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Re: How do I read POST data that is not encoded, and was submitted without a parameter name

by robin (Chaplain)
on Dec 14, 2001 at 23:35 UTC ( #132040=note: print w/ replies, xml ) Need Help??


in reply to How do I read POST data that is not encoded, and was submitted without a parameter name

This question seems to have generated a lot of confusion, so I'm going to go into more detail than might seem necessary.

In a way, the problem is historical. When Tim Berners-Lee first introduced the WWW, he included a facility for making queries of a remote index. (Remember the <isindex> tag?) In fact, you can see from the first announcement that the index facility was there right from the start.

The way it worked was that if you went to a page with an <isindex> tag, a text box would appear into which you could type a list of keywords. When you type "something" in and submit it, the browser requests the same URL with ?something appended to it. If there are several keywords, they are separated by + signs.

As the web grew, features were added to the software and the protocols. By 1992, the protocol which would become HTTP/1.0 existed in outline. A POST method was introduced, and various uses were envisaged for it. Forms were proposed in 1993 in Dave Raggett's HTML+ proposal, with the idea of using foo=bar&baz=quux in the query string as a way of encoding the form data. He also mentions the possibility of encoding the form data in other ways, and sending it in the body of the request.

Fill-out forms were introduced in Mosaic 2.0 which supported POST requests, but only with the application/x-www-form-urlencoded encoding.

Early web servers provided custom mechanisms for supporting searchable indexes and (later) fill-out forms. At the end of 1993, the Common Gateway Interface (CGI) was introduced, and implemented in NCSA httpd 1.0. The CGI hasn't changed very much since then either. The basic idea of the gateway interface is that an interface between the web and some other system can be created by writing an ordinary Unix program, which is associated with a URL. Information about the request is passed in environment variables, and the body of the request can be read from standard input. The result document is simply printed to standard output, preceded by a handful of headers.

So by the end of 1993 we had NCSA Mosaic with its support for fill-out forms, and we had the NCSA httpd with its support for the CGI. It was a powerful combination, and in my opinion it was that combination which propelled Perl to stardom. Perl was already installed on a lot of Unix systems because it was useful for automating system administration tasks, and it very quickly became the language of choice for writing CGI programs, because of its powerful text processing capabilities.

But of course Mosaic (and later Netscape 1.0) only supported the application/x-www-form-urlencoded encoding for POST requests, so that was the important thing to deal with. Later on (in Netscape 1.1) a file upload feature was added, which uses a different MIME-like encoding called multipart/form-data. To this day, those two encodings are the only ones mentioned in the HTML specification in the context of form submission.

Now that XML is becoming firmly established as the data transfer format of choice, people are starting to transfer XML directly over HTTP. This document discusses different ways of achieving that, and recommends that the XML data be sent directly in the request body using the application/xml content type. SOAP can also be sent in HTTP, and the spec says that requests should be sent as HTTP requests using the text/xml media type.

So, sending XML data in an HTTP POST request is perfectly legal HTTP, and it is supported by the Common Gateway Interface. It's also the recommended way of transferring XML data over HTTP. The only problem is that it's not directly supported by CGI client libraries such as CGI.pm. That doesn't mean that you necessarily shouldn't use CGI.pm in such an application - the methods that it provides for generating responses might be useful, for example - but you can't expect it to decode the data for you. On the other hand, there are plenty of good modules for dealing with XML data, and this is just XML data after all. Check out the Perl-xml mailing list and the many XML modules on CPAN.

I hope this makes the situation slightly clearer.


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