the following packages:

import javax.servlet.*;
import javax.servlet.http.*;

Servlets extend the abstract HttpServlet class, whichextends the GenericServlet base class.

public class RedirectServlet extends HttpServlet {

So the servlet collects the parameter NAME and corresponding value as a String pair, the String object must be declared:

  private String paramName;

To initialized the servlet with the NAME and value String pair, the init method is overridden, and the ServletConfig object is passed as a parameter. Because errors can occur, such as a bad URL, the throws ServletException is included.

  public void init(ServletConfig config)
                throws ServletException {

When overriding the init method, call super.init(config). After the call to super.init(config), the servlet can invoke its own getInitParameter method as shown.The getInitParameter method returns a string containing the value of the named initialization parameter, or null if the requested parameter does not exist. Init parameters have a single string value.

    paramName = 

A servlet must override doGet or doPost, depending on whether data is sent by POST or GET in the HTML form. The drawback to overriding only one of these methods is that if production changes the HTML form to call POST instead of GET, the servlet won't work. Generally, it is better to override both methods, as shown below.

RedirectServlet overrides the doGet method and takes two arguments:

  1. HttpServletRequest, with the variable req
    HttpServletRequest has useful methods such as getParameter that takes the value of a NAME attribute as a string or null if the parameter does not exist.
  2. HttpServletResponse with the variable res
    has methods that let you specify outgoing information, such as getWriter, which returns a print writer for writing formatted text responses to the browser, or in this case sendRedirect, which sends a temporary redirect response to the client using the specified redirect location URL.
  public void doGet(HttpServletRequest request, 
                     HttpServletResponse response)
            throws ServletException, IOException {

The doGet method calls the getParameter method through the request object, passing in the paramName object and its value as a string pair, in this case url and the actual URL. A special sendRedirect method then passes the string to the browser and redirects the user to the desired destination.

The JDC RedirectServlet also forces doPost to call doGet, making it possible to use GET or POST in the HTML form without breaking the servlet.

  public void doPost(HttpServletRequest request,
                     HttpServletResponse response)
             throws ServletException, IOException{
                         doGet(request, response);

As long as the value is not null, the code moves onto the res object and its sendRedirect method, which redirects the client to the URL that was passed to the method.This makes for smooth navigation when a client's browsers cannot support JavaScript, or the user has JavaScript toggled off.

Web site design issues frequently pose challenges because of browser incompatibility, user preferences, and non-browser problems, such as sending information to a database or email address. Servlets serve functionality in these situations, acting as a messenger between HTML pages and the server, or as back-up for other technologies.

RedirectServlet is a short yet reliable servlet that works as back-up to JavaScript, and it doesn't need to deal with browser compatibility, or other client related issues because it works on the server side.

The JDC uses servlets for a number of other functions as well, such as processing the Reader Feedback form below, conducting site-wide searches, and enabling members to subscribe to newsletters.

For More Information:

Lesson 5: Writing Servlets (Essentials of the Java Programming Language)

Trail: Servlets (Java Tutorial)

Java Servlet Technology

What's New in Java Servlet API 2.2?

Distributed Computing Forum

About the Author

Dana Nourie is a JDC technical writer. She enjoys exploring the Java platform, especially creating web applications with servlets and JavaServer Pages technologies, such as the JDC Quizzes and the interactive Learning Paths and Step-by-Step pages.