Pretty URLs: A Step in the Right Direction

May 9, 2014, 8:20 PM

Tags: domino

A long time ago, I mused a bit about the URL problem in XPages. The core problem then, as it is today, was that XPage URLs are ugly as sin. Domino URLs were never pretty, but XPages took them back a few steps. Just look at this normal-case monstrosity:

Barely any part of that has anything to do with the task at hand! Some parts - like the folder path and NSF name - are only tangentially related, while others - like "action=openDocument" are little more than an implementation detail. The inhuman UNID gets a half-pass by virtue of its value as a cluster-friendly identifier, but it would be better as a human-readable unique key.

What you'd REALLY want would be a WordPress-and-others-style URL like this:

Now THAT'S a functional URL: every part of it is both explicable to humans and useful to computers as a unique identifier. More importantly, it establishes a clear hierarchy: any part of it can be traversed to get a conceptually-useful URL (assuming your app implements it). "/blog/2014/5" has a clear meaning: "give me all entries in the 'blog' app for May 2014".

Domino provides little assistance in getting to this point. There are web rules, yes, but that leaves two crucial problems: 1) your app needs to know about these rules, so it generates nice URLs and not eldrtich horrors and 2) you need to set up a server-level config for every web site + function combination. You can't just say "send all requests for /blog to so-and-so app" and then have that app handle everything past that. This is something of an impassable brick wall: Domino's original URL router is still in full effect even in the most modern of apps, and so the XPages side of an app doesn't even hear about a URL request unless it's in the form of "app.nsf/somepage.xsp" or "app.nsf/xsp/whatever" (and the latter form is something of a Wild West full of resource providers, servlets, and who-knows-what else).

But there's a twinkle of hope: because you specify all URLs in an XPage as relative to the app, that means that there's a post-processing service in there that translates a URL like "/foo.xsp" into a full server-relative URL like "/somedir/app.nsf/foo.xsp". That service has a name: ViewHandler. ViewHandlers have been one of my preferred tools in XPages ever since I discovered their utility in instantiating my soon-to-be-renamed "controller" classes. In addition to their role in creating pages and potentially intercepting page requests, ViewHandlers serve a crucial role: providing resource and action URLs. In XPages/JSF parlance, an "action" URL is what shows up in the form tag on the HTML result, while a "resource" URL is, well, basically everything else. When a control on an XPage specifies a URL, it passes it through the resource method to get the "real" URL. Normally, these are turned into the normal ".nsf" paths, but there's no reason they have to be. Here's an example of the two methods in my project-tracking app (named "Milo"):

public String getResourceURL(final FacesContext context, final String resource) {
	if(!isGlobalResource(context, resource)) {
		// Then switch it to "/m/whatever"
		return "/m" + resource;
	return super.getResourceURL(context, resource);
public String getActionURL(final FacesContext context, final String pageName) {
	return "/m" + pageName + ".xsp";

I set up a substitution web rule on the server to translate "/m/*" to the full path of the DB. Because of this change to the view handler, now every <xp:link/>, <xp:image/>, theme resource, etc. uses the "pretty" path. Assuming I don't run into any major down sides, this is a huge piece in the puzzle! Now I can write my apps normally - referencing XPages, resources, etc. using the same portable, app-relative syntax as usual - and then let my ViewHandler determine if it should clean up the URL. This is a nice step above my second solution, which required either a special EL pattern or a custom control to translate the URLs; now that job can be passed up a layer of abstraction.

There are still two problems I know of standing in between me and using this everywhere: automatic detection of server support (e.g. reading names.nsf for matching web rules) and navigation between pages. Though the ViewHandler covers normal links and form action URLs, it doesn't handle navigation between pages based on navigation rules. I don't expect that to be an eternal problem, though; JSF has hooks for this sort of thing, so it should be a matter of figuring out how to use it there.

Overall, it's still something of an ugly solution: where other platforms have clean routing configs, XPages has a hodgepodge of server-level settings and in-app shims. However, I hope to turn it into a worthwhile combination of automatic configuration (by reading names.nsf) and clean declarative settings that I can build into the Scaffolding project.

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Michael Bourak - May 12, 2014, 3:55 AM

See and tell me what you think ;-p

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