Lessons from WebDAV for the Next Generation Web Infrastructure

E. James Whitehead, Jr.
Department of Information and Computer Science
University of California, Irvine


The Web Distributed Authoring and Versioning (WebDAV) working group of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) has extended the HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP) to support remote collaborative authoring of network resources of any media type. This process of extending HTTP exposed several weaknesses of HTTP in the domain of collaborative authoring, notably in parameter marshalling, support for multi-resource operations, support for operating on hierarchies of resources, and status reporting. The need to have built-in locking support was also identified. This paper describes these shortcomings of HTTP, and collects this experience in the form of requirements for the next generation Web infrastructure.

1. Introduction

Propelled by the desire to complete the original vision of the Web as a medium for collaboration in addition to its better known roles of information dissemination, in 1996 the Web Distributed Authoring and Versioning (WebDAV) working group [WebDAV][Whitehead, 1997] adopted the goal of making distributed web authoring tools broadly interoperable and began work on extending the HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP) [Fielding et al.,1997].  The WebDAV distributed authoring protocol [Goland et al., 1998] provides facilities for:

The process of extending HTTP to support remote collaborative authoring exposed several shortcomings in HTTP, notably in parameter marshalling, support for multi-resource operations, support for operating on hierarchies of resources, and error reporting. The need to have built-in locking support was also identified.  This paper describes these shortcomings of HTTP, and collects this experience in the form of requirements for the next generation Web infrastructure. In many cases, these requirements are a reformulation of the requirements found in the WebDAV  requirements document [Slein et al.,1998].

2. Parameter Marshalling

HTTP 1.x provides two ways of encoding parameter information for a particular HTTP method request: request headers and the request body.  Similarly, response headers and the response body are the two ways an HTTP server can pass results back to a client.   HTTP 1.x predominantly uses headers to transport parameters in a request message, exceptions being the PUT method, where the request body contains the entity being uploaded, and the POST method, which often contains form data, but which can carry any information.

The WebDAV property methods, PROPPATCH and PROPFIND, first uncovered the limitations of HTTP headers. Within WebDAV, a property is a name, value pair where the name is a URI, providing a decentralized namespace, and the value is well-formed XML [Bray, Paoli, Sperberg-McQueen, 1998] of any length. A WebDAV property value can be in any of the ISO 10646 [ISO 10646] character set encodings supported by XML, since property values are often human-readable. The PROPPATCH method allows the client to set and remove multiple properties with a single method invocations, while PROPFIND may retrieve all properties and values, named properties and their values, or only the names of all defined properties.  The problem raised by these two methods is how best to marshal the information in a PROPPATCH request or PROPFIND result.

HTTP headers proved inadequate for marshaling PROPPATCH requests due to their poor internationalization support, and inefficiency handling large header values.  Since HTTP headers do not have any support for encoding ISO 10646 character set information, WebDAV would have needed to develop additional encoding strategies for the ISO 10646 character set encodings supported by XML. Once such an encoding technique was developed, there would still be problems with encoding long-length properties into HTTP headers.   Although in theory HTTP headers do not have bounded length, poor HTTP implementations have effectively limited HTTP headers to short lengths, with headers under 254 characters having best results.  While HTTP headers can be split into multiple headers with the same name, this is inefficient since the header name is repeated multiple times.

Due to the limitations of HTTP headers, PROPPATCH marshals its request parameters into well-formed XML, which is submitted in the request body. XML has strong internationalization support with its built-in support for multiple character set encodings, and has no length limits on XML element (hence WebDAV property) values. By placing the XML into the request body, the unlimited length of the request body matches the unlimited length of a well-formed XML stream. Furthermore, XML is extensible, allowing new elements to be added in the middle of an XML stream, supporting future addition of WebDAV, or third-party elements into XML protocol elements, or XML property values.

Based on the experience with properties, WebDAV developed a design rule for where to encode parameter information.  As a rule of thumb, parameters are encoded in XML and submitted in the request entity body when they have unbounded length, when they may be shown to a human user and hence require encoding in an ISO 10646 character set, or when there is a high expectation the parameters will require significant future extension.   Otherwise, parameters are encoded in HTTP headers.

The WebDAV experience with parameter marshalling leads to the following requirements for the next generation Web infrastructure.

Internationalizable marshalling: It must be possible to marshal data encoded in any ISO 10646 character set encoding.

Unlimited length marshalling: It must be possible to marshal data of any length.

Extensible marshalling syntax: It must be possible to add new data items to a marshaled data stream without affecting existing applications.

3. Multi-resource Operations

WebDAV supports COPY and MOVE methods for use in manipulating the namespace of Web resources.  With both COPY and MOVE, the method is sent to the source resource, and the destination is specified by the Destination header. Though this seems simple and straightforward, there are several lurking difficulties. First, when a method affects two resources, should the precondition headers If-[None]-Match and If-Modified-Since apply to the source resource, the destination resource, or both? WebDAV chose to have these headers only apply to the source resource, and not to the destination resource.  However, since there is a need to specify a precondition which affects the source and/or the destination resource, WebDAV specifies a new precondition header called "If" which allows a precondition to be matched to a named resource, and hence can specify preconditions against the source or the destination.

The underlying difficulty is HTTP's lack of support for multi-resource operations.   HTTP assumes an operation will only affect one resource, and provides no facilities for stating that some headers apply to one resource, while other headers apply to another.   This leads to headers like the WebDAV "Overwrite" header which is explicitly defined to control overwriting of the destination resource.  As a result, a MOVE or COPY can have some headers which apply just to the source (If-Match), to just the destination (Overwrite), and to both the source and the destination (If).

The WebDAV experience with multi-resource operations leads to the following requirements:

Multi-resource operations: It must be possible to support operations which affect two or more resources.  It must be possible to specify pairings of individual parameters to individual resources.

Multi-resource preconditions: It must be possible to specify operation preconditions which operate over several resources.

4. Operations on Resource Hierarchies

One important efficiency optimization in the design of WebDAV is the ability to specify copy, move, property retrieval, or locking over an entire hierarchy with a single method invocation. Using the Depth header, the semantics of COPY, MOVE, PROPFIND, and LOCK can be modified to affect only the requested resource, a depth of 0, or a requested collection and all of its children, and their children, etc., with a depth of infinity. PROPFIND alone supports Depth 1 semantics, specifying the retrieval of properties on a collection and its children, but not its children's children.

The semantics of a depth infinity COPY, MOVE and PROPFIND are defined using a propagation model, with the initial method invocation being passed to a collection, which then rewrites the Destination header before propagating the original method invocation with all the original headers (excepting the rewritten Destination) and the original request body along to its children. By definition, the action of depth infinity COPY, MOVE, and PROPFIND operations are are best-effort, and non-atomic.  Thus, an error in the middle of a tree copy does not cause a complete rollback of the copy, nor does such an error necessarily cause a halt to the copy operation. These semantics make it much easier to implement tree operations, as they do not require a transaction engine to be present in the server to implement a rollback.

Since the semantics for COPY, MOVE, and PROPFIND are non-transactional, it would be possible to achieve the same result as a depth infinity operation by sending a pipelined stream of COPY, MOVE, or PROPFIND requests, one for each individual resource in the collection hierarchy.   However, such an approach suffers from significant performance penalties due to having to first retrieve the membership of the collection hierarchy, and the overhead of re-specifying essentially the same request once for each resource in the hierarchy.

As an exception to the best-effort semantics for tree operations, tree locks have all or nothing semantics; either the entire tree is successfully locked, or the tree lock fails. Since the lock does not change the state of the body of the resource, it is easier to implement the rollback for locking. However, due to their all or nothing semantics, tree locks cannot be specified using a stream of pipelined individual requests. This ability to specify all or nothing tree semantics provides one more reason, in addition to the efficiency argument, for supporting operations which act on hierarchies of resources.

As is the case for multi-resource operations, supporting hierarchy operations is difficult because of the HTTP assumption that operations only affect a single resource.  Like the multi-resource case, precondition operations are difficult to specify for tree operations. There is a need to specify both a precondition which affects the entire hierarchy, and a precondition which only affects individual resources in the hierarchy. For example, since a single resource deep in a hierarchy might be individually locked, there is a need to pass a lock token to that resource for a tree move. A client might also want to ensure the tree operation only takes place if all the resources are in a state known to the client, requiring submission of multiple URI, entity-tag pairs.  WebDAV supports both these precondition types with its If header.

Hierarchy operations become more complex when they are combined with multi-resource operations, as with a tree copy and move, where there is a source hierarchy and a destination hierarchy. Ideally it would be possible to specify parameters which affect either the entire source hierarchy or the entire destination hierarchy, and then also specify individual exceptions to these parameters (e.g., overwrite all destinations, except for foo.html). However, since HTTP does not provide marshalling support for hierarchy operations, the best that can be accomplished using HTTP is to specify parameters which affect all resources, with no individual exceptions.

WebDAV hierarchy operations suggest the following requirements for the next generation Web infrastructure:

Hierarchy support: It must be possible to support operations which operate over a hierarchy of resources. Specifically, support is needed for operations which affect a collection and its children, and for operations which affect a collection, it's children, and it's children's children, etc.

Marshalling support for hierarchies: It must be possible to support parameter to hierarchy mappings, and parameter to resource mappings.

Hierarchy preconditions: It must be possible to specify preconditions which affect an entire hierarchy.

5. Status Reporting

WebDAV extended the HTTP object model by adding properties to each resource, and by defining a collection resource type. Both of these extensions affect HTTP status reporting.  By adding properties, status reports must now be capable of distinguishing between status which describes the whole resource on which properties are defined, and status which describes just a single property on a resource.

By defining collections, and hierarchy operations which operate over collections, status reports must now be capable of reporting success and failure across multiple resources. Additionally, since it is possible to specify a depth infinity PROPFIND, status reports must be capable of distinguishing between property-scoped status and resource-scoped status within the same status response.

Since HTTP only supports status reporting for a single resource, WebDAV created a multi-status response to meet its status reports needs. With the multi-status response, resource-scope and property-scope status responses are wrapped inside an XML response body.

Support for multi-resource operations exacerbates an existing problem with HTTP error reporting when there are multiple, simultaneous error conditions. For example, in the case where a destination resource is locked, it is possible for a client to simultaneously not have write access permission to the resource, and also not be the owner of the lock. In this case, both a locked response and an access denied response are acceptable. Additionally, since there is a source as well as a destination, the client could submit a precondition against the source which might also fail, leading to situations where there are many simultaneous error conditions. At present, since only one error message may be reported even though many error conditions might exist, and since it is server-specific as to which error condition is reported first, it is difficult for a client to do anything intelligent with the error messages. The addition of error precedence rules would aid client error processing.

The requirements which emerge from a consideration of status reporting are:

Property status: It must be possible to report status with a single property scope.

Hierarchy status: It must be possible to report status from a hierarchy operation where the results of multiple individual operations are collected into a single response.

Combined scope: It must be possible to report property-scoped and resource-scoped status in a single and hierarchy response.

Precedence rules: There must be rules for determining which status message to report in cases where multiple simultaneous status messages apply.

6. Built-in Lock Support

One of the conclusions of the WebDAV effort is that locking support must be a core facility. Since locking was added to HTTP after the write operation, PUT, was defined, it is now possible to have situations where overwrite conflicts occur when a resource is simultaneously being edited by a WebDAV and an HTTP (i.e., non-lock aware authoring client). Consider the following scenario:

Two clients A and B are interested in editing the resource 'index.html'. Client A is an HTTP client rather than a WebDAV client, and so does not know how to perform locking. To begin, client A doesn't lock the document, but does a GET and begins editing. Later, client B does LOCK, performs a GET and begins editing. Client B finishes editing before client A, performs a PUT, then does an UNLOCK. Later, client A performs a PUT, overwriting and losing all of B's changes.

There are several reasons why the WebDAV protocol itself cannot prevent this situation. First, it cannot force all clients to use locking because it must be compatible with HTTP clients that do not comprehend locking. Second, it cannot require servers to support locking because of the variety of repository implementations, some of which rely on reservations and merging rather than on locking. Finally, being stateless, it cannot enforce a sequence of operations like LOCK / GET / PUT / UNLOCK.

There are several techniques which can be applied to mitigate this problem:

The WebDAV experience with locking leads to the following requirement:

Core overwrite prevention: Facilities for the prevention of overwrite conflicts must be an integral part of the protocol. All authoring clients must make use of the overwrite prevention facilities.

7. Conclusion

By extending the HTTP data model with properties and collections, by supporting operations with a source and a destination, and by supporting operations which operate on an hierarchy of resources, WebDAV exposed several shortcomings in HTTP's support for remote collaborative authoring.  This paper has discussed these shortcomings in the areas of parameter marshalling, precondition support, and status reporting for single properties, single resources, multiple resources, and hierarchies of resources. The need for core support of overwrite prevention was also identified. In order to concisely convey the experience gained from the WebDAV project, the paper has listed requirements for the next generation Web infrastructure.


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