Fun! with Ajax

A couple of weekends ago I decided to take up one of the Work Items for CouchDb: write a client for the server that runs as JavaScript in the user’s browser, Ajax-style. As someone whose day job is writing web sites using Microsoft ASP.NET and Microsoft SQL Server, writing an application in plain JavaScript+HTML comes as a refreshing change.

The challenge

My first thought about how to create a simple explorer for a CouchDb server was that I would write a Python library that would speak to the database, and plug it in to my WSGI-powered framework and write the server logic in Python with templates using Genshi. But it occurred to me that this would not fit Damien Katz’s criterion that it could be bundled with the server. To do that I would need to use what you might call pure Ajax, meaning a page that uses a JavaScript program to write most of the page. The JavaScript would have to download the database information using XMLHttpRequest and generate HTML using the DOM. Could I do it?

Hello, World!

The first step to finding out was writing a ‘Hello, World’ program. This would talk to the database and display something.

As it turns out, if you have a CouchDb server running, you can visit http://localhost:8888/ and see this:

{"couchdb": "Welcome", "version": "0.6.4"}

This is a JSON object with two fields, couchdb and version. Just the thing.

Let’s start with the HTML:

<!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.01//EN"
<html lang="en-GB">
        <meta http-equiv="Content-Type" 
                content="text/html; charset=utf-8">
        <meta name="author" content="Damian Cugley">
        <script type="text/javascript" src="../json.js"></script>
        <script type="text/javascript" src="hello.js"></script>
        <link rel="stylesheet" type="text/css" href="hello.css">
    <body onload="showWelcomeMessage()">
        <p>A message from the CouchDb server:</p>
        <blockquote id="welcome">
            <p>(You need JavaScript activated for this to work.)</p>

The reason for the strange message inside the blockquote is that we don’t know whether JavaScript is enabled in the user’s browser. If all goes well, the message will be removed by the JavaScript when it starts up. Otherwise the showWelcomeMessage function is called, and one of the things it does is remove the message.

The function will be defined in the JavaScript file hello.js, but first we will need a little infrastructure.

Functions for Adding to the DOM

While nowadays there are several JavaScript libraries that cover this sort of thing, for this project I wanted to have no dependencies (apart from json.js).

Let’s start with a few shorthands for adding content to the DOM. First, getElement for finding elements by id:

function getElement(elementOrId) {
    if (elementOrId.nodeType) {
        return elementOrId;
    return document.getElementById(elementOrId);

If passed an element, it just returns that element. The idea is that all functions that operate on a DOM element will accept either an element object or the id of an element, and they will use getElement when necessary to get the real element.

Here’s my way to add a child element to an element, inspired by Fredrik Lundh’s ElementTree library:

function subelement(elementOrId, tagName, atts, text) {
    var elt = document.createElement(tagName);
    if (atts) {
        for (var key in atts) {
            var value = atts[key];
            if (typeof(value) == 'function') {
            elt.setAttribute(key, atts[key]);
    if (text) {
    return elt;

(This is the version that works on conforming browsers. Some complications have to be added to also support IE6.) The idea here is to compress three or four lines of DOM code in to one expression. For example, to add a paragraph to a section you might have something like the following:

subelement(elt, 'p', {'class': 'lol'}, 'I can has cheesburger?');

Because it returns the new child element, it can also be nested, as in

var tbodyElt = subelement(subelement(elt, 'table'), 'tbody');

Its counterpart is removeChildren. This removes everything contained by a given element, preparing it for new content:

function removeChildren(elementOrId) {
    var elt = getElement(elementOrId);
    var childElt = elt.firstChild;
    while (childElt) {
        var nextElt = childElt.nextSibling;
        childElt = nextElt;
    return elt;

This function also returns the element, saving its caller from also calling getElement. To see the two functions in action together, we can look at showLoading, which displays a ‘Loading …’ message while we are waiting for the server:

function showLoading(elementOrId) {
    var elt = removeChildren(elementOrId);
    subelement(elt, 'p', {'class': 'loading'}, 'Loading \u2026');   
    return elt;

Using these it is straightforward to create a function pretty that pretty-prints a JSON-style object, creating a table for an object, a ul list for an array, and a div for numbers and strings.

Asynchronous HTTP

Now we need a function for doing an HTTP request. The request is issued asynchronously, so this function returns immediately. At some future point when the response arrives, the function callback will be called.

function beginRequest(method, uri, content, callback) {
    var req = createXmlHttpRequestObject();
    if (req) {
        req.onreadystatechange = function () {
            if (req.readyState == 4 /* complete */) {
                if (200 <= req.status && req.status < 300) {
                    var obj = req.responseText.parseJSON();
                } else {
                    showMessage(req.status + ' ' + req.statusText);
        }, uri, true);

This is perhaps a little simplistic since it does not do anything much about errors form the server—it will simply fail to call callback.

Back to Hello World

As I said earlier, all the above is infrastructure that will be used throughout the application. Here at last is the showWelcomeMessage function itself:

function showWelcomeMessage() {    
    var elt = showLoading('welcome');    
    beginRequest('GET', '/', '', function (obj) {
        pretty(elt, obj);

The first line replaces the ‘no JavaScript’ message with ‘Loading …’. Then it starts an asynchronous request for /. Since hello.html is on the CouchDb server, this means http://localhost:8888/ (unless you have changed the server’s configuration). When the server replies, the function

function (obj) {
    pretty(elt, obj);

is called. First it removes the ‘Loading’ message, and then it replaces it with a pretty-printed version of the JSON object from the server.

Once I got this working, adding another function that requests a list of database names and displays them is easy to do.


Here it is displayed in Mozilla Firefox with Firebug showing me the HTTP requests that have been issued by my JavaScript code. Neaters!

My original idea was that the link for a database perdita would link to db.html?db=perdita, with the JavaScript code obtaining the database name from the query string. This did not work, because CouchDb’s HTTP file-serving subsystem does not strip the query string from the URL before looking for the file (so it looks for a file called db.html?db=perdita, which does not exist).

So instead the links display the database information in the same page.

Modes and Modularity

The first version of this code had the functions hiding and showing parts of the page explicitly. This is OK for one or two sections that need to be switched on or off, but I decided I needed more structure if I am to make it work with database documents, databases, and the server views, plus whatever other views I want to add later. So I added support for application ‘modes’.

So far as the JavaScript is concerned, a mode just means a particular subset of the HTML in hello.html is visible. The sections are all present in hello.html, with all but the initial selection hidden through their style attribute:

<div class="section" id="dbListSection">
    <ul class="commands" id="dbListCommands"></ul>
    <div id="dbList"></div>
<div class="section" id="dbInfoSection" style="display: none;">
    <h2>Database Info</h2>
    <div id="dbInfo"></div>
<div class="section" id="docListSection" style="display: none">
    <div id="docList"></div>

In the JavaScript there is a table of which sections are visible in which modes:

var sectionModeLists = {
    welcomeSection: ['welcome'],
    dbListSection: ['welcome'],
    dbInfoSection: ['db'],
    docListSection: ['db', 'doc'],
    docSection: ['doc'],
    hello: ['welcome'],
    trail: ['db', 'doc']

Now whenever changing mode, we call setMode to hide or show them.

function setMode(mode) {
    for (var section in sectionModeLists) {
        var modes = sectionModeLists[section];
        if (typeof (modes) == 'function') {
        var display = 'none';
        for (var i = 0; i < modes.length; ++i) {
            if (modes[i] == mode) {
                display = 'block';
        var elt = getElement(section); = display;

As an example, there is the selectDatabase function called when the user clicks on a database name:

function selectDatabase(dbName) {
    var infoElt = showLoading('dbInfo');
    beginRequest('GET', '/' + dbName + '/', '', function (obj) {
        pretty(infoElt, obj);

Once this is all set up, only a little handle-turning is required to take care of the list of databases, the list of database documents, and displaying one document.

The Editor

The editor used to change the values of a document is still a work in progress. It works in a fashion similar to the pretty-printer function: it iterates over the properties of the document, and creates HTML elements depending on the type of value the property has. It keeps a list of these HTML elements in a list, which it stores on the Save Changes button. (I am making a point of not having a layer of business objects between the document obtained from the server and the HTML used to edit it, and all the application state is passed around as function parameters rather than stored in global variables.)

The Save Changes button uses a variation on the ‘Loading’ conventions. First, (obviously) the message is ‘Saving …’ not ’Loading …’. Second, the HTTP request is made synchronously. This is important, because we cannot safely dispose of the form until we know the changes truly have been saved.

Forms don’t use the ‘mode’ system described above. Instead when a form is shown it is displayed on top of the rest of the page content, in a style similar to the sheets introduced with Apple’s Aqua conventions. This is the closest we can get to a modal dialogue box in a web page.

JavaScript and HTML as an Application Platform

I started this project as an experiment to see how I took to the Ajax style of web development. So far it has been fun—the work described here took me about one working day (Saturday) and part of Sunday. Compared with the dead weight of Microsoft Visual Studio .NET 2003 and Microsoft SQL Server 2005 Management Studio, working with just a text editor (TextMate) and occasional use of Firebug felt practically weightless.

This is something of a toy app; would this technique work for a larger application? I think the mode concept provides a structure that could handle navigation a fair bit more elaborate than that in Hello. At some point keeping the entire app in one JavaScript file might make collaboration between programmers difficult. And you need developers who are not afraid of JavaScript and can work in a fairly disciplined fashion without their hands being held.

In terms of scalability, this is probably the most scalable app I have written—all the logic is in the user’s browser, which is the ultimate in scalability, and CouchDb’s lockless concurrency is intended to make horizontal scaling of the server a snap. Having been caught out by database locking in the past, I think CouchDb’s locklessness is actually as interesting a feature as its RESTiness.

Future Work

I have created a sort of project notepad at This includes a page for Future Development Ideas. Apart from fixing up obvious gaps (such as compatibility with various browsers), I would like to make the document editor cleverer about properties whose values are lists.

I would like to get Hello in to a state where it can be merged in with the CouchDb project files—since the script needs to be run on the CouchDb server to work, it would make sense for it to be bundled with the server. That’s why I have not bothered to set a proper project web site.

Latest Version

I have a new version 1.1 available as HelloCouchDb-1.1.tgz, with release notes online.