Building your Ajax application with PHP

Right, so how do I start?

For this demo, we’re going to keep it simple and have two files. index.php is our main file that is loaded in the normal way by the user, and ajax.php is the script that JavaScript will call and will deliver some information.

So what are we actually going to do? Well, let’s break it down:

  • index.php will contain a form where the user can enter their name.
  • When submitted, the form will talk to ajax.php and determine whether that name is in a predefined list.
  • If it is, we will say ‘Welcome back’. If not, we will say ‘Nice to meet you, stranger!’.

Now this isn’t particularly groundbreaking. If you wanted, you could do it in JavaScript alone, but that’s not the point. Once you know how to do this, you can adapt this to do something a bit more interesting.

Building the form

This is textbook stuff here, we’ll just build a form with one textbox and one submit button (we’ll add the JavaScript later).

  1. <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.1//EN" "">
  2. <html xmlns="" xml:lang="en-gb">
  3. <head>
  4. <meta http-equiv="Content-Type" content="text/html; charset=UTF-8" />
  5. <title>First ever Ajax application with PHP</title>
  6. </head>
  7. <body>
  8. <form name="ajaxform" method="get" action="#"><!-- leaving the action to do nothing for now -->
  9. Name:&nbsp;&nbsp;<input type="text" name="name" value="" /><br /><br />
  10. <input type="submit" value=" OK " />
  11. </form>
  12. </body>
  13. </html>

Building the backend

OK, so now we have our basic form, let’s build ajax.php, which will check for the name they entered in a list of names. We won’t do any fancy XML for now, we’ll simply return 1 if the name is in the list and 0 if it isn’t.

  1. <?php
  3. // Part of a tutorial by Peter Upfold
  4. // Released under the Modified BSD Licence:
  5. //
  7. session_start(); // start a session
  9. header("Content-type: text/plain");
  10. // this is only plain text, so set the HTTP header accordingly
  12. $names = array( // this is our array of names - feel free to change/add as required!
  13. 'Bob',
  14. 'Jim',
  15. 'Mark',
  16. 'Graham'
  17. );
  19. if (in_array($_GET&#91;'name'], $names)) { // if that name is in our array above
  21.     echo '1'; // echo 1 (tells JavaScript we know this person)
  23. }
  25. else { // otherwise
  27.     echo '0'; // echo 0
  29. }
  32. ?>

So let’s just test it first without the Ajax. Put these files in a web-accessible place, and then pop open your favourite browser and go to (if you’re running a local Apache/IIS server) http://localhost/wherever/you/put/it/ajax.php?name=Bob. You should simply receive a 1 in response, which is correct.

Now try it with something random, to test the 0. Navigate to http://localhost/wherever/you/put/it/ajax.php?name=sdnjshduhwhwed and you should receive a 0. Good!

JavaScript time!

Now we need to write the JavaScript that will run this request when the user clicks the button and will interpret the 1 or 0 response to display a particular message.

Just a word of warning – Ajax is cool and everything, but do not presume all of your users have access to JavaScript and are willing to run it in their browser. In a real environment, we’d also build a fallback that doesn’t require JavaScript for users with it turned off and for people with special accessibility needs (such as those with screen readers). Don’t lock people out of your application by not providing fallback functionality.

In order to gain access to Ajax functionality, we need to initialise it in the user’s browser. There are two ways of doing this. For most (good) browsers, we use a built-in thing called XMLHttpRequest and for Internet Explorer 6/5.5 and below, we need to create an ActiveX control which does the same thing.

Once we’ve enabled this, we then send the request off to ajax.php and wait for a response. This Ajax object we’ve created has something called readyState attached to it. I won’t go through all the possibilities, but once the readyState is 4, we’re ready to rock.

So we build a little function which is run every time the readyState changes. That checks whether it’s 4 yet or not. If it is, we do the relevant processing with the information. If not, we don’t do anything and wait until the readyState changes again.

OK, so here is a basic shell of the JavaScript we will add in a minute to index.php (in fact it could be index.html, as it doesn’t have any PHP in it!). Plonk this in a <script> tag in the head of your page.

If this all looks a bit scary (maybe you haven’t done much JavaScript before), the vital thing is do not panic and don’t give up yet. For now, if you’re not confident, simply copy my code exactly and as you begin to explore it, you will be able to edit it to your needs.

  1. var ajaxObject = false;
  2. // this is our object which gives us access
  3. // to Ajax functionality
  5. function doAjaxQuery(url) {
  7.         ajaxObject = false;
  9.     if (window.XMLHttpRequest) { // if we're on Gecko (Firefox etc.), KHTML/WebKit (Safari/Konqueror) and IE7
  11.         ajaxObject = new XMLHttpRequest(); // create our new Ajax object
  13.         if (ajaxObject.overrideMimeType) { // older Mozilla-based browsers need some extra help
  14.             ajaxObject.overrideMimeType('text/xml');
  15.         }
  18.     }
  19.     else if (window.ActiveXObject) { // and now for IE6
  20.             try {// IE6 has two methods of calling the object, typical!
  22.             ajaxObject = new ActiveXObject("Msxml2.XMLHTTP");
  23.             // create the ActiveX control
  26.         } catch (e) { // catch the error if creation fails
  28.             try { // try something else
  30.             ajaxObject = new ActiveXObject("Microsoft.XMLHTTP");
  31.             // create the ActiveX control (using older XML library)
  34.             } catch (e) {} // catch the error if creation fails
  35.         }
  36.     }
  38.         if (!ajaxObject) { // if the object doesn't work
  40.             // for some reason it hasn't worked, so show an error
  42.         alert('Sorry, your browser seems to not support this functionality.');
  44.         return false; // exit out of this function
  45.         }
  48.         ajaxObject.onreadystatechange = ajaxResponse; // when the ready state changes, run this function
  52.'GET', url, true); // open the query to the server
  54.         ajaxObject.send(null); // close the query
  56.     // and now we wait until the readystate changes, at which point
  57.     // ajaxResponse(); is executed
  59.     return true;
  61.     } // end function doAjaxQuery
  63. function ajaxResponse() { // this function will handle the processing
  65.     // N.B. - in making your own functions like this, please note
  66.     // that you cannot have ANY PARAMETERS for this type of function!!
  68.     if (ajaxObject.readyState == 4) { // if ready state is 4 (the page is finished loading)
  70.         if (ajaxObject.status == 200) { // if the status code is 200 (everything's OK)
  72.             // here is where we will do the processing
  74.             if (ajaxObject.responseText == '1') { // if the result is 1
  76.                 alert('Welcome back!');
  78.             }
  80.             else { // otherwise
  82.                 alert('Nice to meet you, stranger!');
  84.             }
  86.         } // end if
  88.         else { // if the status code is anything else (bad news)
  90.             alert('There was an error. HTTP error code ' + ajaxObject.status.toString() + '.');
  91.             return; // exit
  93.         }
  95.     } // end if
  97.     // if the ready state isn't 4, we don't do anything, just
  98.     // wait until it is...
  101. } // end function ajaxResponse

As you can see, for now we simply pop up a message and don’t do anything particularly special, but that’s OK for now.

Integrating the script and the page

We need to make some minor changes to our index.php to make it JavaScript enabled. I’ll repost everything from <body> down to the bottom (you’ve added that JavaScript, right?!).

  1. <body>
  2. <form name="ajaxform" method="get" action="javascript:;" onsubmit="doAjaxQuery('ajax.php?name=' + document.getElementById('name').value);">
  3. Name:&nbsp;&nbsp;<input type="text" name="name" id="name" value="" /><br /><br />
  4. <input type="submit" value=" OK " />
  5. </form>
  6. </body>
  7. </html>

Notice that above, I call doAjaxQuery with one parameter, the URL to send the data. This is simply ajax.php, plus the query mark ?, then name=. After this, we ask JavaScript to get the value of the name field and stick it at the end of the URL.

So if we enter Bob as the name, the URL JavaScript would query would be ajax.php?name=Bob (filling in the name for us).

OK at this point your script should work, so try it out with both the names in the list and some random names too to make sure it comes out with the right response.

(If you’re having trouble, download the completed files that I’ve tested that work below).

Looking in the internals

So let’s just recap exactly what happens from the point of view of the first page.

  • The user loads the first page and enters a name into the box called name.
  • The user submits the form, which kicks doAjaxQuery into action.
  • doAjaxQuery sets up an Ajax request and submits it (to a URL containing the contents of name).
  • We wait until ajaxObject.readyState is equal to 4.
  • ajax.php responds and checks to see if the contents of name it has been given is in the list.
  • If there is a match, PHP responds 1, otherwise 0.
  • JavaScript takes this response and displays an appropriate message.

We’re done (almost)

Wow, that’s done! If you followed this correctly, you should now have a very simple Ajax application! Armed with this knowledge you should now be able to adapt this code to do something maybe a bit more complex. In fact, you can do quite a lot without even touching XML.

In a future tutorial, I’ll be looking at parsing XML with JavaScript, so we can do more complicated actions with the responses sent by our server. We’ll be looking at building our own XML tags to inform JavaScript of what exactly is going and transmit a bit more information between Ajax requests.

If you want a copy of the completed script, download the files below.




If you feel like exploring a bit more, you could try doing these things:

  • Create a div and instead of popping an alert box, place the message inside that div.
  • Add a box for age and also use ajax.php to check that age is within a range of acceptable ages. Use another value (2 for example) to indicate this check has failed. Modify the JavaScript to display an appropriate message.
  • Change the script to do something completely different!