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2.9 EL Expressions in Custom Actions

The JSTL expression language is one of JSTL's most exciting features. If you implement JSP custom actions, you may be wondering how you can use the expression language for your own action attributes.

You can incorporate the expression language into your custom actions, but for JSTL 1.0, you cannot do it portably. Here's why: The JSP expert group is ultimately responsible for the expression language, which will be incorporated into JSP 2.0. When JSTL 1.0 was finalized—well before JSP 2.0—the JSP expert group had not yet defined a portable API for accessing the expression language. Because of that scheduling mismatch, until JSP 2.0 you will have to make do with writing code specific to the JSTL Reference Implementation.17 JSP 2.0 will define a portable mechanism for accessing the expression language.18

This section shows you how to implement a custom action that permits EL expressions for an attribute using the JSTL 1.0 Reference Implementation.


For JSTL 1.0, it's not possible to use the EL for custom action attributes in a portable fashion.

Figure 2–14 shows a JSP page that uses a custom action to display values contained in a map. The maps shown in Figure 2–14 are accessed through some of the JSTL implicit objects discussed in "Implicit Objects" on page 64.

Figure 2-14Figure 2–14 A Custom Action That Processes EL Expressions for Its Attribute

The JSP page shown in Figure 2–14 is listed in Listing 2.27.

Listing 2.27 index.jsp

<!DOCTYPE HTML PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN">
      <title>Using the EL for Custom Action Attributes</title>
      <%@ taglib uri='WEB-INF/core-jstl.tld' prefix='core-jstl' %>

      <font size='5'>Request Parameters:</font>
      <p><core-jstl:showMap map='${param}'/>

      <p><font size='5'>Request Headers:</font>
      <p><core-jstl:showMap map='${header}'/>

      <p><font size='5'>Cookies:</font>
      <p><core-jstl:showMap map='${cookie}'/>

The preceding JSP page uses a custom action—<core-jstl:showMap>—that displays values stored in a map. That custom action is unspectacular except for one feature: you can use the expression language to specify the action's map attribute. Let's see how that custom action is implemented. First, we must specify a tag library descriptor (TLD) that defines the library and its lone action. That TLD, specified in WEB-INF/core-jstl.tld, is listed in Listing 2.28.

Listing 2.28 WEB-INF/core-jstl.tld

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="ISO-8859-1" ?>
<!DOCTYPE taglib
  PUBLIC "-//Sun Microsystems, Inc.//DTD JSP Tag Library 1.2//EN"

   <short-name>JSTL Examples</short-name>
      A custom action that shows how to incorporate the JSTL
      expression language for custom action attributes

         This action shows the values stored in a map


The preceding TLD specifies the name of the action—showMap—and the action's one required attribute, named map. The TLD also specifies the action's tag handler: tags.ShowMapAction, which is listed in Listing 2.29.

Listing 2.29 WEB-INF/classes/tags/ShowMapAction.java

package tags;

import java.util.*;
import javax.servlet.jsp.*;
import javax.servlet.jsp.tagext.*;

// WARNING: non-standard class
import org.apache.taglibs.standard.lang.support.Expression

public class ShowMapAction extends TagSupport {
   private String mapName;
   private Map map;

   public void setMap(String mapName) {
      this.mapName = mapName;
   public int doStartTag() throws JspException {
      // EL expressions must be evaluated in doStartTag()
      // and not in attribute setter methods, because servlet
      // containers can reuse tags, and if an attribute takes a 
      // string literal, the setter method might not be called 
      // every time the tag is encountered.
      map = (Map)ExpressionEvaluatorManager.evaluate(
              "map",                // attribute name
              mapName,              // expression
              java.util.Map.class,  // expected type
              this,                 // this tag handler
              pageContext);         // the page context

      if(map == null)
         return SKIP_BODY;

      Iterator it = map.keySet().iterator();
      JspWriter out = pageContext.getOut();

      while(it.hasNext()) {
         Object key = it.next(), value = map.get(key);

         try {
            if(value instanceof String[]) {
               String[] strings = (String[])value;

               for(int i=0; i < strings.length; ++i) {
            else {
               out.println(key + "=" + value);
         catch(java.io.IOException ex) {
            throw new JspException(ex);
      return SKIP_BODY;

The preceding tag handler for the <core-jstl:showMap> action uses the Apache expression evaluator manager to evaluate the value specified for the map attribute with the setMap method. You pass the ExpressionEvaluatorManager.evaluate method the attribute's name, the expression specified for that attribute, the type that you expect the attribute to be, a reference to the tag handler and its page context. That method evaluates the expression and returns the appropriate object.

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