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2.9 A Web Service with Interaction

Setting up a web service that allows user interaction is more difficult and shows us the limits of network access in gawk. In this section, we develop a main program (a BEGIN pattern and its action) that will become the core of event-driven execution controlled by a graphical user interface (GUI). Each HTTP event that the user triggers by some action within the browser is received in this central procedure. Parameters and menu choices are extracted from this request, and an appropriate measure is taken according to the user's choice. For example:

  if (MyHost == "") {
     "uname -n" | getline MyHost
     close("uname -n")
  if (MyPort ==  0) MyPort = 8080
  HttpService = "/inet/tcp/" MyPort "/0/0"
  MyPrefix    = "http://" MyHost ":" MyPort
  while ("awk" != "complex") {
    # header lines are terminated this way
    RS = ORS = "\r\n"
    Status   = 200          # this means OK
    Reason   = "OK"
    Header   = TopHeader
    Document = TopDoc
    Footer   = TopFooter
    if        (GETARG["Method"] == "GET") {
    } else if (GETARG["Method"] == "HEAD") {
        # not yet implemented
    } else if (GETARG["Method"] != "") {
        print "bad method", GETARG["Method"]
    Prompt = Header Document Footer
    print "HTTP/1.0", Status, Reason       |& HttpService
    print "Connection: Close"              |& HttpService
    print "Pragma: no-cache"               |& HttpService
    len = length(Prompt) + length(ORS)
    print "Content-length:", len           |& HttpService
    print ORS Prompt                       |& HttpService
    # ignore all the header lines
    while ((HttpService |& getline) > 0)
    # stop talking to this client
    # wait for new client request
    HttpService |& getline
    # do some logging
    print systime(), strftime(), $0
    # read request parameters
    CGI_setup($1, $2, $3)

This web server presents menu choices in the form of HTML links. Therefore, it has to tell the browser the name of the host it is residing on. When starting the server, the user may supply the name of the host from the command line with ‘gawk -v MyHost="Rumpelstilzchen"’. If the user does not do this, the server looks up the name of the host it is running on for later use as a web address in HTML documents. The same applies to the port number. These values are inserted later into the HTML content of the web pages to refer to the home system.

Each server that is built around this core has to initialize some application-dependent variables (such as the default home page) in a procedure SetUpServer, which is called immediately before entering the infinite loop of the server. For now, we will write an instance that initiates a trivial interaction. With this home page, the client user can click on two possible choices, and receive the current date either in human-readable format or in seconds since 1970:

function SetUpServer() {
  TopHeader = "<HTML><HEAD>"
  TopHeader = TopHeader \
     "<title>My name is GAWK, GNU AWK</title></HEAD>"
  TopDoc    = "<BODY><h2>\
    Do you prefer your date <A HREF=" MyPrefix \
    "/human>human</A> or \
    <A HREF=" MyPrefix "/POSIX>POSIXed</A>?</h2>" ORS ORS
  TopFooter = "</BODY></HTML>"

On the first run through the main loop, the default line terminators are set and the default home page is copied to the actual home page. Since this is the first run, GETARG["Method"] is not initialized yet, hence the case selection over the method does nothing. Now that the home page is initialized, the server can start communicating to a client browser.

It does so by printing the HTTP header into the network connection (‘print … |& HttpService’). This command blocks execution of the server script until a client connects. If this server script is compared with the primitive one we wrote before, you will notice two additional lines in the header. The first instructs the browser to close the connection after each request. The second tells the browser that it should never try to remember earlier requests that had identical web addresses (no caching). Otherwise, it could happen that the browser retrieves the time of day in the previous example just once, and later it takes the web page from the cache, always displaying the same time of day although time advances each second.

Having supplied the initial home page to the browser with a valid document stored in the parameter Prompt, it closes the connection and waits for the next request. When the request comes, a log line is printed that allows us to see which request the server receives. The final step in the loop is to call the function CGI_setup, which reads all the lines of the request (coming from the browser), processes them, and stores the transmitted parameters in the array PARAM. The complete text of these application-independent functions can be found in A Simple CGI Library. For now, we use a simplified version of CGI_setup:

function CGI_setup(   method, uri, version, i) {
  delete GETARG;         delete MENU;        delete PARAM
  GETARG["Method"] = $1
  GETARG["URI"] = $2
  GETARG["Version"] = $3
  i = index($2, "?")
  # is there a "?" indicating a CGI request?
  if (i > 0) {
    split(substr($2, 1, i-1), MENU, "[/:]")
    split(substr($2, i+1), PARAM, "&")
    for (i in PARAM) {
      j = index(PARAM[i], "=")
      GETARG[substr(PARAM[i], 1, j-1)] = \
                                  substr(PARAM[i], j+1)
  } else {    # there is no "?", no need for splitting PARAMs
    split($2, MENU, "[/:]")

At first, the function clears all variables used for global storage of request parameters. The rest of the function serves the purpose of filling the global parameters with the extracted new values. To accomplish this, the name of the requested resource is split into parts and stored for later evaluation. If the request contains a ‘?’, then the request has CGI variables seamlessly appended to the web address. Everything in front of the ‘?’ is split up into menu items, and everything behind the ‘?’ is a list of ‘variable=value’ pairs (separated by ‘&’) that also need splitting. This way, CGI variables are isolated and stored. This procedure lacks recognition of special characters that are transmitted in coded form(7). Here, any optional request header and body parts are ignored. We do not need header parameters and the request body. However, when refining our approach or working with the POST and PUT methods, reading the header and body becomes inevitable. Header parameters should then be stored in a global array as well as the body.

On each subsequent run through the main loop, one request from a browser is received, evaluated, and answered according to the user's choice. This can be done by letting the value of the HTTP method guide the main loop into execution of the procedure HandleGET, which evaluates the user's choice. In this case, we have only one hierarchical level of menus, but in the general case, menus are nested. The menu choices at each level are separated by ‘/’, just as in file names. Notice how simple it is to construct menus of arbitrary depth:

function HandleGET() {
  if (       MENU[2] == "human") {
    Footer = strftime() TopFooter
  } else if (MENU[2] == "POSIX") {
    Footer = systime()  TopFooter

The disadvantage of this approach is that our server is slow and can handle only one request at a time. Its main advantage, however, is that the server consists of just one gawk program. No need for installing an httpd, and no need for static separate HTML files, CGI scripts, or root privileges. This is rapid prototyping. This program can be started on the same host that runs your browser. Then let your browser point to http://localhost:8080.

It is also possible to include images into the HTML pages. Most browsers support the not very well-known ‘.xbm’ format, which may contain only monochrome pictures but is an ASCII format. Binary images are possible but not so easy to handle. Another way of including images is to generate them with a tool such as GNUPlot, by calling the tool with the system function or through a pipe.

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