First published: 1st January 2001
Feature: Web Authoring and
Traditionally, HTTP has only been used for web browsing, not
web authoring. In situations where the author of a web site
does not have direct access to the file-system which is being
served, a protocol is used such as NFS, or a version control
system which allows remote access, such as CVS.
Alternatively, less privileged authors, who are using a
dial-up Internet Service Provider, might be given FTP access
to an area on a web server.
Introduction to HTTP
Before giving a description of WebDAV, it is useful to give a
brief introduction to HTTP itself. The protocol consists of a
request: a request message sent by the client to the
server, followed by a response: the reply to the
message, sent from the server back to the client.
There are three important elements of an HTTP request: the
method, the URI, and the headers. The
method describes the type of the request. The HTTP
specification, RFC 2616,
defines eight different methods, from the familiar
GET, to the obscure TRACE. The URI
identifies the resource on which the method is intended to
operate. Headers provide any extra information about the
request that is required.
A syntactically valid (but meaningless) HTTP request and the
response is given below. It uses the FOOBAR
method, includes three headers "Host", "Something", and
"Another", and is target at the resource "/sample/uri.html".
The response uses the "501 Method Not implemented" status
code, telling the client that the server does not understand
FOOBAR /sample/uri.html HTTP/1.1
HTTP/1.1 501 Method Not Implemented
Date: Mon, 16 Oct 2000 15:19:09 GMT
Server: Apache/1.3.12 (Unix) DAV/1.0.2
Allow: GET, HEAD, OPTIONS, TRACE
New HTTP methods
During web browsing, the only HTTP methods that are normally
used are GET, to retrieve documents, and
POST, to submit form data back to the server.
The WebDAV specification, RFC 2518,
describes a set of new methods which allow clients to publish
documents, and manipulate a remote repository in a variety of
ways to meet the needs of web authoring. The methods fall
into three groups:
PROPFIND and PROPPATCH; for
querying and manipulating properties.
LOCK and UNLOCK; for locking
MOVE, COPY and
MKCOL; for basic repository manipulation.
In addition to the new methods, WebDAV refines the definition
of the PUT and DELETE methods, which
are already present in the HTTP specification.
Basic web publishing
The PUT method, as covered in a previous
feature article, provides the most basic form of web
publishing. This method is used to upload new or changed
documents to the server.
WebDAV introduces the concept of a collection of
resources to HTTP. A collection is analogous to a directory
in traditional file-system terms: it has a name which ends in
a /, and is a container for both normal
resources, and also other collections. Collections can be
created using the MKCOL method, which is similar
to creating directories using the mkdir command.
MKCOL /dav/newcollection/ HTTP/1.0
HTTP/1.1 201 Created
Server: Apache/1.3.11 (Unix) DAV/1.0.2
Date: Mon, 16 Oct 2000 09:10:06 GMT
The last two methods required for basic web authoring are the
COPY and MOVE methods. These
methods can operate in one of two ways: on a collection
resource, they can recurse down an entire tree of resources,
or alternatively, they can just operate on a single resource
(of any type). The Depth HTTP header is used by the
client to indicate which mode of operation is desired for a
particular request; Depth: infinity meaning
operate recursively, and Depth: 0 meaning
operate only on a single resource.
WebDAV allows you to define properties on resources. Two
types of properties are used: live properties, which
are defined by the server, store information like the last
date on which the document was modified. Dead
properties are used by clients as simple data stores. An
example of a dead property is the name of the author of the
The first method which is used with properties is
PROPFIND: used to simply request all properties
available on a document, or alternatively, just a specific
set of properties. XML is used in the request body to give
the parameters for the PROPFIND request, and
also in the response, to list the property names and their
values. The Depth header is also used with
PROFIND requests: taking the values
0 and infinity as before, meaning
in this case "give properties for a single resource only", or
"give properties for all resources in this collection and
below" respectively. The value 1 is also
allowed, which requests properties on a collection resource,
and it's immediate descendants only, without recursing into
any child collections. A simple request for the properties
"getlastmodified" and "getcontentlength" is given below: (the
values returned for these properties are highlighted in
PROPFIND /dav/test.html HTTP/1.1
<?xml version="1.0" encoding="utf-8" ?>
HTTP/1.1 207 Multi-Status
Server: Apache/1.3.11 (Unix) DAV/1.0.2
Content-Type: text/xml; charset="utf-8"
Date: Fri, 13 Oct 2000 13:51:25 GMT
<?xml version="1.0" encoding="utf-8"?>
<D:response xmlns:lp0="DAV:" xmlns:lp1="http://apache.org/dav/props/">
<lp0:getlastmodified>Fri, 13 Oct 2000 12:51:56 GMT</lp0:getlastmodified>
<D:status>HTTP/1.1 200 OK</D:status>
The PROPPATCH method, similarly, uses an XML
request body to specify the changes which should be made to a
set of properties. PROPPATCH requests are made
up of a combination of the following two operations:
delete a named property
submit a new value for a named property
A lot of web authoring will involve more than one person
working on a site at the sime time. Under these circumstances
the lost update problem can occur, where two authors
download a document and make some changes, then later, both
authors upload their changes again, one set overwriting the
WebDAV provides a mechanism which can be used to prevent this
situation, by allowing authors to lock a document
while they are editing it. Once an author has locked a
document, they are guaranteed that nobody else will be able
to upload changes to the document.
The WebDAV specification makes locking support optional for
server implementors. The level of server support for WebDAV
is defined to in one of two classes: and Class 1, all
requirements are met for basic web authoring, and Class 2,
which extends Class 1 to include locking support.
module adds WebDAV support to an Apache 1.3 server.
mod_dav has been under development for two years, and is
currently at version 1.0.2. The module has also been
integrated into the Apache 2.0 source tree, and is
distributed as part of the recent alpha 7 release.
Commercial WebDAV servers are available from Microsoft,
Xythos, and Novell, amongst others.
On-line Storage Sites
The on-line storage market has eagerly embraced WebDAV, with
sites like Sharemation, MyDocsOnline, and Driveway all offering
access to private or shared WebDAV repositories for free.
A walk on the client side
Microsoft are providing strong support for WebDAV on the
client side: Internet
Explorer 5 is provided with "Web Folders", which allow
the user to view and manipulate a WebDAV repository inside
the web browser. Office 2000 also supports editing web pages
in-place using DAV, and makes use of the locking methods to
prevent the lost update problem as
described above. Microsoft's web publishing package
FrontPage, ironically, lacks WebDAV support. Adobe GoLive
5 also supports WebDAV.
There are several Open Source WebDAV projects. cadaver provides a
command-line interface similar to the ubiquitous
ftp client. For Macintosh users, Goliath has a
familiar Finder-like interface.
For more information, refer to the list hosted at
the webdav.org site hosts of open source and
commercial projects with WebDAV support.