Using Ajax.Autocompleter with Oracle Application Express

2008-07-13 20:00:00 -0400

Web application frameworks like RubyOnRails and Oracle’s Application Express (APEX) are generally built as full suites providing the most common functions of web frameworks in a way that’s extensible so that you don’t have to roll your own. They are incredible products, both great for what they do. But in the real world, many businesses have widely diverse data sources in their environments, and sometimes you’ll have to mix and match.

Case in point: in one of our clients’ environments there’s an instance of APEX providing data reporting and there’s a separate web app for manipulating directory services; both are protected by a single-sign-on solution. If you log into one, you have the cookie that allows you into the other without having to log in again. A recent change requested of the web-app was that a particular text field be given type-ahead suggest / auto-complete functionality for a particular piece of data stored in the Oracle DB schema atop which the APEX app sits.

At first I looked up a number of the various posted ways on how to do an auto-complete in APEX alone, just to get the ball rolling and see what functionality was there. There’s a lot of good information out there in the Application Express section or the OTN forums. I figured at first that I ought to be able to code up the server-side processing in APEX using an On Demand process (basically a bit of PL/SQL) to respond to the very simple, one-parameter request of a type ahead. I figured on the client side I’d just use Ajax.Autocompleter from the library to keep things simple for the web-app, too.

This ended up tanking due to how APEX handles requests through mod_plsql. To run an On-Demand application process the calling request has to contain a valid session ID number in the query string. Not to mention I’d have to hack up Autocompleter a bit to supply the param name and value in APEX’s tortured query string syntax (/pls/f?p:page_id:session_id::::param,param:value,value:etcetcetc).

But I didn’t shy away from the task, I set about trying to figure out how I could first grab a session ID, import it into the client side javascript and use that to dynamically construct the URL and params. It was ugly, and I never did get that session ID cleanly.

But as you can see in that thread, Louis-Guillaume suggested a much simpler solution: since we’re using mod_plsql anyway (APEX runs inside it), why not just go old school and create a stored procedure to respond to the Autocompleter call?

It’s basically the same code as the On-Demand process. You create your stored procedure, set up a DAD connection string for mod_plsql (this is done in marvel.conf or dads.conf in Oracle HTTP Server (Apache!)), and call it like thus:

The parameters should literally match what’s defined for the parameters on the PL/SQL procedure. Leaving some off is fine (as long as you set defaults and account for the possibility), but adding extra undeclared parameters causes a problem, as we’ll see in a moment.

So here’s the stored procedure:

CREATE OR REPLACE PROCEDURE autocomplete_for_empname( p_search_text IN context.val%TYPE DEFAULT NULL ) 
v_employee_row employees%ROWTYPE;
v_count NUMBER := 0;
OWA_UTIL.mime_header ('text/html', FALSE);
HTP.p ('Cache-Control: no-cache');
HTP.p ('Pragma: no-cache');

IF p_search_text IS NOT NULL THEN
HTP.prn ('<ul>');

FOR v_context_row IN
(SELECT e.* FROM employees e WHERE LOWER( LIKE '%' || LOWER( p_search_text ) || '%' AND ROWNUM < 11 ORDER BY c.val)
v_count := v_count + 1;
HTP.prn ('<li>' || v_employee_row.val || '</li>');

IF v_count = 0 THEN
HTP.prn ( '<li>No results found</li>' );

HTP.prn ('</ul>');
HTP.p('Error: ' || SQLERRM);
END autocomplete_for_empname;

What this code does is provide the unordered list expected by Ajax.Autocompleter. We can call the stored proc like this to test the results:

And we’ll get results like:

<li>Jonathan Myers</li>
<li>Jones Johnson</li>
<li>Jon From Garfield</li>
... &c. ...

The constructor for the Autocompleter was an easy setup:

  <input type="text" id="autocomplete" name="p_search_text" size="50" />
<div id="autocomplete_choices" class="autocomplete"></div>
<script type="text/javascript">
new Ajax.Autocompleter("autocomplete", "autocomplete_choices", "", {
paramName: "p_search_text",
minChars: 3,
method: 'get'

There was one final hang-up. Even though I was getting the correct responses by hitting autocomplete_for_empname directly when testing from my browser, Ajax.Autocompleter was getting a 404 response. I took a look at the request being sent in Firebug, and it turns out that with every Ajax request, Prototype, the supporting library, adds an extra ‘_’ parameter with no value.

I had to open up the prototype.js library and comment out this line in the Ajax.request method:

  request: function(url) {
var parameters = this.options.parameters || '';
// if (parameters.length > 0) parameters += '&_=';

Then, all was right with the world. Turns out the extra param is included to get around an old bug in Safari 2.x#.

So there you have it. If you want to do an external autocomplete against data in your APEX schema, use Ajax.Autocompleter and a stored procedure over mod_plsql.

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