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Web Distributed Authoring and Versioning (WebDAV) is one of the technologies that makes the web interactive. Developed from the late 90s and finalized in 2007, the technology was created to extend HTTP and make the web 'writeable', meaning that the people viewing the pages could also create content on them. That includes sharing files - a key technology for online collaboration.

WebDAV isn't responsible for all interactive content, but it was certainly the first step in that direction. Technically, it's an extension of the HTTP protocol that we use to browse web pages, and it's also an open standard.

Why WebDAV?

WebDAV was developed by the World Wide Web Consortium - the organization that grew the concept of the web itself. WebDAV was designed to make the internet a 'read/ write' medium, so that readers could change content on web servers as well as consume it.

The project was started in 1996, and development took well over a decade. Both Linux and Microsoft servers adopted it; Linux with Apache, and Microsoft through IIS. Apple is keen on WebDAV and uses it to prop up much of its file sharing technology. WebDAV is the technology that lets you open iWork documents on your iPad, for example.

All implementations are based around the use of a virtual disk, giving you a convenient way of storing files remotely. You can connect to the disk at boot, or mount the drive once your computer has started:

  • On Linux, users can mount a WebDAV share as though it was a local disk. Many shared hosting providers offer this feature
  • On Windows, you can use WebDAV to map a network drive to your computer
  • On Mac, WebDAV lets users share files across the web and on their own home or office network. WebDAV is behind network file sharing in iWork, for example. It also supports iCal calendar sharing

You can also store files through drag and drop in your web browser, depending on the tools your host gives you.

WebDAV Hosting

WebDAV is provided with many web hosting accounts, and your operating system will natively support it, so it's really easy to use. In cPanel hosting accounts, WebDAV is called Web Disk, and it's been available for over a decade through the control panel. Not all hosts support it, but many offer it as standard on even the most basic shared hosting plan.

When you log into cPanel and head to Web Disk, you can choose your operating system. cPanel automatically generates a setup file that you can download to your computer. Double-click this file and a WebDAV share will be automatically created on your machine. You can then drag files straight into that share, and they'll be copied to your web hosting space immediately. Note that your files are not publicly visible, as WebDAV stores files separately to your website.

WebDAV shares use up valuable hosting resources, so keep an eye on the amount you're uploading, since very large files will hog storage and bandwidth. For best security, look for a host that will back up the contents of your WebDAV folder.

Technical Advantages of WebDAV

WebDAV offers a few key features that make web content interactive, much like a regular file system. It can:

  • Allow content to be copied and moved on a web server
  • Facilitate the storage of large files that are too big to email
  • Automatically save version information on a file
  • Set access permissions on a file
  • Let users lock files for editing, which prevents a situation where multiple users are trying to edit the same content. WebDAV is smart enough to release the locked file after a certain amount of time, ensuring that users who disconnect do not leave persistent locks behind
  • Interact with XML metadata for any given file, and it can search through this metadata too
  • Edit many types of content collectively: HTML, image files, media and scripts
  • Connect to data through a firewall without the complexity needed to use FTP

Problems with WebDAV

Microsoft was involved with the development of the WebDAV standard, but its Windows has weak support for the protocol. For the few users still using Vista, there's a patch you can install, but upgrading to a newer version is a better option.

On Windows 7, you're best off using a third party application, rather than Windows Explorer.

Some users report that saving to a WebDAV drive isn't always reliable on Windows. For that reason, it's best to save locally and then copy final versions over to your WebDAV share.

WebDAV Frequently Asked Questions

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