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Understanding AJAX and ASP.NET

ASP.NET and AJAX

One of the primary changes AJAX brings to Web programming is that it depends on the browser taking an even more active role in the process. Instead of the browser simply rendering streams of HTML and executing small custom-written script blocks, AJAX includes some new client-script libraries to facilitate the asynchronous calls back to the server. AJAX also includes some basic server-side components to support these new asynchronous calls coming from the client. There’s even a community-supported AJAX Control Toolkit available for the ASP.NET AJAX implementation. Figure 23-1 shows the organization of ASP.NET AJAX support.

Figure 23-1

Figure 23-1 The conceptual organization of ASP.NET AJAX support layers.

Reasons to Use AJAX

If traditional ASP.NET development is so entrenched and well established, why would you want to introduce AJAX? At first glance, AJAX seems to introduce some new complexities into the ASP.NET programming picture. In fact, it seems to reintroduce some programming idioms that ASP.NET was designed to deprecate (such as overuse of client-side script). However, AJAX promises to produce a richer experience for the user. Because ASP.NET support for AJAX is nearly seamless, the added complexities are well mitigated. When building a Web site, there are a few reasons you might choose to enable your ASP.NET site for AJAX:

  • AJAX improves the overall efficiency of your site by performing, when appropriate, parts of a Web page’s processing in the browser. Instead of waiting for the entire HTTP protocol to get a response from the browser, you can push certain parts of the page processing to the client to help the client to react much more quickly. Of course, this type of functionality has always been available—as long as you’re willing to write the code to make it happen. ASP.NET AJAX support includes a number of scripts so that you can get a lot of browser-based efficiency by simply using a few server-side controls.

  • ASP.NET AJAX introduces to a Web site UI elements usually found in desktop applications, such as rectangle rounding, callouts, progress indicators, and pop-up windows that work for a wide range of browsers (more browser-side scripting—but most of it has been written for you).

  • AJAX introduces partial-page updates. By refreshing only the parts of the Web page that have been updated, the user’s wait time is reduced significantly. This brings Web-based applications much closer to desktop applications with regard to perceived UI performance.

  • AJAX is supported by most popular browsers—not just Internet Explorer. It works for Mozilla Firefox and Apple Safari, too. Although it still requires some effort to strike a balance between UI richness and the ability to reach a wider audience, the fact that AJAX depends on features available in most modern browsers makes this balance much easier to achieve.

  • AJAX introduces a huge number of new capabilities. Whereas the standard ASP.NET control and page-rendering model provides great flexibility and extensibility for programming Web sites, AJAX brings in a new concept—the extender control. Extender controls attach to existing server-side controls (such as the TextBox, ListBox, and DropDownList) at run time and add new client-side appearances and behaviors to the controls. Sometimes extender controls can even call a predefined Web service to get data to populate list boxes and such (for example, the AutoComplete extender).

  • AJAX improves on ASP.NET Forms Authentication and profiles and personalization services. ASP.NET support for authentication and personalization provides a great boon to Web developers—and AJAX just sweetens the offerings.

These days, when you browse different Web sites, you run into many examples of AJAX-style programming. Here are some examples:

Real-World AJAX

Throughout the 1990s and into the mid-2000s, Web applications were nearly a throwback to 1970s mainframe and minicomputer architectures. However, instead of a single large computer serving dumb terminals, Web applications consist of a Web server (or a Web farm) connected to smart browsers capable of fairly sophisticated rendering capabilities. Until recently, Web applications took their input from HTTP forms and presented output in HTML pages. The real trick in understanding standard Web applications is to see the disconnected and stateless nature of HTTP. Classic Web applications can show only a snapshot of the state of the application.

As this chapter describes, Microsoft supports standard AJAX idioms and patterns in the ASP.NET framework. However, AJAX is more a style of Web programming involving out-of-band HTTP requests than any specific technology.

You’ve no doubt seen sites engaging the new interface features and stylings available through AJAX programming. Examples include Microsoft.com, Google.com, and Yahoo.com. Very often while browsing these sites, you’ll see modern features such as automatic page updates that do not require you to generate a postback explicitly. Modal-type dialog boxes that require your attention appear until you dismiss them. These are all features available through AJAX-style programming patterns and the ASP.NET extensions (for example, a rich set of AJAX server-side controls and extensions) for supporting AJAX.

If you’re a long-time Microsoft environment Web developer, you might be asking yourself whether AJAX is something really worthwhile or whether you might be able to get much of the same type of functionality using a tried and true technology such as DHTML.

AJAX in Perspective

Any seasoned Web developer targeting Internet Explorer as the browser is undoubtedly familiar with Dynamic HTML (DHTML). DHTML is a technology that runs at the browser for enabling Windows desktop-style UI elements in the Web client environment. DHTML was a good start, and AJAX brings the promise of more desktop-like capabilities to Web applications.

AJAX makes available wider capabilities than DHTML does. With DHTML, primarily you can change the style declarations of an HTML element through JavaScript. However, that’s about as far as it goes. DHTML is very useful for implementing such UI features as having a menu open when the mouse pointer rests on it. AJAX expands on this idea of client-based UI using JavaScript as well as out-of-band calls to the server. Because AJAX is based on out-of-band server requests (rather than relying only on a lot of client script code), AJAX has the potential for much more growth in terms of future capabilities than does DHTML.