Sending Information to Servers

Modern browsers not only allow reading but also writing content: making social media posts, filling out online forms, searching for content, and so on. The next few labs implement these features. To start, this lab implements web forms, which allow the user to fill out form information and then send that form to the server. Web forms are used almost everywhere: you fill one out to post on Facebook, to register to vote, or to search Google.

Rendering widgets

When your browser sends information to a web server, that is usually information that you've typed into some kind of input area, or a check-box of some sort that you've checked. So the first step in communicating with other servers is going to be to draw input areas on the screen and then allow the user to fill them out.

On the web, there are two kinds of input areas: <input> elements, which are for short, one-line inputs, and <textarea> elements, which are for long, multi-line text. I'd like to implement both, because I'd like to support both search boxes (where queries are short, single-line things) and comment forms (where text inputs are a lot longer). Usually, web browsers communicate with the operating system and ask the OS to draw the input areas themselves, because that way the input areas will match the behavior and appearance of OS input areas. That's possible in Tk,In Python, you use the ttk library. but in the interests of simplicity we'll be drawing the input areas ourselves.

Both <input> and <textarea> elements are inline content, like text, laid out in lines. So to support inputs we'll need a new kind of layout object, which I'll call InputLayout. It'll need to support the same kind of API as TextLayout, namely attach and add_space, so that it won’t confuse InlineLayout:

class InputLayout:
    def __init__(self, node, multiline=False):
        self.children = []
        self.node = node = 0
        self.multiline = multiline

    def layout(self, x, y):

    def attach(self, parent):
        self.parent = parent
        parent.w += self.w

    def add_space(self):
        if == 0:
            gap = 5
   = gap
            self.parent.w += gap

You'll note the add_space function hardcodes a 5-pixel space, unlike TextLayout, which uses the current font. That's because the contents of a text input generally use a custom font, not the same font used by surrounding text, so I might as well hard-code in the size of spaces.

For simplicity, the layout method hard-codes a specific size for input elements.In real browsers, the width and height CSS properties can change the size of input elements. One quirk is that InlineLayout.text requires w to be set on text layout objects even before we call layout, so we'll set the size in the constructor and the position in layout:

class InputLayout:
    def __init__(self, node, multiline=False):
        # ...
        self.w = 200
        self.h = 60 if self.multiline else 20

    def layout(self, x, y):
        self.x = x
        self.y = y

Finally, we'll need to draw the input element itself, which is going to be a large rectangle:

def display_list(self):
    _ol, _or = self.x, self.x + self.w
    _ot, _ob = self.y, self.y + self.h
    return [DrawRect(_ol, _ot, _or, _ob)]

Finally, we need to create these InputLayout objects; we can do that in InlineLayout.recurse:

def recurse(self, node):
    if isinstance(node, ElementNode):
        if node.tag in ["input", "textarea"]:
            for child in node.children:

The new input function is similar to text, except that input areas don’t need to be split into multiple words:

def input(self, node):
    tl = InputLayout(node, node.tag == "textarea")
    line = self.children[-1]
    if line.w + tl.w > self.w:
        line = LineLayout(self)

Finally, to make sure these elements are parsed and styled right, we need to inform our HTML parser that <input> is self-closing (but not <textarea>, see below) and, since both <input> and <textarea> are supposed to be drawn inline, we need to set display: inline for them in the browser stylesheet as well.

Interacting with widgets

We've now got input elements rendering, but only as empty rectangles. We need the input part! Let’s 1) draw the content of input elements; and 2) allow the user to change that content. I’ll start with the second, since until we do that there's no content to draw.

In this toy browser, I’m going to require the user to click on an input element to change its content. We detect the click in Browser.handle_click, which must now search for an ancestor link or input element:

# ...
while elt and not \
    (isinstance(elt, ElementNode) and \
     (elt.tag == "a" and "href" in elt.attributes or \
      elt.tag in ["input", "textarea"])):
    elt = elt.parent
if not elt:
elif elt.tag == "a":
    # ...

So, how does editing an input element work? Well, <input> and <textarea> work differently. For <input>, the text in the input area is the element's value attribute, like this:

Name: <input value="Pavel Panchekha">

Meanwhile, <textarea> tags enclose text that is their content:The text area can also contain manual line breaks, unlike normal text (but it does wrap lines, unlike <pre>), which I’m ignoring here.

<textarea>This is the content.</textarea>

Whereever the content is, editing the input has to change it. Let's add that to our browser, soliciting input on the command line and then updating the element with it:GUI text input is hard, which is why I’m soliciting input on the command line. See the last exercise.

def edit_input(self, elt):
    new_text = input("Enter new text: ")
    if elt.tag == "input":
        elt.attributes["value"] = new_text
        elt.children = [TextNode(elt, new_text)]

Now that input areas have text content, we need to draw that text. For single-line input elements, we just add a DrawText command to the display list:

def display_list(self):
    border = # ...
    font = self.node.font()
    value = self.node.attributes.get("value", "")
    x, y = self.x + 1, self.y + 1
    text = DrawText(x, y, value, font, 'black')
    return [border, text]

This won’t work for multi-line inputs, though, because we need to do line breaking on that text. Instead of implementing line breaking again, let’s reuse InlineLayout by constructing one as a child of our InputLayout:

def layout(self, x, y):
    # ...
    for child in self.node.children:
        layout = InlineLayout(self, child)

Since InlineLayout requires them, let's add some of these helper functions:

It’s ugly that I have these

def content_left(self):
    return self.x + 1

def content_top(self):
    return self.y + 1

def content_width(self):
    return self.w - 2

I’d rather the recursion be external.

We also need to propagate this child’s display list to its parent:

def display_list(self):
    border = # ...
    if self.children:
        dl = []
        for child in self.children:
        return dl
        text = # ...
        return [border, text]

The browser now displays text area contents!

One final thing: when we enter new text in a text area, we change the node tree, and that means that the layout that we derived from that tree is now invalid and needs to be recomputed, and we can't just call browse, since that will reload the web page and wipe out our changes. Instead, let's split the second half of browse into its own function, which browse will now call:

def relayout(self):
    style(self.nodes, self.rules) = Page()
    self.layout = BlockLayout(, self.nodes)
    self.max_h = self.layout.h
    self.display_list = self.layout.display_list()

Now edit_input can call self.relayout() at to update the layout and redraw the page.

You should now be able to run the browser on the following example web page:Don't worry—the mangled HTML should be just fine for our HTML parser.

<p>Name: <input value=1></p>
<p>Comment: <textarea>2</textarea></p>

One quirk—if you add style=font-weight:bold to the <body>, so that the labels are bold, you'll find that the input area content isn’t bolded (because we override the font) but the text area content is. We can fix that by adding to the browser stylesheet:

textarea {
    font-style: normal;
    font-weight: normal;

That’ll prevent the text area from inheriting its font styles from its parent.

How forms work

Filled-out forms go to the server. The way this works in HTML is pretty tricky.

First, in HTML, there is a <form> element, which describes how to submit all the input elements it contains through its action and method attributes. The method attribute is either get or post, and refers to an HTTP method; the action attribute is a relative URL. The browser generates an HTTP request by combining the two.

Let's focus on POST submissions (the default). Suppose you have the following form, on the web page

<form action=submit method=post>
    <p>Name: <input name=name value=1></p>
    <p>Comment: <textarea name=comment>2</textarea></p>

This is the same as the little example web page above, except there's now a <form> element and also the two text areas now have name attributes, plus I've added a new <button> element. That element, naturally, draws a button, and clicking on that button causes the form to be submitted.

When this form is submitted, the browser will first determine that it is making a POST request to (using the normal rules of relative URLs). Then, it will gather up all of the input areas inside that form and create a big dictionary where the keys are the name attributes and the values are the text content:

{ "name": "1", "comment": "2" }

Finally, this content has the be form-encoded, which in this case will look like this:


This form-encoded string will be the body of the HTTP POST request the browser is going to send. Bodies are allowed on HTTP requests just like they are in responses, even though up until now we've been sending requests without bodies. The only caveat is that if you send a body, you must send the Content-Length header, so that the server knows how much of the request to wait for. So the overall request is:

POST /submit HTTP/1.0
Content-Length: 16


The server will then respond to the POST request with a normal web page, which the browser will render.

Implementing forms

We're going to need to implement a couple of different things:

We'll go in order.

First, buttons. Buttons are a lot like input elements, and can use InputLayout. They get their contents like <textarea> but are only one line tall; luckily, the way I've implemented InputLayout allows those two aspects to be mixed, so we just need to modify InlineLayout.recurse to handle buttons.

Second, button clicks. We need to extend handle_click with button support. That requires modifying the condition in the big while loop and then adding a new case to the big if statement:

# ...
elif elt.tag == "button":
# ...

Third, we need to find the form containing our button. That can happen inside submit_form:Fun fact: HTML standardizes the form attribute for input elements, which in principle allows an input element to be outside the form it is supposed to be submitted with. But no browser implements that.

def submit_form(self, elt):
    while elt and elt.tag != 'form':
        elt = elt.parent
    if not elt: return

Fourth, we need to find all of the input elements inside this form:

def find_inputs(elt, out):
    if not isinstance(elt, ElementNode): return
    if elt.tag in ['input', 'textarea'] and 'name' in elt.attributes:
    for child in elt.children:
        find_inputs(child, out)
    return out

We can use this in submit_form to make a dictionary mapping identifiers to values:

def submit_form(self, elt):
    # ...
    inputs = find_inputs(elt, [])
    params = {}
    for input in inputs:
        if input.tag == 'input':
            value = input.attributes.get('value', '')
            if input.children:
                value = input.children[0].text
                value = ""
        params[input.attributes['id']] = value['action'], self.history[-1]), params)

Fifth, we can form-encode the resulting parameters:

def post(self, url, params):
    body = ""
    for param, value in params.items():
        body += "&" + param + "="
        body += value.replace(" ", "%20")
    body = body[1:]
    host, port, path = parse_url(url)
    headers, body = request('POST', host, port, path, body)

Having post and browse methods is crazy.

This isn’t real form-encoding—I’m just replacing spaces by "%20". Real form-encoding escapes characters like the equal sign, the ampersand, and so on; but given that our browser is a toy anyway, let's just try to avoid typing equal signs, ampersands, and so on into forms.

Sixth and finally, to actually send a POST request, we need to modify the request function to allow multiple methods:

def request(method, host, port, path, body=None):
    # create socket s
    s.send("{} {} HTTP/1.0\r\nHost: {}\r\n".format(method, path, host).encode("utf8"))
    if body:
        body = body.encode("utf8")
        s.send("Content-Length: {}\r\n\r\n".format(len(body)).encode("utf8"))
    response = s.makefile("rb").read().decode("utf8")
    # ...

This needs to match the actual request code (and fit on screen).

Remember to modify all other calls to request (there are several calls in Browser.browse) to pass in the method.

Once we've made the POST request, the server will send back a new web page to render. We need to lex, parse, style, and lay that page out. Once again, let's split browse into a simpler browse function that just makes the GET request and a more complex parse function that does lexing, parsing, and style, and call that from the end of post:

def post(self, url, params):
    # ...

I don’t like parse for this.

With these changes we should now have a browser capable of submitting simple forms!

Receiving POST requests

We need to test our browser’s forms functionality. Let's test with our own simple web server. This server will show a simple form with a single text entry and remember anything submitted through that form. Then, it'll show you all of the things that it remembers. Call it a guest book.Online guest books… so 90s…

A web server is a different program from a web browser, so let's start a new file. The server will need to:

I should note that the server I am building will be exceedingly simple, because this is, after all, a book on web browser engineering.

Let’s start by opening a socket. Like for the browser, we need to create an internet streaming socket using TCP:

import socket
s = socket.socket(

Now, instead of calling connect on this socket (which causes it to connect to some other server), we'll call bind, which opens a port waits for other computers to connect to it:

s.bind(('', 8000))

Here, the first argument to bind, the address, is set to the empty string, which means that the socket will accept connections from any other computer. The second argument is the port on your machine that you want the server to listen on. I've chosen 8000 here, since that's probably open and, being larger than 1024, doesn't require administrator privileges. But you can pick a different number if, for whatever reason, port 8000 is taken on your machine.

A note about debugging servers. If a server crashes with a connection open on some port, your OS prevents the port from being reusedWhen your process crashes, the computer on the end of the connection won’t be informed immediately; if some other process opens the same port, it could receive data means for the old, now-dead process. for a few seconds. So if your server crashes, you might need to wait about a minute before you restart it, or you'll get errors about addresses being in use.

Now, we tell the socket we're ready to accept connections:


To actually accept those connections, we enter a loop that runs once per connection. At the top of the loop we call s.accept to wait for a new connection:

while True:
    conx, addr = s.accept()

That connection object is, confusingly, also socket: it is the socket corresponding to that one connection. We know what to do with those: we read the contents and parse the HTTP message. But it's a little trickier to do this in the server than in the browser, because the browser waits for the server, and that means the server can't just read from the socket until the connection closes.

Instead, we'll read from the socket line-by-line. First, we read the request line:

def handle_connection(conx):
    req = conx.makefile("rb")
    reqline = req.readline().decode('utf8')
    method, url, version = reqline.split(" ", 2)
    assert method in ["GET", "POST"]

Then we read the headers until we get to a blank line, accumulating the headers in a dictionary:

def handle_connection(conx):
    # ...
    headers = {}
    for line in req:
        line = line.decode('utf8')
        if line == '\r\n': break
        header, value = line.split(":", 1)
        headers[header.lower()] = value.strip()

Finally we read the body, but only when the Content-Length header tells us how much of it to read (that's why that header is mandatory on POST requests):

def handle_connection(conx):
    # ...
    if 'content-length' in headers:
        length = int(headers['content-length'])
        body ='utf8')
        body = None

    response = handle_request(method, url, headers, body)

Let’s fill in handle_request later; it returns a string containing the resulting HTML web page. We need to send it back to the browser:

response = response.encode("utf8")
conx.send('HTTP/1.0 200 OK\r\n'.encode('utf8'))
conx.send('Content-Length: {}\r\n\r\n'.format(len(response)).encode('utf8'))

I need to do something about the Content-Length line being so long.

This is a bare-bones server: it doesn't check that the browser is using HTTP 1.0 to talk to it, it doesn't send back any headers at all except Content-Length, and so on. But look: it's a toy web server that talks to a toy web browser. Cut it some slack.

All that's left is implementing handle_request. We want some kind of guest book, so let's create a list to store guest book entries:

ENTRIES = [ 'Pavel was here' ]

The handle_request function outputs a little HTML page with those entries:

def handle_request(method, url, headers, body):
    out = "<!doctype html><body>"
    for entry in ENTRIES:
        out += "<p>" + entry + "</p>"
    out += "</body>"
    return out

For now, I'm ignoring the method, the URL, the headers, and the body entirely.

You should be able to run this minimal core of a web server and then direct your browser to http://localhost:8000/, localhost being what your computer calls itself and 8000 being the port we chose earlier. You should see a list of (one) guest book entry.

Let's now make it possible to add to the guest book. First, let's add a form to the top of the page:

out += "<form action=add method=post>"
out +=   "<p><input name=guest></p>"
out +=   "<p><button>Sign the book!</button></p>"
out += "</form>"

This form tells the browser to submit data to http://localhost:8000/add; the server needs to react to such submissions. First, we will need to undo the form-encoding:

def form_decode(body):
    params = {}
    for field in body.split("&"):
        name, value = field.split("=", 1)
        params[name] = value.replace("%20", " ")
    return params

To handle submissions, we’ll want to get the guest book comment, add it to ENTRIES, and then draw the page with the new comment shown. Furthermore, handle_request will first need to figure out what kind of request this is (browsing or form submission) and then executed the relevant code. To keep this organized, let’s rename handle_request to show_comments:

def show_comments():
    # ...
    return out

We can have a add_entry function to handle form submissions:

def add_entry(params):
    if 'guest' in params:
    return show_comments()

This frees up the handle_request function to just figure out which of these two functions to call:

def handle_request(method, url, headers, body):
    if method == 'POST':
        params = form_decode(body)
        if url == '/add':
            return add_entry(params)
            return show_comments()
        return show_comments()

Try it! You should be able to restart the server, open it in your browser, and update the guest book a few times. You should also be able to use the guest book from a real web browser.


We’ve added an important new capability, form submission, to our web browser. It is a humble beginning, but our toy web browser is no longer just for reading pages: it is becoming an application platform. Plus, we now have a little web server for our browser to talk to. Life is better with friends!