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7.1 Validation and Error Reporting for Web Database Applications

There is nothing worse for a user than annoying, overly persistent, inaccurate, or uninformative validation. For example, error messages that describe an error but don't specify which field contains the error are difficult to correct. However, there is no correct recipe for balancing validation with system requirements: what is pleasing or mandated by requirements in one application might be annoying or useless in another. In this section, we consider practical validation models for web database applications.

Validation is actually two processes: finding errors and presenting error messages. Finding errors can be interactive—where data is checked as it's entered—or it can be post-validation, where the data is checked after entry. Presenting errors can be field-by-field—where a new error message is presented to the user for each error found—or it can be batched, where all errors are presented as a single message. There are other dimensions to validation and error processing, such as the degree of error that is tolerated and the experience level of the user. However, considering only the basic processes, the choice of when to error-check and when to notify the user, leads to four common approaches:

Interactive validation with field-by-field errors

The data in each field is validated when the user exits or changes the field. If there is an error, the user is alerted to that error and may be required to fix the error before proceeding.

Interactive validation with batch errors

The data in all fields is validated when the user leaves one field. If there are one or more errors, the user is alerted to these, and normally the user can't proceed beyond the current page without fixing all errors.

Post-validation with field-by-field errors

The user first enters all data with no validation. The data is then checked and errors are reported field-by-field in separate error messages to the user. Usually, for each error, the cursor is placed in the field requiring amendment.

Post-validation with batch errors

The user first enters all data with no validation. The data is then checked, and all errors in the data are reported in one message to the user. The user then fixes all errors and resubmits the data for revalidation.

In Chapter 6—without discussing the details—we covered several simple post-validation techniques to check whether mandatory <form> data was entered before inserting or updating data in the database. In addition, we used a batch reporting method, where errors were reported as a list by constructing an error string. In the case study example in this chapter, we discuss additional validation for the customer <form> data to more carefully inspect both mandatory and optional fields. The completed validation code is listed in Chapter 10.

7.1.1 Models That Don't Work

Interactive models are difficult to implement in the web environment. Server-side scripts are impractical for this task, since an HTTP request and response is required to validate each field that's entered. This is usually unacceptable, because the user is required to submit the data after entering each field, response times are likely to be slow, and the server load high.

Client-side scripts can implement an interactive model. However, validation on the client should not be the only method of validation because—as we emphasized in Chapter 5—the user can passively or actively avoid the client-side processes. We discuss the partially interactive solution of including client-side scripts with an HTML <form> later in this chapter.

7.1.2 Models That Do Work

Post-validation models are practical in web database applications. Both client- and server-side scripts can validate all <form> data during the submission process. In many applications, reasonably comprehensive validation is performed on the client side when the user clicks the <form> submit button. If this validation succeeds, data is submitted to the server and the same—or more comprehensive—validation is performed. Duplicating client validation on the server is essential because of the unreliability of client-side scripts and lack of control over the client environment.

Client-side validation reduces server and network load, because the user's browser ensures the data is valid prior to the HTTP request. Client-side validation is also usually faster for the user.

The post-validation model can be combined with either field-by-field or batch error reporting. For server-side validation, the batch model is preferable to a field-by-field implementation, as the latter approach has more overhead and is usually slower because each <form> error requires an additional HTTP request and response.

For client-side post-validation, either error-reporting model can be used. The advantage of the field-by-field model is that the cursor can be directed to the field containing the error, making error correction easier. The disadvantage is that several errors require several error messages, and this can be frustrating for the user. The advantage of the batch approach is that all errors are presented in one message. The disadvantage is that the cursor can't easily be directed to the field requiring correction.

Server-side validation is essential to secure a web database and to ensure that system and DBMS constraints are met.

Client-side validation may be implemented in addition to server-side validation, but all client-side functionality should be duplicated at the server side. Never trust the user or the client browser.

The choice of which reporting model to use depends on the size and complexity of the <form> and on the system requirements.

In the next section, we introduce the practice of server-side post-validation using the batch error reporting method. We introduce client-side scripting as a tool for validation and error reporting in Section 7.3.

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