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Writing Apache Modules with Perl and C
By:   Lincoln Stein and Doug MacEachern
Published:   O'Reilly & Associates, Inc.  - March 1999

Copyright 1999 by O'Reilly & Associates, Inc.


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Chapter 4 - Content Handlers
Processing Input

In this section...

CGI Parameters
Additional Path Information


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You can make the virtual documents generated by the Apache API interactive in exactly the way that you would documents generated by CGI scripts. Your module will generate an HTML form for the user to fill out. When the user completes and submits the form, your module will process the parameters and generate a new document, which may contain another fill-out form that prompts the user for additional information. In addition, you can store information inside the URI itself by placing it in the additional path information part.

CGI Parameters

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When a fill-out form is submitted, the contents of its fields are turned into a series of name=value parameter pairs that are available for your module's use. Unfortunately, correctly processing these parameter pairs is annoying because, for a number of historical reasons, there are a variety of formats that you must know about and deal with. The first complication is that the form may be submitted using either the HTTP GET or POST method. If the GET method is used, the URI encoded parameter pairs can be found separated by ampersands in the "query string," the part of the URI that follows the ? character:


To recover the parameters from a GET request, mod_perl users should use the request object's args() method. In a scalar context this method returns the entire query string, ampersands and all. In an array context, this method returns the parsed name=value pairs; however, you will still have to do further processing in order to correctly handle multivalued parameters. This feature is only found in the Perl API. Programmers who use the C API must recover the query string from the request object's args field and do all the parsing manually.

If the client uses the POST method to submit the fill-out form, the parameter pairs can be found in something called the "client block." C API users must call three functions named setup_client_block(), should_client_block(), and get_client_block() in order to retrieve the information.

While these methods are also available in the Perl API, mod_perl users have an easier way: they need only call the request object's content() method to retrieve the preparsed list of name=value pairs. However, there's a catch: this only works for the older application/x-www-form-urlencoded style of parameter encoding. If the browser uses the newer multipart/form-data encoding (which is used for file uploads, among other things), then mod_perl users will have to read and parse the content information themselves. read() will fetch the unparsed content information by looping until the requested number of bytes have been read (or a pre-determined timeout has occurred). Fortunately, there are a number of helpful modules that allow mod_perl programmers to accept file uploads without parsing the data themselves, including CGI.pm and Apache::Request, both of which we describe later.

To show you the general technique for prompting and processing user input, Example 4-10 gives a new version of Apache::Hello. It looks for a parameter named user_name and displays a customized welcome page, if present. Otherwise, it creates a more generic message. In both cases, it also displays a fill-out form that prompts the user to enter a new value for user_name. When the user presses the submission button labeled "Set Name," the information is POSTed to the module and the page is redisplayed (Figure 4-4).

Figure 4-4. The Apache::Hello2 module can process user input.

The code is very simple. On entry to handler() the module calls the request object's method() method to determine whether the handler was invoked using a POST request, or by some other means (usually GET). If the POST method was used, the handler calls the request object's content() method to retrieve the posted parameters. Otherwise, it attempts to retrieve the information from the query string by calling args(). The parsed name=value pairs are now stuffed into a hash named %params for convenient access.

Having processed the user input, if any, the handler retrieves the value of the user_name parameter from the hash and stores it in a variable. If the parameter is empty, we default to "Unknown User."

The next step is to generate the document. We set the content type to text/html as before and emit the HTTP header. We again call the request object's header_only() to determine whether the client has requested the entire document or just the HTTP header information.

This is followed by a single long Apache::print() statement. We create the HTML header and body, along with a suitable fill-out form. Notice that we use the current value of the user name variable to initialize the appropriate text field. This is a frill that we have always thought was kind of neat.

Example 4-10. Processing User Input with the Apache Perl API

package Apache::Hello2;
# file: Apache/Hello2.pm
use strict;
use Apache::Constants qw(:common);
sub handler {
   my $r = shift;
   my %params = $r->method eq 'POST' ? $r->content : $r->args;
   my $user_name = $params{'user_name'} || 'Unknown User';
   return OK if $r->header_only;
<TITLE>Hello There</TITLE>
<H1>Hello $user_name</H1>
Who would take this book seriously if the first example didn\'t
say "hello $user_name"?
Enter your name: <INPUT TYPE="text" NAME="user_name" VALUE="$user_name"> 
<INPUT TYPE="submit" VALUE="Set Name"> </FORM> </BODY> </HTML> END
    return OK;

A perl.conf entry to go with it might read:

<Location /hello/friend>
SetHandler  perl-script
PerlHandler Apache::Hello2

This method of processing user input is only one of several equally valid alternatives. For example, you might want to work with query string and POSTed parameters simultaneously, to accommodate this type of fill-out form:

<FORM ACTION="/hello/friend?day=saturday" METHOD="POST">
  <INPUT TYPE="text" NAME="user_name">
  <INPUT TYPE="submit">

In this case, you could recover the values of both the day and user_name parameters using a code fragment like this one:

my %params = ($r->args, $r->content);

If the same parameter is present in both the query string and the POSTed values, then the latter will override the former. Depending on your application's logic, you might like this behavior. Alternatively, you could store the two types of parameter in different places or take different actions depending on whether the parameters were submitted via GET or POST. For example, you might want to use query string parameters to initialize the default values of the fill-out form and enter the information into a database when a POST request is received.

When you store the parsed parameters into a hash, you lose information about parameters that are present more than once. This can be bad if you are expecting multivalued parameters, such as those generated by a selection list or a series of checkboxes linked by the same name. To keep multivalued information, you need to do something like this:

my %params;
my @args = ($r->args, $r->content);
while (my($name,$value) = splice @args,0,2) {
 push @{$params{$name}}, $value;

This bit of code aggregates the GET and POST parameters into a single array named @args. It then loops through each name=value pair, building up a hash in which the key is the parameter name and the value is an array reference containing all the values for that parameter. This way, if you have a selection list that generates query strings of the form:


you can recover the complete vegetable list in this manner:

@vegetables = @{$params{'vegetable'}};

An alternative is to use a module that was still in development at the time this chapter was written. This module, named Apache::Request, uses the CGI.pm-style method calls to process user input but does so efficiently by going directly to the request object. With this module, the user input parameters are retrieved by calling param(). Call param() without any arguments to retrieve a list of all the parameter names. Call param() with a parameter name to return a list of the values for that parameter in an array context, and the first member of the list in a scalar context. Unlike the vanilla request object, input of type multipart/form-data is handled correctly, and uploaded files can be recovered too (using the same API as CGI.pm).

To take advantage of Apache::Request in our "Hello World" module, we modify the top part of the module to read as follows:

package Apache::Hello3;
# file: Apache/Hello3.pm
use strict;
use Apache::Constants qw(:common);
use Apache::Request;
sub handler {
  my $r = Apache::Request->new(shift);
  my $user_name = $r->param('user_name') || 'Unknown User';
Who cares if every single example
says "Hello World"???!

The main detail here is that instead of retrieving the request object directly, we wrap it inside an Apache::Request object. Apache::Request adds param() and a few other useful methods and inherits all other method calls from the Apache class. More information will be found in the Apache::Request manual page when that package is officially released.

Like CGI.pm, Apache::Request allows you to handle browser file uploading, although it is somewhat different in detail from the interface provided in CGI.pm versions 2.46 and lower (the two libraries have been brought into harnony in Version 2.47). As in ordinary CGI, you create a file upload field by defining an <INPUT> element of type "file" within a <FORM> section of type "multipart/form-data". After the form is POSTed, you retrieve the file contents by reading from a filehandle returned by the Apache::Request upload() method. This code fragment illustrates the technique:

my $r = Apache::Request->new(shift);
my $moose = 0;
my $uploaded_file = $r->upload('uploaded-file');
my $uploaded_name = $r->param('uploaded-file');
while (<$uploaded_file>) {
   $moose++ if /moose/;
print "$moose moose(s) found in $uploaded_name\n";
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Copyright 1999 by O'Reilly & Associates, Inc.