Continuations and the Web

| 2 Comments

The other day, I found myself with the perfect example to explain continuations to some web programmers I know. (If you didn't already know how continuations can make you sandwiches without you leaving your office, they're powerful things.

Imagine you have a controller for a web application. Imagine one of the methods is edit_profile. You have an access control mechanism that requires authentication before someone can edit a profile. Your code might look something like:

sub edit_profile {
    my ($self, $request) = @_;

    return $self->redirect_to_login_and_return( $request )
        unless $request->is_authenticated;

    # actually edit the profile here
    ...
}

Now HTTP is stateless. Barring some persistent connection through websockets or the like, the server must redirect the client to an authorization page, receive and verify another request from the client, and, if that succeeds, redirect to the action shown here to complete the user's request. If there's state built up to make this request (a user ID, form parameters, the contents of an active shopping cart, whatever), something needs to manage that data through all of these redirects.

There are plenty of ways to handle this; you've probably implemented at least one. It's a common pattern.

If you're like me, you'd like to be able to set aside the current request temporarily, manage authentication, and then resume the request just after the point of checking for authentication.

In other words, once your web framework has handled the HTTP response to the point of figuring out what the client wants to do (edit a profile), restore the state of the web application and start over as if the client request had been authenticated from the start.

Again, you can do this all manually, but if your language or framework supported continuations, you could have a mechanism to capture all (or some—that's a delimited continuation) of the control flow and request state through your application at the point of checking for authentication and restore the state of that control flow.

There are nuances here. You probably also need to serialize the state of the continuation and HTTP request and store that on your server (never trust the client). You need to collect stale continuations (clients can abandon requests) but not too frequently (you probably have tabs open in a browser window that's been open for days, too). You have to go to some lengths to avoid circular references, and it's not always easy to serialize information like open sockets, open files, and active database connections.

... but these problems are solveable, and if your language and/or web framework supports this (if someone has solved them once and for all so that the average programmer doesn't have to), then you have a powerful tool for managing state atop a stateless protocol.

Note that a web framework could provide this feature even when its host language doesn't... but that's an idea for another time.

2 Comments

How do you feel about Continuity?

I haven't used it for anything serious, so I don't have much to say. It did seem worthwhile last time I looked at it though.

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This page contains a single entry by chromatic published on June 9, 2013 5:16 PM.

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