The Web Design Group

Section 2: HTTP Headers and NPH Scripts

This is a fairly technical section dealing with HTTP, the protocol of
the Web. It also includes NPH, the mechanism by which CGI programs can
return HTTP header information directly to the Client.

2.1: What is HTTP (HyperText Transfer Protocol)?

HTTP is the protocol of the Web, by which Servers and Clients (typically
browsers) communicate.  An HTTP transaction comprises a Request sent by
the Client to the Server, and a Response returned from the Server to
the Client.
Every HTTP request and response includes a message header, describing
the message.   These are processed by the HTTPD, and may often be
mostly ignored by CGI applications (but see below).
A message body may also be included:
  1) A HEAD or GET request sends only a header.   Any form data is encoded 
     in an HTTP_QUERY_STRING header field, which is available to the CGI
     program as an environment variable QUERY_STRING.
  2) A POST request sends both header and body.   The body typically
     comprises data entered by a user in a form.
  3) A HEAD request does not expect a body in the response.
  4) A GET or POST request will accept a response with or without a body,
     according to the header.   The body of a response is typically an
     HTML document.

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2.2: What HTTP request headers can I use?

Most HTTP request headers are passed to the CGI script as environment
variables.   Some are guaranteed by the CGI spec.   Others are server,
browser and/or application dependent.

To see what _your_ browser and server are telling each other, just use
a trivial little CGI script to print out the environment.   In Unix:
	echo "Content-type: text/plain"

(Just call it "env.cgi" or something, and put it where your server
will execute it.   Then point your browser at
http://your.server/path/to/env.cgi ).

This enables you to see at-a-glance what useful server variables are set.
Note that dumping the environment like this within a more complex
script can be a useful debugging technique.

For details, see the CGI Environment Variables specification at
(which also includes a version of the above script - somewhat more
nicely formatted - online).

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2.3: What Environment variables are available to my application?

See previous question.   Those you can rely on are documented in NCSA's
pages; those associated with your particular server and browser can
be determined using the above script.

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2.4: Why doesn't my script get REMOTE_USER? My page is password-protected.

You will get REMOTE_USER if the _script_ is password protected.
That's all.  The page the user is coming from has nothing to do with it.

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2.5: What HTTP response headers do I need to know about?

Unless you are using NPH, the HTTPD will insert necessary response
headers on your behalf, always provided it is configured to do so.

However, it is conventional for servers to insert the Content-Type header
based on a page's filename, and CGI scripts cannot rely on this.  Hence
the usual advice is to print an explicit Content-Type header.
At least one of "Content-Type", "Status" and "Location" is almost
always required.

A few other headers you may wish to use explicitly are:
Status		(to set HTTP return code explicitly.   Caveats:
		   (1) Behaviour is undefined if it conflicts with
		   another header. (2) This is NOT an HTTP header.)
Location	(to redirect the user to another URI, which may or may
		not be on your own server)
Set-cookie	(Netscape/Nonstandard) Set a cookie
Refresh		(Netscape/Nonstandard) Clientpull

You can also use general MIME headers: eg "Keywords" for the benefit of
indexers (although in this instance some major search robots have
regrettably introduced a new protocol to do the same thing).

For a detailed reference, see RFC1945 (HTTP/1.0) or RFC2068 (HTTP/1.1).

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2.6: What is NPH?

NPH = No Parsed Headers.   The script undertakes to print the entire
HTTP response including all necessary header fields.   The HTTPD
is thereby instructed not to parse the headers (as it would normally do)
nor add any which are missing.

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2.7: Must/should/can I write nph scripts?

Generally, no.   It is usually better to save yourself hassle by letting
the HTTPD produce the headers for you.

If you are going to use NPH, be sure to read and understand the HTTP spec at

Your headers should be complete and accurate, because you're instructing
the HTTPD not to correct them or insert what's missing.

Possible circumstances where the use of NPH is appropriate are:
  * When your headers are sufficiently unusal that they might be
    differently parsed by different HTTPDs (eg combining "Location:"
    with a "Status:" other than 302).
  * When returning output over a period of time (eg displaying
    unbuffered results of a slow operation in 'real' time).
See RFC1945 (HTTP/1.0) or RFC2068 (HTTP/1.1) for detail

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2.8: Do I have to call it nph-*

According to NCSA's reference pages, this is the standard for telling
the server that your script is NPH, so this should be a fully portable

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2.9: What is the difference between GET and POST?

Firstly, the the HTTP protocol specifies differing usages for the two
methods.   GET requests should always be idempotent on the server.
This means that whereas one GET request might (rarely) change some state
on the Server, two or more identical requests will have no further effect.

This is a theoretical point which is also good advice in practice.
If a user hits "reload" on his/her browser, an identical request will be
sent to the server, potentially resulting in two identical database or
guestbook entries, counter increments, etc.   Browsers may reload a
GET URL automatically, particularly if cacheing is disabled (as is usually
the case with CGI output), but will typically prompt the user before
re-submitting a POST request.   This means you're far less likely to get
inadvertently-repeated entries from POST.

GET is (in theory) the preferred method for idempotent operations, such
as querying a database, though it matters little if you're using a form.
There is a further practical constraint that many systems have builtin
limits to the length of a GET request they can handle: when the total size
of a request (URL+params) approaches or exceeds 1Kb, you are well-advised
to use POST in any case.

In terms of mechanics, they differ in how parameters are passed to the
CGI script.   In the case of a POST request, form data is passed on
STDIN, so the script should read from there (the number of bytes to be
read is given by the Content-length header).   In the case of GET, the
data is passed in the environment variable QUERY_STRING.   The content-type
(application/x-www-form-urlencoded) is identical for GET and POST requests.

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