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What is AJAX?

Even if you're not well-versed in coding or scripting, if you have a website, it's helpful to understand Asynchronous JavaScript and Extended Markup Language (XML)—AJAX, for short—and its importance in creating effective pages for your website.

AJAX is a scripting method that uses JavaScript and to give your pages modular data processing. It's called asynchronous because it allows for single or multiple parts of the page to be updated without requiring the whole page to be updated; the parts of the page do not have to “sync” with one another, but can receive and process information independently from one another.

Why AJAX?

So what, exactly, would the average website owner use AJAX to create? Well, it's very useful when combined with a customer's login information to provide customized shipping information based on that customer's physical location. Or let's say your company has several real-world locations, and you provide an interactive map that allows site visitors to plot their course from home to your nearest retail store.

AJAX is what allows users to interact with the map and receive custom results without needing to refresh the entire page every time they click another part of the map or enter new information.

You can also use AJAX to serve multimedia content in a custom player, or pull information from a new user's social media profiles on Facebook or Twitter to create a new customer account on your site. The possibilities are limited only by your server resources (and your budget for the same).

Because it can be used with any scripting language that supports JavaScript (including PHP HyperText Preprocessor (PHP), Python, Perl, etc.), AJAX enjoys nearly universal support, and doesn't add to your monthly hosting budget.

However, in order to take advantage of its capabilities, you will need to be familiar with HyperText Markup Language (HTML), XML, and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) in addition to JavaScript and XML, so make sure you've either done your homework or hired a trusty code-savvy pro to help before you begin using it to build your site.

Pros and cons of using AJAX

Like all tools in the developer’s arsenal, AJAX comes with its share of pros and cons.

We already listed a number of potential benefits – AJAX can improve the user experience by speeding up page rendering and improving response times. It can reduce server and network loads through better efficiency and resource utilisation, offer multibrowser support ‘out of the box’ and help in the development of platform- and architecture-agnostic web based applications.

However, the list trade-offs is just as extensive. If not properly optimised, an AJAX implementation can cause performance issues by creating a nearly constant interaction between the browser and server. It also requires internet access, which may be an issue in certain niches.

While AJAX provides developers with a greater level of freedom and a range of features for web-based applications, it is still relatively limited. AJAX’s local data storage and hardware interaction capabilities remain limited.

Dealing with multimedia rich content and real-time graphics is an issue, too. Therefore it often necessary to resort to other platforms to fill the gaps. For a long time Flash fulfilled this purpose, but the industry’s love affair with flash ended a few years ago.

Since it depends on JavaScript, a serious and feature-rich AJAX implementation requires relatively good knowledge of JavaScript, thus limiting its appeal. Support for JavaScript in mobile and desktop browsers can be an issue, negating some of the advantages of web-based apps. Reliance on JavaScript also results in indexing issues and SEO concerns, i.e. lack of SEO-friendly URLs.

Security may be another issue. Although there is nothing inherently insecure about AJAX, it is still affected with most security problems associated with web-based appse. Luckily AJAX has been around for years and the risks can be mitigated, but less experienced developers still need to exercise caution.

From an end-user perspective, AJAX can cause some navigation and accessibility issues. For example, AJAX navigation does not depend on changing the URL, thus rendering ‘back’ and ‘refresh’ browser commands useless. This problem is usually addressed by designers and AJAX friendly user interfaces.

Another potential problem is JavaScript support, which may be disabled on the user side for a number of reasons. This issue is usually addressed by developing a non-AJAX version of the website, which is a practical solution, but it still requires web developers to expend valuable resources and time.

Ajax Frequently Asked Questions

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