The World Wide Web

The World Wide Web [ I, Berners-Lee 1991] is an evolving system for publishing and accessing resources and services across the Internet. Through commonly available web browsers, users retrieve and view documents of many types, listen to audio streams and view video streams, and interact with an unlimited set of services.

The Web began life at the European centre for nuclear research (CERN), Switzerland, in 1989 as a vehicle for exchanging documents between a community of physicists connected by the Internet [Berners-Lee 1999]. A key feature of the Web is that it provides a hypertext structure among the documents that it stores, reflecting the users’ requirement to organize their knowledge. This means that documents contain links (or hyperlinks) – references to other documents and resources that are also stored in the Web

It is fundamental to the user’s experience of the Web that when they encounter a given image or piece of text within a document, this will frequently be accompanied by links to related documents and other resources. The structure of links can be arbitrarily complex and the set of resources that can be added is unlimited – the ‘web’ of links is indeed world-wide. Bush [1945] conceived of hypertextual structures over 50 years ago; it was with the development of the Internet that this idea could be manifested on a world-wide scale

The Web has moved beyond these simple data resources to encompass services, such as electronic purchasing of goods. It has evolved without changing its basic architecture. The Web is based on three main standard technological components:

  • the HyperText Markup Language (HTML), a language for specifying the contents and layout of pages as they are displayed by web browsers;
  • Uniform Resource Locators (URLs), also known as Uniform Resource Identifiers (URIs), which identify documents and other resources stored as part of the Web;
  • a client-server system architecture, with standard rules for interaction (the HyperText Transfer Protocol – HTTP) by which browsers and other clients fetch documents and other resources from web servers
Web servers and web browsers
Web servers and web browsers

HTML • The HyperText Markup Language [ II] is used to specify the text and images that make up the contents of a web page, and to specify how they are laid out and formatted for presentation to the user. A web page contains such structured items as headings, paragraphs, tables and images. HTML is also used to specify links and which resources are associated with them.

Users may produce HTML by hand, using a standard text editor, but they more commonly use an HTML-aware ‘wysiwyg’ editor that generates HTML from a layout that they create graphically. A typical piece of HTML text follows:

<IMG SRC = “”> 1
<P> 2
Welcome to Earth! Visitors may also be interested in taking a look at the 3
<A HREF = “”>Moon</A>. 4

URLs • The purpose of a Uniform Resource Locator [ III] is to identify a resource. Indeed, the term used in web architecture documents is Uniform Resource Identifier (URI), but in this book the better-known term URL will be used when no confusion can arise. Browsers examine URLs in order to access the corresponding resources. Sometimes the user types a URL into the browser. More commonly, the browser looks up the corresponding URL when the user clicks on a link or selects one of their ‘bookmarks’; or when the browser fetches a resource embedded in a web page, such as an image

Every URL, in its full, absolute form, has two top-level components:

scheme : scheme-specific-identifier

Publishing a resource: While the Web has a clearly defined model for accessing a resource from its URL, the exact methods for publishing resources on the Web are dependent upon the web server implementation. In terms of low-level mechanisms, the simplest method of publishing a resource on the Web is to place the corresponding file in a directory that the web server can access. Knowing the name of the server S and a path name for the file P that the server can recognize, the user then constructs the URL as http://S/P. The user puts this URL in a link from an existing document or distributes the URL to other users, for example by email.

HTTP • The HyperText Transfer Protocol [ IV] defines the ways in which browsers and other types of client interact with web server

Request-reply interactions: HTTP is a ‘request-reply’ protocol. The client sends a request message to the server containing the URL of the required resource. The server looks up the path name and, if it exists, sends back the resource’s content in a reply message to the client. Otherwise, it sends back an error response such as the familiar ‘404 Not Found’. HTTP defines a small set of operations or methods that can be performed on a resource. The most common are GET, to retrieve data from the resource, and POST, to provide data to the resource

Content types: Browsers are not necessarily capable of handling every type of content. When a browser makes a request, it includes a list of the types of content it prefers – for example, in principle it may be able to display images in ‘GIF’ format but not ‘JPEG’ format. The server may be able to take this into account when it returns content to the browser.

The server includes the content type in the reply message so that the browser will know how to process it. The strings that denote the type of content are called MIME types, and they are standardized in RFC 1521 [Freed and Borenstein 1996].

For example, if the content is of type ‘text/html’ then a browser will interpret the text as HTML and display it; if the content is of type ‘image/GIF’ then the browser will render it as an image in ‘GIF’ format; if the content type is ‘application/zip’ then it is data compressed in ‘zip’ format, and the browser will launch an external helper application to decompress it. The set of actions that a browser will take for a given type of content is configurable, and readers may care to check these settings for their own browsers

One resource per request: Clients specify one resource per HTTP request. If a web page contains nine images, say, then the browser will issue a total of ten separate requests to obtain the entire contents of the page. Browsers typically make several requests concurrently, to reduce the overall delay to the user.

Simple access control: By default, any user with network connectivity to a web server can access any of its published resources. If users wish to restrict access to a resource, then they can configure the server to issue a ‘challenge’ to any client that requests it. The corresponding user then has to prove that they have the right to access the resource, for example, by typing in a password

Dynamic pages • So far we have described how users can publish web pages and other content stored in files on the Web. However, much of the users’ experience of the Web is that of interacting with services rather than retrieving data. For example, when purchasing an item at an online store, the user often fills out a web form to provide personal details or to specify exactly what they wish to purchase. A web form is a web page containing instructions for the user and input widgets such as text fields and check boxes. When the user submits the form (usually by pressing a button or the ‘return’ key), the browser sends an HTTP request to a web server, containing the values that the user has entered

Downloaded code: A CGI program runs at the server. Sometimes the designers of web services require some service-related code to run inside the browser, at the user’s computer. In particular, code written in Javascript [] is often downloaded with a web page containing a form, in order to provide better-quality interaction with the user than that supported by HTML’s standard widgets. A Javascript enhanced page can give the user immediate feedback on invalid entries, instead of forcing the user to check the values at the server, which would take much longer

Web services • the Web largely from the point of view of a user operating a browser. But programs other than browsers can be clients of the Web, too; indeed, programmatic access to web resources is commonplace

Discussion of the Web • The Web’s phenomenal success rests upon the relative ease with which many individual and organizational sources can publish resources, the suitability of its hypertext structure for organizing many types of information, and the openness of its system architecture. The standards upon which its architecture is based are simple and they were widely published at an early stage. They have enabled many new types of resources and services to be integrated

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