Passing run-time parameters to internet applications

20 Sep 2008

Determining the behaviour of an application at run-time using parameters is a well-established practice. But whilst it's possible with command-line and server-side applications, the scope for passing information to client-side internet applications is limited. With the growth in internet-facing desktop applications, widgets and gadgets, there is a need to pass parameters directly to the application, rather than via a server, and this post looks at how that might be achieved.

To illustrate, we can use the Unix command ls to see the contents of a directory, and add switches like -las to change the behaviour:

ls -las  

Similarly, on the web we can pass parameters to server-side applications, using query strings:  

Let's look at how something similar might be done on the client.

Using XPointer

We already have a mechanism to pass variables to a client, via the URI, and that's the XPointer Framework. I've described before [how we use this technique in UBX Viewer]( parameters-to-ubx-viewer) to pass parameters that are to become meta and link values; as UBX Viewer loads it uses these settings to configure itself.

But there are a number of reasons why we now need something more general purpose, and it can easily be based on the same principles.


The technique we're using with the Ubiquity libraries is to pass information to be used by the client in the vars XPointer.

For example, if we have a slideshow application, and want to create a bookmark for the third slide, we might just do it like this:


However, if the application is also able to indicate which theme should be used, it is better to have the capacity to set more parameters, which vars gives us:

.../slideshow.html#vars(slide=3, theme=city)  


Another example of how run-time information might be passed concerns XForms applications.

In XForms it is possible to indicate the data to be used in the form by using the instance element. The element can either hold information directly:

  <details xmlns="">  
    <name>Harry Angstrom</name>  

or via an external file:

<xf:instance src="data.xml" />  

However, when creating a generic application the initial data will inevitably be different for each user. In this situation we can use another XPointer, called instance:

.../createProfile.html#instance(name="Harry Angstrom")  

This has the effect of populating the default instance in the default model, with an element called name, using the same rules as described in XForms 'lazy authoring'.


The final way that we might want to specify data at run-time is to indicate the @src value of an element, so as to cause a different file to be loaded at run-time.

For example, if we wanted the instance data to be loaded from a different location, we would ensure that the instance has an @id value in the document:

<xf:instance id="p" src="" />  

and then specify the data source in the URL:



As the number of client-side internet applications grows there is an increasing need to make them flexible. Passing run-time parameters via the URL is one way this can be achieved.