Ian Cropper

i make internets

How does AJAX work?

don't ask questions, just use $.ajax

Have you ever stopped to wonder "what the hell is going on there?" I love third-party libraries. There's no sense in reinventing the wheel every time you want to do something. AND, third party libraries help out a TON to prevent developers from implementing their own who-the-hell-knows-what for each task as it arises. However, when using a tool that does as much as $.ajax, it's probably important to have some idea of what's going on.

Quick! To 2006!

You might have missed it, but we just celebrated the 10th anniversary of $.ajax. In February of 2006, jQuery had ajax built into it and thus, we were relieved of every having to use the xhr object. 

"'xhr'? that sounds even cooler than 'ajax'".

It does indeed. If you thought Ajax sounds cool because it was named after Homer's Greek champion, I would congratulate you on knowing your literature, but smack you for not knowing your trade. "Ajax" stands for "Asynchronous JavaScript And XML". (Yes, it is very rare that the "And" actually makes it in the acronym.) 

XHR on the other hand stands for "Xml Http Request".

Remember, Ajax itself is not a tool, it's a process by which calls from the client are made to a server asynchronously. Ajax is the activity, XmlHttpRequest is the tool. Think of Ajax as "driving" and xhr is the car. It's what your dad used when he was writing JavaScript. And in the spirit of handlebar mustaches, flannel shirts, straight-blade razors, and Celtic tattoos all coming back into style, I wouldn't be surprised if the hipsters bring back using plain ol' XHR as well (cause jquery is just too mainstream).

Let's not get too far before providing the official Mozilla definition.

"XMLHttpRequest is an API that provides client functionality for transferring data between a client and a server. It provides an easy way to retrieve data from a URL without having to do a full page refresh. This enables a Web page to update just a part of the page without disrupting what the user is doing.  XMLHttpRequest is used heavily in AJAXprogramming.
XMLHttpRequest was originally designed by Microsoft and adopted by Mozilla, Apple, and Google. It's now being standardized at the WHATWG. Despite its name, XMLHttpRequest can be used to retrieve any type of data, not just XML, and it supports protocols other than HTTP (including file and ftp)."

Let's compare

So lets start with what we know and love. jQuery. Though ajax in jQuery isn't set up with real Promises, it carries a promise kind of feel where you can chain bits of functionality together. Today, we write an ajax request like this.

var xhr = $.ajax({
url: "path/to/url",
  method: "POST", //or "GET"
  data: {data1: "foo", data2: "bar"}
   //...do stuff if the call succeeds
   //...do stuff if the call fails
   //...do stuff if the call fails or succeeds

And there you have it! Simple ajax that works without you having the think about anything. You don't even need to know what the hell it does and it still works for you!

Now let's see how this would work without jQuery.

var xhr = new XMLHttpRequest();
xhr.open('POST', "path/to/url");
xhr.onload = function (response){
if(xhr.statusCode == 200){
 //...do stuff if the call succeeds
}else {
 //...do stuff if the call fails
//...do stuff if the call succeeds or fails
xhr.setRequestHeader('Content-Type', 'application/json');

If you're thinking "only people who worry about garbage collection and pointers would use that" I wouldn't totally disagree with you. BUT! In defense of those people, they do tend to be able to ninja things together that others might not think possible. AND, those people tend to write much much better code than you because they understand how things work in the background.

But How does it work?

Oh, right, your original question...

JavaScript is perhaps most beloved for it's non-blocking I/O powers. It does an amazing job telling other things to perform tasks while it moves on to other things. 

"Go take care of this job for me and let me know when you're finished."

This is made possible by JavaScript's event queue. It's essential a first-in-first-out collection of tasks that need to be taken care of. hen you set up an XHR object, you assign it data and you give it a function to perform upon completion. JavaScript's order of execution is centered around an event queue. As each task is completed, it move's on to the next task in line. (This is where the 'A' in Ajax comes from.)

So when the script hits the line "xhr.send([data]);", the browser kicks of an HTTP(s) request to the server with a special header added.

X-Requested-With: XMLHttpRequest

I don't want to go into the details of all the things this header does, so I'll just say for now that it allows the browser and server to determine which requests are page requests and which are Ajax requests which in turn allows for the policing of Cross Origin Request Sharing and prevention of Cross site request forgery.

Once the server has successfully sent back a response, either an error or a success, the onload function is placed in the event queue to be evaluated with the response from the server at the next possible opportunity.

To learn more about JavaScript's event loop, check out this explanation.

But What does Ajax even solve?

To get a full appreciation for Ajax, we have to go back. All the way back to the 90's, so grab your hair oil and scrunchies, cause it's gonna get real.


If you remember using AOL or MSN Messenger, then you probably also using Netscape Navigator. It was a dark, dark time. A time full of static content, 90 degree angles, solid colors, and inline styles. 

To combat the drudgery and allow web pages to be more engaging, Netscape introduced "LiveScript" which allowed for more dynamic content. This was still the 90's though, so don't think it was anything too impressive, cause it was basic.

This was back in 1995. While Netscape is loosing market share, Microsoft's Internet Explorer is growing in popularity. When the dotcom bubble finally burst in March of 2000, research and development budgets dried up along with the jobs and no one really cared about dynamic content anymore. That is, except for a multi-billion dollar company headquartered in the Pacific North-West.


By the time the bubble had burst, there were already scripts being used within web pages, so don't go thinking that Microsoft picked up the Client-side scripting flag and charged on alone. What it did do though was create a protocol by which scripts within the web-page could interact directly with the server. Prior to this new development, if you wanted to get more data from the server, you had to request a totally new page with new data.

This would have sucked if all you wanted to do was view a new image from a gallery. 

making it ubiquitous 

Google's Gmail was one of the very first services to really take advantage of this new XMLHttpRequest technology and make it mainstream.

Even back in 2004, even with hundreds of emails getting sent to you, you would have no idea without refreshing the page. Ajax allowed Gmail to update part of the page without refreshing the whole site [src].

The XHR object changed web development more than anything else up to this point. Modules in a page can not be loaded lazily. Simple pieces of information can be posted immediately, typeaheads are possible, multi-leveled dynamic forms are possible. Yes....yes indeed. We do love Ajax.


So now you know why Ajax is so damn important and how it works; which means you know more than 90% of your coworkers.