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  • WebDAV

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

  • How can I incorporate WebDAV into a website or app?

    WebDAV is an extension of HTTP, so you can use any HTTP API to add WebDAV support for your website or app. There are also a number of WebDAV APIs for other protocols, such as .NET and Objective-C. Of course, in order to do this you will need to ensure your server supports WebDAV.

  • What methods does WebDAV add to HTTP?

    WebDAV adds several read/write methods to HTTP, including: PROPIND, which allows users to retrieve properties stored in XML from a web resource, PROPPATCH, which can change and delete multiple properties on a resource, MKCOL to create collections or directories, COPY to copy a resource from one URI to another, MOVE to move a resources, LOCK to prevent files from being edited by multiple users at the same time, and UNLOCK to remove the lock on a file.

  • How do I set up WebDAV on my computer?

    If you’re running a recent version of Windows or Mac OS X, WebDAV is already installed on your computer. To set it up, all you need to do is install the Internet Information Services (IIS) and WebDAV publishing features. There are a number of resources available online to walk you through setting up and configuring your WebDAV server.

  • How does WebDAV compare to cloud storage like Dropbox?

    WebDAV is an extension for the HTTP protocol, and can be used in a variety of ways to add and edit files on a server. Because it’s HTTP code, it can be used to create a centralized virtual hard drive, similar to Dropbox, but it can also be used to synchronize calendars, update contacts, automatically write to items from web code, and much, much more. Dropbox is an application for storing and sharing files directly to the Dropbox site. Additionally, when you save items to Dropbox, they are first saved locally to your computer and then synced to the Dropbox storage center. With WebDAV, clients are accessing the file over HTTP, directly from the server. Some other cloud storage sites do this as well, at the application level, and under clearly defined limits.

  • How do I view files on a WebDAV server?

    There are a number of tools available, some of which are command line tools, while others, like WebDAV Explorer, provide a graphical user interface, which allows you to view and interact with folders similar to how you would in Windows Explorer.

  • How can my company use WebDAV?

    There are a number of applications for the WebDAV protocol. At its most basic level, it allows you to designate space on your server where developers can upload, edit, and collaborate on files from anywhere. There are also a number of extensions that expand the capabilities of the WebDAV protocol for specific purpose, such as CalDAV, which sets standards for allowing clients to access scheduling information on a remote server, and the CardDAV protocol, which does the same with business contact information.

  • Can you provide some common examples of WebDAV?

    You’ve undoubtedly used some variation on WebDAV, though you may not even realize you’re doing so. Apple’s calendar app and contact manager both support extensions of WebDAV to sync appointments and contact information from external sources to your device and vice-versa. So do a number of other programs for Android, Windows, and Linux, including Google Calendar and Mozilla Thunderbird.

  • Can I convert a non-WebDAV application into a WebDAV app?

    WebDAV was designed so that non-WebDAV applications could easily add WebDAV support. Keep in mind, WebDAV is not an application, but simply a standard set of protocols, which an application can be programmed to utilize. Since WebDAV client APIs are relatively lightweight, they can easily be integrated into existing applications.

  • Are there alternatives to WebDAV?

    There are a number of alternatives for WebDAV. Some of the more common alternatives include: FTP (File Transfer Protocol), a simple, IP-based protocol that allows users to transfer files between network hosts, and AtomPub, an HTTP-based protocol designed for creating and updating web resources.

  • Is WebDAV still being developed?

    The official WebDAV protocol was completed in 2007 and is referenced as RFC 4917. It specifies a standard set of headers and methods to extend HTTP to provide overwrite protection (locking), properties management, and namespace manipulation. Though the WebDEV protocol is no longer being developed, several variation and extensions have since been created and are continuing to be developed, in order to further extend its functionality.

  • Does WebDAV provide document management or workflow capabilities?

    No, WebDAV is simply the underlying protocol used for such collaboration. Essentially, it is simply a remote file system, with some additional features, such as author tracking. To incorporate document and workflow management, an application must be built on top of it.

  • How does WebDAV compare to FTP?

    Since WebDAV works over HTTP, it provides a number of benefits over FTP, including strong authentication, encryption, proxy support, and caching. WebDAV can send multiple transfers through a single TCP connection, while FTP needs a new connection for each file to be transferred. It’s easier to configure WebDAV to bypass firewalls, NATs and proxies over TCP. And WebDAV supports partial transfers, which FTP does not.

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