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Handling Cookies from within Servlets

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In this chapter, Marty Hall discusses how to explicitly set and read cookies from within servlets.
This chapter is excerpted from Core Servlets and JavaServer Pages, by Marty Hall.
This chapter is from the book

Topics in This Chapter

  • Purposes for cookies

  • Problems with cookies

  • The Cookie API

  • A simple servlet that sets cookies

  • A cookie-reporting servlet

  • Some utilities that simplify cookie handling

  • A customized search engine front end based upon cookies

Cookies are small bits of textual information that a Web server sends to a browser and that the browser returns unchanged when later visiting the same Web site or domain. By letting the server read information it sent the client previously, the site can provide visitors with a number of conveniences such as presenting the site the way the visitor previously customized it or letting identifiable visitors in without their having to enter a password. Most browsers avoid caching documents associated with cookies, so the site can return different content each time.

This chapter discusses how to explicitly set and read cookies from within servlets, and the next chapter shows you how to use the servlet session tracking API (which can use cookies behind the scenes) to keep track of users as they move around to different pages within your site.

8.1 Benefits of Cookies

This section summarizes four typical ways in which cookies can add value to your site.

Identifying a User During an E-commerce Session

Many on-line stores use a "shopping cart" metaphor in which the user selects an item, adds it to his shopping cart, then continues shopping. Since the HTTP connection is usually closed after each page is sent, when the user selects a new item to add to the cart, how does the store know that it is the same user that put the previous item in the cart? Persistent (keep-alive) HTTP connections (see Section 7.4) do not solve this problem, since persistent connections generally apply only to requests made very close together in time, as when a browser asks for the images associated with a Web page. Besides, many servers and browsers lack support for persistent connections. Cookies, however, can solve this problem. In fact, this capability is so useful that servlets have an API specifically for session tracking, and servlet authors don't need to manipulate cookies directly to take advantage of it. Session tracking is discussed in Chapter 9.

Avoiding Username and Password

Many large sites require you to register in order to use their services, but it is inconvenient to remember and enter the username and password each time you visit. Cookies are a good alternative for low-security sites. When a user registers, a cookie containing a unique user ID is sent to him. When the client reconnects at a later date, the user ID is returned, the server looks it up, determines it belongs to a registered user, and permits access without an explicit username and password. The site may also remember the user's address, credit card number, and so forth, thus simplifying later transactions.

Customizing a Site

Many "portal" sites let you customize the look of the main page. They might let you pick which weather report you want to see, what stock and sports results you care about, how search results should be displayed, and so forth. Since it would be inconvenient for you to have to set up your page each time you visit their site, they use cookies to remember what you wanted. For simple settings, this customization could be accomplished by storing the page settings directly in the cookies. Section 8.6 gives an example of this. For more complex customization, however, the site just sends the client a unique identifier and keeps a server-side database that associates identifiers with page settings.

Focusing Advertising

Most advertiser-funded Web sites charge their advertisers much more for displaying "directed" ads than "random" ads. Advertisers are generally willing to pay much more to have their ads shown to people that are known to have some interest in the general product category. For example, if you go to a search engine and do a search on "Java Servlets," the search site can charge an advertiser much more for showing you an ad for a servlet development environment than for an ad for an on-line travel agent specializing in Indonesia. On the other hand, if the search had been for "Java Hotels," the situation would be reversed. Without cookies, the sites have to show a random ad when you first arrive and haven't yet performed a search, as well as when you search on something that doesn't match any ad categories. Cookies let them remember "Oh, that's the person who was searching for such and such previously" and display an appropriate (read "high priced") ad instead of a random (read "cheap") one.

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