Introduction to AOLserver, Part 1

by Philip Greenspun, illustrated by Mina Reimer

(Written in July 1999 for; permanently installed now in Web Tools Review)

Are you concerned about your Web site's scalability? I'm pretty sure that as long as I don't get more than 28,000 hits I'll be okay. How can I be sure? That's how many hits that America Online is serving with the open-source Web server that I use: AOLserver. Twenty-eight thousand hits? That's not really so many, is it? One often hears about sites that get more requests than 28,000 per day, per week, or per month. With 17 million subscribers, though, America Online is talking about 28,000 hits per second across all of its various Web services and servers.

AOLserver? It was built in 1994 by Jim Davidson and Doug McKee, two Unix wizards in Santa Barbara as part of an end-to-end Web publishing system. The first part of the system was NaviPress, a what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG) Web page editor. NaviSoft wanted to permit people without any training maintain Web sites, not just Web pages. So they produced their own Web server, NaviServer, that would respond not only to the standard GET and POST methods but also to the PUT method ("put this page back into the file system on the server").

How innovative was this? Innovative enough to win every magazine's Best Web Product award back in early 1995. Journalists gushed about how Tim Berners-Lee's read-only Web system was finally useful as a collaborative authoring system. Indeed, Tim himself might have been impressed except for the fact that he had a graphical editable Web browser, capable of PUTing content back onto the server, back in 1990. This capability was taken from users by the authors of the NCSA Mosaic browser and server. These programmers, who later went on to found Netscape Communications, put their effort into making Tim's system work on multiple operating systems and didn't have the energy or ability to retain the editability.

NaviSoft was effectively restoring to Web users what Tim had given them in the first place.

In a world surfeited with HTML editors, why should anyone care about what was happening back in 1994? Because Jim and Doug are the best engineers who've ever attacked the Web server problem, America Online bought NaviSoft, and now the source code is free and available to anyone who cares to visit

Note: the HTML editor is available from; sadly it is not open-source and they've discontinued support for Macintosh and Unix versions.

Why You'd Want to Use AOLserver

AOLserver delivers the following features and benefits: Let's address each of these in turn.

faster, more reliable, more maintainable scripting

The traditional 1993-style dynamic Web service is backed by CGI scripts. Client requests a page, server starts a separate program (the CGI script), CGI script returns results to the connection. You can get at least a 10-fold improvement in server throughput by running page-generation programs inside the Web server process. AOLserver, like most Web servers, has an API to facilitate you writing C programs that run inside the AOLserver process. The problem with this approach is that an error in your C program can crash the entire Web service.

The AOLserver developers solved this problem by compiling a Tcl interpreter into their program. Why is Tcl better than C for Web scripting? First, it is safe. An error in a Tcl script will break one page, not the entire server. Second, Tcl is interpreted so it is much faster to develop code and fix bugs than in a compiled language such as C or Java. Finally, because the Tcl interpreter is available at run-time, you can take advantage of powerful programming ideas like programs that generate programs.

NaviSoft's choice of Tcl illustrates all the elements that need to come together before an open-source software package can be adopted. The Tcl interpreter was free, open-source, and explicitly designed to be included in larger programs. Moreover, the authors produced documents with titles like "How to compile the Tcl interpreter into your C program". The interpreter as released by John Ousterhout wasn't thread-safe, but it was simple enough that Jim and Doug could find the parts of Tcl that weren't thread-safe and make them thread-safe. We can conclude from this example that the open-source programs with the most impact will be those that are the easiest to understand and adopt, not those with the most features.

AOLserver Tcl applications tend to be more maintainable than applications developed for other Unix Web servers. In large part this is due to the standardized API. For example, suppose Joe Hacker tells you that he has written an Web-based system to do comparative shopping, it isn't working properly and he's about to leave for vacation. The system fetches Web pages from other sites, parses them to find the prices, then returns a summary to the user. Would you mind debugging it for him?

Suppose that he says he is using Apache or Netscape Enterprise Server. This tells you nothing about the programs implementing his service, other than that they will be for a Turing Machine. Neither Apache nor Netscape Enterprise provide powerful or commonly used scripting systems. So Joe Hacker might just as well have said "I used Unix" or "I used a computer." Will the site be done in Perl CGI scripts? The PHP templating language? Java Servlets? The Cold Fusion templating system? The Chili system for parsing Microsoft Active Server Pages? JavaScript inside the Netscape server's LiveWire system? Common Lisp CGI scripts (don't laugh; Yahoo Store was built in Lisp and sold for $47 million)? Python? C? Will you be exposed to the complexity and unreliability of an application server?

If Joe Hacker goes on vacation and leaves you with an AOLserver-based comparative shopping application, you can be 99% sure that the programming was done in Tcl running inside AOLserver, that all of the code handling a particular page will be found within two directories, that fetching of pages from foreign servers was done with the ns_httpget API call, and that when the system requires connectivity to a database management system it will be done through the ns_db API call.

AOLserver supports CGI and its design facilitates the construction of Apache-style modules. However, the AOLserver team provides such exquisite code, documentation, and cultural support for one style of programming that nearly everyone uses that style ("leave the truly hard stuff to the database; write all the pages and glue code in the Tcl API").

pooled connections to relational database management systems

Historically, talented programmers have been ignorant of the capabilites of database management systems. Thus, even when an application seems to be a natural fit for Oracle, a programmer will come up instead with a sui generis flat-file database management system. It usually works fairly well for the problem as originally conceived but the long-term consequences of using slapped-together database management software are painful.

AOLserver was designed from scratch to connect to the most popular kind of database software: the relational database management system (RDBMS). In the CGI world, the Web server starts up a new program every time a request comes in from a browser. The CGI script then opens up a connection to the RDBMS, an operation that generally requires Unix to start another program (fork). If you are getting 20 hits per second under this scheme, your computer is starting 40 new programs every second.

AOLserver database connection-pooling architecture. 20 requests per second for database-backed pages = 0 new programs started per second. Traditional CGI architecture. 20 requests per second for database-backed pages = 40 new programs started per second.

AOLserver runs as a single Unix process. You can deliver the 20 dynamic pages per second of our example without your server having to start any new programs. If those pages need to connect to Oracle, they simply ask AOLserver to let them use an already-open connection from a configurable pool. Note that this ability to pool database connections is a consequence of AOLserver's one-process-with-threads architecture. With a process-pool Web server such as Apache, nothing stops you from linking in the Oracle C libraries. Your Apache server can then function as an Oracle client. However, there would be no way to share a database connection among Apache server processes. What's the bottom line difference? A site like can serve 700,000 hits per day, to about 120 simultaneous users at once, with one AOLserver process holding open eight connections to Oracle. That's a total of nine Unix processes (one AOLserver, eight Oracle). With Apache, providing the same level of service from would require 120 Apache server process, each of which held open two connections to Oracle: 360 processes total.

Another dividend from the single-process architecture of AOLserver is that you can cache stuff in AOLserver's virtual memory. For example, consider the Bill Gates Personal Wealth Clock ( It gets as many as two hits per second at peaks. Yet it relies on invoking CGI scripts running at foreign Web sites where they probably wouldn't appreciate getting hammered by my server. The solution is to cache the page in AOLserver's virtual memory. Again, this is something you could do with a process-pool server such as Apache but you'd be gradually building up 120 separate copies of the same data.


Caching is also useful for expensive database calculations, e.g., sweep the entire classified ads table to find out how many ads are in each category. This needn't add complexity to your source code: I distribute a utility function called Memoize that you can wrap around any Tcl statement and the result will be cached. AOLserver itself provides built-in caching for frequently-accessed static files and templates (see the nscache module in the 2.3 release). You can get an expensive application server if you like but remember that you'll never get higher performance than a threaded Web server delivering bits from its own virtual memory.

comparison to Apache

People often ask me how AOLserver compares to Apache. It is kind of an odd question since Apache itself, a Web server for static files and CGI scripts, only attacks 5% of the problem solved by AOLserver. The simple answer is that "You can download AOLserver and install in 30 minutes and be up and running serving static files and CGI scripts, just like you were with Apache."

I think the real question is "How does AOLserver compare to Apache plus the collection of modules and public-domain source code typically cobbled together at the average site running Apache?"

AOLserver Apache
Weak support for ISPs hosting thousands of domains, each for a small customer with mostly static files. Strong support for ISPs.
Strong support for database-backed Web services. No built-in support for building a database-backed Web service. Every programmer cobbles together a different set of modules and home-grown code.
Good open-source libraries available for doing sophisticated things, e.g., the ArsDigita Community System for building online communities and ecommerce sites. For Perl users, vast open-source libraries available. Especially useful to novice programmers.
Small community of wizards. Most AOLserver-backed sites are connecting to relational databases to support personalization or desktop app replacement. Some are cranking out thousands of hits per second within AOL. Large community of programmers, especially for Perl scripting.
All programmers in community use same language and same high-level procedure calls (since they are built-in). Community of programmers uses a plethora of languages. Within a particular language, each programmer uses a different set of high-level procedure calls (since so little is built into the server).
High performance for serving static files. Good enough performance for serving static files.
Very high performance for serving script- and database-backed sites. Adequate performance for serving script- and database-backed sites, but only if set up and programmed by wizards.
New programmers are trained via a rigid curriculum of problem sets developed for a course at MIT and now available at other universities and in a three-week boot camp (see; all the course materials are free). New programmers are trained via reading Teach Yourself Cgi Programming With Perl 5 in a Week
New server software and ideas from one of the world's highest-volume Web publishers, plus a bit of help from the community of users. Releases come in response to major new needs at AOL. Lots of help from a large community of users, but with no strong central push from salaried developers, releases tend to be infrequent and insignificant in terms of new capabilities. (This is one of the dirty secrets of the open-source world; it is easy to get new modules contributed but hard to get everyone coordinated enough to make major changes in the core.)
If you're using Apache now and are happy with it, I don't recommend switching. At the end of the day you've got a von Neumann computer that is somewhat less powerful than a Turing Machine. If you install AOLserver, you'll have a von Neumann computer that is somewhat less powerful than a Turing Machine. A good programmer with Apache will get the job done. A good programmer with AOLserver will get the job done. Suppose you're running Perl CGI scripts on Apache. Would AOLserver run 10 times faster? Sure. On the other hand, manages to sell $1 billion in merchandise annually with Perl CGI scripts. It is always easier and safer to plug in more processor boards than to switch tools.

What if you're starting from scratch? If you're building an online community or some other kind of database-backed Web service, I recommend AOLserver. If you're going into the $14.95 per month per site business, Apache seems to have a lot of useful modules.

The Open-Sourcing Of AOLserver

AOLserver started life as the farthest thing possible from open-source. NaviSoft was a privately-funded start-up company and NaviServer was licensed to commercial Web publishers at $5000 per machine. The transformation from $5000, closed-source to free, open-source started in 1994. Official industry visionaries such as Bill Gates were dismissing the potential of the Internet and open standards. Official Internet visionaries were throwing rocks at America Online and their users. What was AOL doing? Sending its best technology people out on an Internet shopping spree. Among other acquisitions, AOL bought the best Internet backbone company (ANS), the best Web tools company (NaviSoft), and the best full-text search engine company (PLS).

AOL needed this technology and wanted the developers of the various products within shouting distance. However, the revenue stream from software products such as PLS and AOLserver wasn't significant compared to their core business. As far as I can tell, there are a couple of overall styles available to businesses. The first is "do anything, no matter how shabby, immoral, or degrading for the last 5%". Microsoft falls into this category. All of the practices for which the Federal Government is suing Microsoft are attempts by them to get the last 5%. They'd be 95% as rich if they'd asked PC vendors to pay for Windows on PCs shipped with Windows, but they couldn't resist forcing the PC vendors into paying for Windows licenses even when a computer shipped with Linux or some other OS.

An alternative style is "we don't need the last 5%." America Online falls into this category, at least as far as the software products they acquired go. They could have continued to charge money for software licenses and collected a few $10s of millions. They could have said "We bought it and we're going to use it internally; it would cost us money to distribute it so we're not going to make it available anymore." But instead they said "We're going to use it internally and we'll make it available to you for free if you'd like to use it also; we don't want the old user base for this product to be angry with us."

from "free" to "free and open-source"

Is "free" as good as "free and open-source"? In the short run, probably better. If you're trying to push the state-of-the-art in Web-supported collaboration, the last thing you want to do is grovel around in someone else's C code, especially when that C code is many layers below the users' problem. Remember: users can't tell what Web server or RDBMS you're using.

In the long run, however, an open-source program will always be more powerful than closed-source packaged solutions when the application area is evolving. Commercial software companies are adept at copying the innovative systems of the 1960s and 1970s but they generally aren't nimble enough to adapt to changing user needs.

Toward the end of 1998, I found myself running 200 Web services with AOLserver, sitting on a library of 100,000 lines of AOLserver Tcl code, and teaching a course at MIT where the students use AOLserver in their labs. Looking at the crop of Apache modules available at the time, it seemed to me that the Apache crowd was about halfway caught up to where AOLserver was in 1994. I extrapolated out another four years and thought "there will be some way-cool Apache modules and I'll be sitting here programming AOLserver by myself."

How to convince AOL to open-source AOLserver, though? In dealing with a big company, the hardest thing is usually figuring out with whom to talk. My friends on the AOLserver development team suggested talking to Barry Appelman, the executive in charge of server-side technology at AOL. Appelman is credited with coming up with the buddy list idea for AOL Instant Messenger (used by 35 million people) and makes sure that AOL's Unix servers are responsive to the 17 million AOL subscribers. So I sent the guy some email:

Dear Mr. Appelman,

I would like to propose that AOL work with the MIT Laboratory for
Computer Science to turn AOLserver into an open-source product like
Apache or the Linux operating system.

Our selfish interest: We use AOLserver here at MIT for research and
education.  With the source code, some of our more creative graduate
students and researchers could add interesting capabilities.  We also
think it would give our open-source application code more credibility.
Publishers don't want to take the risk of adopting something for which
they don't have the source code (hence the popularity of Apache).

In order to sell AOL on the idea, here are some potential advantages:

1) access to improvements made by developers worldwide and at MIT in
particular; imagine having another few hundred programmers at your
disposal and you don't have to pay them.

2) better access for recruiting MIT computer science majors (bachelor's,
master's, and PhD) to work at AOL

3) better access to MIT computer science researchers.  Note that one
floor above me at Tech Square is Dave Clark, the guy who developed
Internet Protocol.  One floor below is Tim Berners-Lee, the guy who
developed the Web.

4) better access to training materials that you can use in-house at AOL;
we're going to be teaching a couple of courses in the next 6 months that
introduce students to RDBMS-backed Web service development using
AOLserver (see for the text).

Note that we have considerable experience in this area.  The bulk of
Apache was developed in our building by Robert Thau, one of our PhD
students.  Project GNU, the original free software movement and source
of most of the software in a Linux distribution, was started in our
building in the mid-1980s by Richard Stallman (who won a MacArthur
fellowship for his efforts).  I feel confident that we could make
open-source AOLserver a big success.

      -- Philip Greenspun
There was some cunning to this email message. I didn't know Appelman or his situation, but I knew that no company is happy with the aggregate capabilities of its software developers or comfortable with its recruiting strategy for software developers. So my first two points were addressed to those. My third point, trotting out the famous names of MIT Computer Science, was a complete fraud. I'd never heard either Clark or Berners-Lee utter one sentence on the subject of HTTP server technology and couldn't imagine either caring whether a site was served using AOLserver, Apache, or the original CERN server for that matter. The fourth point was again targeted to the big company executive inside Appelman. A big company's #1 concern is how to recruit the right people. Their #2 concern is how to train them. So I offered course materials.

This artfully crafted appeal worked so well that ... Appelman didn't respond to the email. I was on the phone with Doug McKee a month later and he said "Barry's usually on AIM at night; just AIM him." I followed Doug's advice and got Appelman to dredge my message out of his inbox and read it. It turned out that he didn't have any objections to open-sourcing AOLserver; it just wasn't something that they'd thought about. We went back and forth for a few hours over AIM and by early January 1999 we had basic agreement:

Did I heroically overcome obstacles to get AOL to stick to this plan? No. Barry Appelman delegated the overall project to Lin Jenner and Eric Flatt. Ben Adida wrote the software development manager extension to our toolkit. Hal Abelson, the best educator in our department at MIT and paradoxically the most legal-minded, argued eloquently and ultimately persuasively that America Online could use the GPL. Jim Davidson, AOLserver's original architect, and George Nachman worked like monsters on the code. We got everything done by mid-June 1999, more or less as planned.

Why tell this story? Some day you might need to convince a company to open-source a software tool. Companies have seemingly infinite money but the shortage of truly gifted software developers is acute (see Chapter 17 of Philip and Alex's Guide to Web Publishing for my theory on why). A compelling argument will take the following form:

Introduction to AOLserver Programming

There are three ways to program AOLserver:
  1. C code running inside AOLserver (the C API)
  2. CGI scripts running outside of AOLserver (standard CGI interface)
  3. Tcl scripts running inside of AOLserver
I'm not going to cover the first two ways in this article. C code running inside any Web server is too dangerous for day-to-day build-a-page use. The C API is only useful to people building modules and database drivers. Nor will I cover CGI. Once you've followed the configuration instructions in the AOLserver administration document at, CGI scripting with AOLserver is the same as with any other Web server (this is sort of the point of CGI).

For the reasons noted in the introduction, most AOLserver developers use the Tcl API and we will focus on that. Inexperienced Web developers are sometimes fooled by the simplicity of Tcl into thinking that we are restricted to developing simple Web sites. They don't have the depth to realize that none of the technical challenge in developing a Web service lies in the authoring of the code for one page. The challenge is in realizing that the Web service itself is an object. The object has state, typically stored in a relational database management system. The object has methods (the URLs) and arguments to those methods (the inputs of the forms that target the URLs). The engineering challenges of Web development are (a) coming up with the correct data model for the object state, (b) coming up with a correct and maintainable organization of URLs, and (c) defining the semantics of each URL. By the time an individual page is constructed, the engineering challenge is over and it doesn't really matter whether you build that script in a simple language (e.g., Perl or Tcl) or a complex powerful language (e.g., Common Lisp or Java).

After four years of developing in Tcl, I have discovered some things that I like about the language. It is very small and simple with few syntax baroqueries. A good programmer can learn Tcl in two hours -- we find that our students at MIT have picked it up on their own during the first few days of the course. Tcl is good for handling strings, which is nice since the only data type one can read from Oracle is a string and the only data type one can read from or write to a Web connection is a string. Tcl is extremely reliable; I've never encountered a bug in the Tcl interpreter or managed to crash AOLserver via a Tcl programming mistake. The Tcl interpreter is available at run-time, which makes it easy to add things to the language such as my memoization facility. The interpreter being available at run-time also enables you to write programs that write programs and store Tcl programs in the database for execution during page service. The bottom line? Tcl's deficiencies waste about four hours of my time per year compared to the mythical ideal language.

If you're a die-hard Java nerd, don't be discouraged. When you need to do something that calls for a tower of abstraction, you can still write all the Java code you want and have it run inside the Oracle RDBMS server. Your AOLserver Tcl procedures can invoke this Java program as part of its normal interaction with the database on every page.

how to make AOLserver run some Tcl code

There are four ways to get AOLserver to run some Tcl code:
  1. ns_register_proc GET /foo -- instead of looking in the file system for a file to serve, run a specified procedure whenever a user requests a URL starting with "/foo"
  2. ns_register_filter GET /foo* -- in addition to what else the server might do in serving a request starting with "/foo", also run run a specified procedure at a specified time (before or after the page is served)
  3. foobar.tcl -- if a file anywhere under the Web server root ending in ".tcl" is requested, grab its contents and feed it to the built-in Tcl interpreter
  4. foobar.adp -- if a file anywhere under the Web server root ending in ".adp" is requested, assume that most of it is HTML but parse it to look for embedded Tcl code to interpret
We will address each of these styles of programming in turn.

Style 1, Case 1: ns_register_proc used for redirection

Back in 1995, we moved a Web site from an overloaded shared computer called "" to a dedicated server called "". There were a lot of links and bookmarks out there explicitly referencing Martigny and we wanted users who requested "" to get redirected to "". We did this by running AOLserver on Martigny and putting a small file of Tcl code into its private Tcl library.

First, we tell AOLserver to feed all requests to a Tcl procedure instead of looking around in the file system:

ns_register_proc GET / martigny_redirect
This is a Tcl procedure call. The procedure being called is named ns_register_proc. All of the procedures in the NaviServer Tcl API begin with "ns_". ns_register_proc takes three arguments: method, URL, and procname. In this case, we're saying that HTTP GETs for the URL "/" (and below) are to be handled by the Tcl procedure martigny_redirect:

proc martigny_redirect {} {
    append url_on_swissnet "" [ns_conn url]
    ns_returnredirect $url_on_swissnet

This is a Tcl procedure definition, which has the form "proc procedure-name arguments body". martigny_redirect takes no arguments. When martigny_redirect is invoked, it first computes the full URL of the corresponding file on Swissnet. The meat of this computation is a call to the API procedure ns_conn asking for the URL that was part of the request line.

With the full URL computed, martigny_redirect's second body line calls the API procedure ns_returnredirect. This writes back to the connection a set of 302 redirect headers instructing the browser to rerequest the file, this time from "".

Style 1, Case 2: ns_register_proc used to serve a whole page

A user once warned me of a "security hazard" in that the source code for many of my applications could be obtained by appending a tilde character (~) to the URL. This is because the Emacs text editor that I use will often write backup files with names like "foobar.tcl~". Since it doesn't end in ".tcl", AOLserver will normally just stream it out. This doesn't upset me personally since all of my software is open-source. However, many users of the ArsDigita Community System have developed proprietary modules that form the basis of their business. For them, we stuck in a private Tcl library file:

ns_register_proc GET /*~ ad_hide_tilde_files
ns_register_proc POST /*~ ad_hide_tilde_files
ns_register_proc HEAD /*~ ad_hide_tilde_files

proc ad_hide_tilde_files {ignore} {
    ns_return 200 text/plain "You asked for a URL that ends in ~.  
This would be a backup file generated by the Emacs text editor
and is probably not what you want."
Three calls to ns_register_proc are necessary to embrace all the possible HTTP methods via which a Web client might request a URL ending in ~. All those requests are passed to ad_hide_tilde_files, a procedure with one argument (ignore), that calls one procedure: the AOLserver API call ns_return. This API call takes three arguments: the HTTP status code (200 is normal), the MIME type of the document being sent back to the client (text/plain in this case), and a message for display in the browser window.

Style 1, Case 3: ns_register_proc used to make dynamic pages look static

In ancient times, was a purely static Web site. The URLs ended in ".html" because that's how the files in the file system were named. If you visit right now, you'll find the original static content plus user-contributed comments and links that are pulled from the database. How is that accomplished? Here is a simplified fragment from

ns_register_proc GET /*.html ad_serve_html_page

proc ad_serve_html_page {ignore} {
    set url_stub [ns_conn url]
    set full_filename "[ns_info pageroot]$url_stub"

    # read the contents of the file into the variable WHOLE_PAGE
    set stream [open $full_filename r]
    set whole_page [read $stream]
    close $stream

    # use the Tcl REGEXP facility to look for a "close body" HTML tag
    if { [regexp -nocase {(.*)</body>(.*)} $whole_page match pre_body post_body] } {
	# there was a "close body" tag, let's try to insert a comment
	# link at least
	# (but before we do anything else, let's stream out what we can, note that 
	# this is almost the entire page, before we've even gone to Oracle)
	ns_write $pre_body
	if { [catch { set db [ns_db gethandle -timeout -1] } errmsg] || [empty_string_p $db] } {
	    # the non-blocking call to gethandle raised a Tcl error; this
	    # means a db conn isn't free right this moment, so let's just
	    # return the page with a link
	    ns_log Notice "DB handle wasn't available in ad_serve_html_page"
	    ns_write " ..  hyperlinks to comments and contributed URLs ... "
        } else {
	    # we got a db connection
	    # figure out if we're supposed to display or accept comments and links
	    set selection [ns_db 0or1row $db "select * from static_pages where url_stub = '$url_stub'"]
	    if { $inline_comments_p == "t" } {
		# query the database for comments and links, then write them out
    } else {
	# couldn't find a  tag
	ns_return 200 text/html $whole_page
What looks to a Web client like a static file pulled from the file system actually results in execution of the following algorithm:
  1. read the bytes of the file from the file system
  2. see if we can find a logical place towards the end where we can stick comments and links
  3. write out as much of the file as possible to the client so that he or she isn't looking at a blank screen
  4. unless all the database connections are busy, query Oracle to get the text of comments and links on this page
  5. write out the information queries from Oracle

Style 2, Case 1: ns_register_filter used for logging

As a publisher, we'd like to use the database to keep track of Web sites that are sending us users. This will enable us to ask questions like With filters we can instruct AOLserver to "run this little piece of code after any request on the server is fulfilled". Note that logging is best done as a "trace" filter. You don't want the act of logging to slow down the user experience.

Here is a code excerpt from

# the "trace" says to run this after the file is served
# the "GET *" means it will run after every request -- 
# good thing Unix boxes are fast.
ns_register_filter trace GET * ad_referer_filter

# here is the procedure
proc ad_referer_filter {why} {
    # use AOLserver API calls to get the HTTP referer header
    #  (yes, it IS misspelled in the HTTP standard)
    set referer [ns_set get [ns_conn headers] Referer]

    ... see if this is worth logging (must be external) ...
    ... log referrals from search engines separately (look for query string) ...

    # tell Oracle to increment a counter (one counter per day per URL pair)
    ns_db dml $db "update referer_log set click_count = click_count + 1
where local_url = '[DoubleApos [ns_conn url]]' 
and foreign_url = '[DoubleApos $foreign_url]'
and trunc(entry_date) = trunc(sysdate)"
    # ask the Oracle driver how many rows were actually updated
    set n_rows [ns_ora resultrows $db]
    if { $n_rows == 0 } {
	# there wasn't already a row there, insert one
    # regardless of what happened above, return OK
    return filter_ok

Style 2, Case 2: ns_register_filter used for security

A common requirement for publishers is to make sure that a user fulfills some requirement before being allowed to see a particular page. Perhaps the user must be registered, belong to a specific group, or be a specific person. Most web servers provide "out of the box" HTTP username/password authentication but it typically isn't flexible enough to meet business requirements.

Here, in an excerpt from, we instruct AOLserver to run ad_verify_identity before serving any request starting with "/pvt/".

ns_register_filter preauth HEAD /pvt/* ad_verify_identity
ns_register_filter preauth GET /pvt/* ad_verify_identity
ns_register_filter preauth POST /pvt/* ad_verify_identity
The procedure ad_verify_identity looks at the cookie header for a username and crypted password. If it can't find the combination in its virtual memory cache (a Tcl variable declared to be shared among threads with ns_share), the procedure looks in the database. If it can't find a matching password in the database, the user is bounced and service of the request is terminated.

proc ad_verify_identity {args why} {
    # use a helper procedure to look at the cookie header
    set user_id [ad_verify_and_get_user_id]
    if {$user_id > 0} {
	# password checked out, tell AOLserver to continue
	return filter_ok
    } else {
	# helper proc returned 0; this user couldn't be verified,
	# bounce him to a registration page
	ns_returnredirect "/register/"
	# tell AOLserver to abort this thread
	return filter_return

Style 3, Case 1: search.tcl

The interpreter of *.tcl URLs as Tcl programs is actually built on the Style 1 mechanism of ns_register_proc. Here is a snippet from the file named "file.tcl", distributed with AOLserver in the shared Tcl library:

# tell AOLserver to send anything ending in .tcl to ns_sourceproc
ns_register_proc GET /*.tcl ns_sourceproc

proc ns_sourceproc {ignored} {
    # figure out what the full Unix filename of this URL is
    set script [ns_url2file [ns_conn url]]
    # call the Tcl command "source" (part of the Tcl language)
    # to read the file through the interpreter
    source $script
Here's an example from the photo database at

# search.tcl
# the target for the form search.html 

# take the variable values from the preceding form and 
# set them as local Tcl variables

# query_string 

# return as much as possible to the client so that they user
# isn't staring at a blank screen 

ns_write "<html>
<title>Image Library Search Results</title>
<body bgcolor=#ffffff text=#000000>

<h2>Image Library Search Results</h2>


# grab a connection from the Illustra database pool
set db [ns_db gethandle illustra]

# wrap a Tcl CATCH around the database query in case 
# Illustra coughs up an error
if [catch {set selection [ns_db select $db "select * 
from PlsQueryOrdered('philg_photos_pls_index', '$QQquery_string')::setof(\"Table philg_photos\")"]} errmsg] {
    ns_write "There aren't any results because you've tripped over
a bug in Illustra PLS Blade...   Ouch!
    # halt execution of this page 

# loop through the results 
while {[ns_db getrow $db $selection]} {
    ns_write " ... thumbnail and caption for one picture ... "

# write the footer (note that we have to escape string quotes
# with the backslash character)
ns_write "<hr>
<address><a href=\"\"></a></address>


Style 4, Case 1: privacy.adp

America Online did some experiments with novice Web developers and found that they were intimidated by even the simplest Perl or Tcl pages. On the other hand, if given a gentle-slope programming environment where an HTML document is a legal program, they were able to call the occasional function. Note that this is a property of the Active Server Pages system, originally developed by a small company, then acquired by Microsoft and rolled into the 3.0 version of their IIS Web server.

The AOLserver Dynamic Pages (ADP) facility in AOLserver uses the same syntax as ASP. The page author is writing HTML most of the time but a <% sequence will escape into Tcl. Here is a simple page distributed the ArsDigita Community System. The idea is to give publishers a standard privacy policy that can pick up the name of the site, the name of the publisher, and basic page style from Tcl procedures defined site-wide.

<%= [ad_header "Privacy Policy"] %>

<h2>Privacy Policy</h2>

at <a href=/><%=[ad_system_name]%></a>


We collect personal information from you only when we can use it to
provide you with some service.  For example, we ask for your email
address so that we can notify you when someone responds to a question
that you've posted in a discussion forum.



If you like reading stuff like this, you can also check out our

<li><a href="copyright.adp">Copyright Notice</a>
<li><a href="legal.adp">Legal Page</a>

Here, for example, the procedure ad_system_name will return the name of the service. Visit to see the ADP page in action.

Style 4: sophisticated uses of ADP

ADP templates are useful as standalone pages for novice developers but much more interesting as a component for software engineers. AOLserver provides a ns_register_adptag API call for defining new tags, each of which will result in a Tcl procedure being called. After a group of designers and programmers get together to define a set of site-wide styles, the content contributors can use the new tags as though they were part of the HTML language. Here we define a tag that will be useful for putting snippets of source code into HTML documents:

ns_register_adptag "codeexample" "/codeexample" tcl_adp_codeexample

proc tcl_adp_codeexample {string tagset} {
    return "<blockquote>
The ADP tag CODEEXAMPLE is associated with the Tcl procedure tcl_adp_codeexample. We use this in the problem sets for our couse, e.g., here is a bit of what is on our server from

Your Tcl programs can read this information using the AOLServer API

[ns_set get [ns_conn headers] Cookie]
If we choose to change the way that we set source code examples off from the rest of our problem sets, we can change tcl_adp_codeexample and all of our documents will be changed in a consistent manner.

The ADP facility is even more useful when invoked programmatically from a .tcl page or ns_register_proc. For example, the ArsDigita Community System style package (see provides for a division of labor between programmers and designers. The programmer builds a .tcl page. The designer uploads templates to a separate directory tree, each template named to correspond to a .tcl page.

The programmer's job is no longer to write bytes to the user's browser but rather to query the database and set up variables for use by the template. At the end of every .tcl page, the programmer calls ad_return_template. This procedure scores all the relevant templates against user and publisher language and graphics preferences, finds the highest-scoring template and calls the ns_adp_parse API call to stuff the template with the computed variables.

The end result? You've got a multi-lingual site, with graphics and text-only versions, that can be given a complete graphical facelift without involving the programmer.

Next Article

We've covered some of the basic territory of server-side scripting with AOLserver. In the next article, we'll discuss building database-backed applications.


Add a comment | Add a link