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J2EE pathfinder: The many uses of implicit objects
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Intro to implicit objects
Session management
Flow control
Logging and exceptions
Input and output control
Initialization parameters
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Meet the hardest working objects in JSP technology

Level: Intermediate

Kyle Gabhart ( many uses of implicit objects)
Consultant, Gabhart Consulting
26 August 2003

Column iconIn this follow-up to last month's introduction to session scopes, Java enterprise expert Kyle Gabhart delves into the many uses of JSP implicit objects. Follow along as he introduces the nine implicit objects, explains the purpose (and multiple purposes) of each one, and closes with a list of best practices for using these handy little workers in your JSP programming efforts. Share your thoughts on this article or any article in the J2EE pathfinder series in the accompanying discussion forum.

This installment of J2EE pathfinder is a follow-up to last month's introduction to the proper handling of session scopes. In addition to accessing session scopes, JSP implicit objects can be used to handle HTML parameters, forward a request to a Web component, include the content of a component, log data through the JSP container, control the output stream, handle exceptions, and more.

This month, you'll learn about using implicit objects in your JSP pages. We'll start with a brief overview of the JSP architecture, including implicit objects. After that, I'll introduce each object and describe its core capabilities. We'll close with a list of best practices for using each type of object and the container-managed services it provides.

Introduction to implicit objects
The concept behind the JSP architecture is to provide a Web component that allows developers to focus on the presentation of Web content without getting sucked into the details of parsing, programming, and data manipulation. JSP applications are essentially special Web components that a J2EE Web container converts into servlets prior to handling user requests. Within each JSP application is the complete set of implicit objects.

Implicit objects let developers access container-provided services and resources. These objects are defined as implicit because you do not have to explicitly declare them. They are defined in every JSP page and used behind the scenes by the container whether you declare them or not -- although you cannot redeclare them. Because implicit objects are declared automatically, we need only use the reference variable associated with a given object to begin calling methods on it.

The nine implicit objects, with a brief description of each one's function, are:

  • Application is the broadest context state available. It allows the JSP page's servlet and any Web components contained in the same application to share information.

  • Config allows initialization data to be passed to a JSP page's servlet.

  • Exception houses exception data to be accessed only by designated JSP "error pages."

  • Out provides access to the servlet's output stream.

  • Page is the instance of the JSP page's servlet processing the current request. Not typically used by JSP page authors.

  • PageContext is the context for the JSP page itself. It provides a single API to manage the various scoped attributes. This API is used extensively when implementing JSP custom tag handlers.

  • Request provides access to HTTP request data, as well as providing a context for associating request-specific data.

  • Response enables direct access to the HTTPServletResponse object and is rarely used by JSP authors.

  • Session is perhaps the most commonly used of the state management contexts. The concept of a "session" is that of a single user interacting with a Web application over several requests.

Although some implicit objects address a single function, several of them provide multiple categories of functionality. In the sections that follow, we'll review implicit objects according to functional categories:

  • Session management: application, session, request, pageContext
  • Flow control: application, config, pageContext, request, session
  • Logging and exceptions: application, config, exception, pageContext, request, session
  • Input/output control: request, response, out
  • Initialization parameters: config

Session management
As mentioned last month, four of the implicit objects defined for JSP pages can be used to associate stateful data within a particular context, or scope. Those four objects are application, session, request, and pageContext. The following table identifies the four objects and the stateful context each one defines, and also gives a brief description of what each context entails.

Table 1. JSP state management
Implicit object Scope Description
javax.servlet.ServletContext Application Represents the entire runtime Web module (application). Data that is scoped to an application is shared among all the Web components within a single application module. This is the closest that J2EE offers to "global" data.
javax.servlet.http.HttpSession Session Represents the current HTTP session. Next to page scope, session scope is the most commonly used context. This is the most commonly used context for providing a persistent, stateful user experience spanning multiple requests.
javax.servlet.http.HttpServletRequest Request Represents the current HTTP request. This context can span multiple Web components (servlets and JSP pages) that are still a part of the same atomic request. Request-specific data (request methods, URI, HTTP parameters, and so on) provided by the client is automatically stored in a request context. Data can also be programmatically scoped to a request by one servlet or JSP page to be retrieved by another within the same request scope.
javax.servlet.jsp.PageContext Page Represents the current JSP page's context. Because the context for a JSP page includes the current request, session, and application, a pageContext instance provides access to all the namespaces associated with a JSP page. It is the default scope for all objects, including JavaBeans components. Objects with page scope will typically be bound to a local variable to be accessed within scriptlets, expressions, JavaBeans tags, and custom tags.

From a best-practices standpoint, page scope should be used whenever possible. It's simple, and is also the default scope for JSP data. request scope is excellent for sharing data between components at run time in order to process a particular request. session scope is designed to provide a persistent, stateful experience for a unique user, spanning multiple requests. application scope should be used only when you need to share data between components and across user sessions. See Resources to learn more about session scopes.

Flow control
One of the big advantages of object-oriented design is reuse. J2EE systems, in particular, lend themselves to a modular style of development, where components can be rearranged, repackaged, and reused in other applications. Even if you aren't interested in designing reusable Web modules, you will most likely find that your J2EE applications break down into several Web components. Any time that you use multiple servlets or JSP pages (that is, components) to fulfill a request, you will need to use some type of flow-control technique. The Servlet architecture provides two such techniques: forwards and includes.

In J2EE Web development, a forward transfers control for processing the user's request to another Web component. This can be useful if you need one component to set up some JavaBeans, open or close resources, authenticate the user, or otherwise perform some prep work prior to passing control to the next component. A wide variety of tasks can be performed prior to performing a forward, but no response headers can be set by the forwarding component and no content can be sent to the output buffer. All tasks directly related to sending content to the client must be done by the component that the request is forwarded to.

The second flow control technique available in J2EE is an include. Rather than transferring control, as you do with a forward, the component performing the include maintains control of the request and simply requests that the output of another component be included at a particular point within the page. This is an excellent way to handle common design elements such as headers, footers, and navigation panes.

Both forwards and includes are accomplished through a special object, java.servlet.RequestDispatcher. In order to obtain a RequestDispatcher you simply call getRequestDispatcher() on a ServletContext object. There are several ways to get a reference to a ServletContext object. We can:

  • Use the implicitly declared application variable, because it is already of type ServletContext
  • Call getServletContext(), which will return a reference to the implicitly declared application variable
  • Call getServletContext() on the implicitly declared config variable
  • Call getServletContext() on the implicitly declared pageContext variable
  • Call getServletContext() on the implicitly declared request variable
  • Call getServletContext() on the implicitly declared session variable

Listing 1 shows a code sample for the forward flow control mechanism, using the implicit application variable:

Listing 1. Forwarding flow control example

javax.servlet.RequestDispatcher rd;

/* Obtain a reference to a RequestDispatcher object via the implicit
     application variable*/
rd = application.getRequestDispatcher( "/NextPage.jsp" );

/* Perform the forward specified by the RequestDispatcher
     and pass along a reference to the current request and
     response objects */
rd.forward( request, response );

Listing 2 shows a code example for the include flow control mechanism, using the same application variable:

Listing 2. Include flow control example

javax.servlet.RequestDispatcher rd;

/* Obtain a reference to a RequestDispatcher object via the implicit
     application variable*/
rd = application.getRequestDispatcher( "/Header.jsp" );

/* Perform the include specified by the RequestDispatcher
     and pass along a reference to the current request and
     response objects */
rd.include( request, response );

Forwards and includes are excellent techniques to add to your J2EE Web development toolbox. There are a couple of other ways to perform includes in a JSP page, and there's also a lot of literature that addresses the subject of J2EE design patterns that incorporate both of these techniques. See Resources to learn more.

Logging and exceptions
If you need to store information related to your Web application in a log, there is one built-in method available to you. The ServletContext interface declares two methods for passing data to a log. One accepts a simple text message: log( java.lang.String ), and the other accepts exception information and a text message: log(java.lang.Throwable, java.lang.String ).

After both logging methods are made available through the ServletContext interface, the key is to obtain a reference to an object of type ServletContext. As we discussed in the previous section on flow control objects, there are several ways to do this. After you have a reference, simply call either of the log() methods and pass the necessary data into the method. Once you have done this, you will no doubt want to be able to view your application log to view the messages. ServletContext is simply an interface, and does not dictate how to implement the methods it declares. Consequently, the actual implementation of the log methods is handled by the vendor. They can store your log messages in a text file, binary file, database, or any other format that the vendor considers appropriate. You'll want to check your server's documentation to discover where and how your application's log can be located.

Although sending messages to a log file can be quite useful, there are often times when you would also like to display a user-friendly error message in the event of an unrecoverable exception. To do this, you can declare that your JSP page uses a separate page to handle error messages. This is accomplished by including the following page directive anywhere in your JSP page:

<%@ page errorPage="ErrorMessage.jsp"%>

Whenever an exception is thrown while processing your JSP page, the exception object will immediately be thrown to the designated error page by means of the implicitly declared exception variable.

In order for a JSP page to function as an error page, it must include a directive that declares the page to be a special page designed to handle errors, as follows:

<%@ page isErrorPage="true"%>

In order for the ErrorMessage.jsp page to be able to act as an error page, this directive must appear somewhere in the page. The error page can then display a friendly error message to the user, and then perhaps log the relevant exception information for the system administrator to review at a later time.

Input and output control
Because JSP pages are simply an abstraction of an HTTP servlet, it makes sense that you would have access to the HttpServletRequest and HttpServletResponse objects. If you have a need for request-specific information such as the client's browser type, content type of an HTTP post, client capabilities, cookie data, or request parameters, simply call the appropriate method directly on the implicitly declared request variable. Likewise, if you need to set response headers such as browser type, content type, content length, and so on, simply call the necessary methods on the implicit response variable.

If you need direct access to the JSP page's output stream, it would be tempting to call getWriter() or getOutputStream() through the implicit response variable. Due to the special nature of JSP pages, however, you must not do this. If you need direct access to the output stream, you must go through a special buffered PrintWriter object of type javax.servlet.jsp.JSPWriter. How do you locate a reference for such an object? The JSP container will implicitly declare one for you and make it available through the out variable. In order to use it, simply call out.print() or out.println() from within a JSP scriptlet.

Typically you will not need to use the JSPWriter directly like this, but simply place your content as plain text or through JSP expressions, and allow the container to translate this information into JSPWriter calls. There are, however, two cases in which you will want to use the out variable directly. One case is when you are defining the handler classes for a JSP custom tag, which we'll talk about more in next month's column. The other case is when you would like more direct control over the output that your JSP creates. If you have a section of HTML that is littered with JSP scriptlets and expressions, you may find it to be much cleaner and easier to create one large JSP scriptlet and then simply use out.println() statements whenever you want to push content out to the client.

Initialization parameters
If you have some static data that you want to make available to your JSP page and that data does not change frequently, initialization parameters may do the trick. Sometimes called environment variables or "init" parameters, these parameters are specified through a Web application's web.xml file on a per-servlet/JSP basis, and they are read only once during the life cycle of the servlet, at initialization time.

Listing 3 is an example of an initialization parameter declaration:

Listing 3. Initialization parameter declaration


In order to access this parameter value, use the implicit config variable which references the JSP page's ServletConfig object. There are two methods available through the ServletConfig interface for working with init parameters. You can either perform a lookup on a particular parameter by name (getInitParameter( java.lang.String)), or you can retrieve an enumeration of all the parameter names defined for the JSP page (getInitParameterNames()). After you have the enumeration, you can then loop through and look up each value. All init parameters are treated as String objects. If you need another data type such as integer, floating point, or boolean value, you will have to parse the string using the appropriate wrapper class.

JSP technology provides a very useful abstraction on top of the Servlet architecture, letting Web designers focus more on content presentation, and less on programming details. In this article, you've seen how implicit objects can be used to enable faster, easier, and simpler Web development.

Next month, we'll start talking about JSP custom tags and the JSP Standard Tag Library (JSTL). Tune in then to learn how custom tags can facilitate the separation between presentation and business logic, while also letting you incorporate dynamic data into the presentation layer. In the meantime, happy pathfinding!


About the author
Photo of Kyle GabhartKyle Gabhart is an independent consultant and subject matter expert with J2EE, XML, and Web services technologies. Kyle is a popular public speaker, recognized for his enthusiasm and dynamic analysis and presentation of emerging technologies. For information on his recent and upcoming presentations or industry publications, visit Kyle can be reached at

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