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Web Browser “Session Merging”

By Steve Ives, Posted on December 8, 2009 at 5:11 pm

I just realized something about modern web browsers, and as a long time web developer it kind of took me by surprise! Maybe it shouldn’t have, maybe I should have figured this out a long time ago, but I didn’t.

What I realized is that Internet Explorer 8 shares cookies between multiple tabs that are open to the same web application. In fact it’s worse than that … it also shares those cookies between tabs in multiple instances of the browser! And as if that’s not bad enough, research shows that Firefox, Google Chrome and Apple’s Safari all do the same thing! Internet Explorer 7 on the other hand shares cookies between multiple tabs, but not between browser windows.

If you’re an ASP[.NET] developer you’ve probably figured out by now why I am so concerned, but if you’re not then I’ll try to explain.

ASP, ASP.NET, and in fact most other server-side web development platforms (including Java’s JSP) have the concept of a “current user session”. This is essentially a “context” inside the web server which represents the current users “state”. The easiest way to think about this is to picture a UNIX or OpenVMS system; when a user logs in a new process is created, and (usually) the process goes away when the user logs out. A web applications user session is not a process as such, but it sometimes helps to think of it that way.

Web developers in these environments can, and very often do make use of this current user session. They use it to store state; information about the current user, or application information about what they are doing or have done, and possibly even to cache certain application data or resources to avoid having to repeatedly allocate and free those resources, or to avoid having to obtain a piece of data over and over again when the data doesn’t change.

Now, at this point I want to make it clear that I’m not saying this is a good thing to do, or a bad thing to do. Some would say it’s a bad thing to do because it increases server-side resource utilization and hence impacts the scalability of the application; and they would be correct. Others would say that by caching data or resources it is possible to avoid repeated round-trips to a database, or to an xfServerPlus service, and hence helps improve runtime performance; and they would also be correct. As with many things in software development … it’s a trade-off. Better runtime performance and a little easier to code, but at the cost of lower scalability.

In reality, unless a web application needs to routinely deal with large numbers of concurrent users, the scalability issue isn’t that important. As a result, good practice or not, many web developers are able to enjoy the luxury of using current user session state without significantly impacting anything … and they do!

So … what’s the problem?

Well, the problem is that the web (HTTP) is a connectionless environment. When a user types a URI into a web browser the browser connects to the web server, requests the resource(s) identified by the URI, and then disconnects. In order to have the concept of a user “session” the web server needs to have a way of recognizing that a subsequent “request” is coming from a browser that has already used the application, and is attempting to continue to use the application. The way that web applications usually do this is to send a “cookie” containing a unique “session ID” to the browser, and the nature of HTTP cookies is that if this happens, the same cookie will be returned to the web server during subsequent connections. Web applications can then detect this cookie, extract the session ID, and re-associate the browser with their existing “current user session”.

This is how most server-side web applications work; this is how they make it possible to have the concept of an on-going user session, despite of the fact that the interaction with the browser is actually just a set of totally unrelated requests.

So now the problem may be becoming clear. Early web browsers would keep these “session cookies” private to a single instance of a browser. New browsers would receive and return different cookies, so if a user opened two browsers and logged in to the same web application twice, the web server would recognize them as two separate “logins”, would allocate two separate “current user sessions” and what the user did in one browser window would be totally separate from what they did in the other.

But … now that modern browsers share these session ID cookies between multiple tabs in the browser, and more recently between multiple instances of the browser window its self, server-side web applications can no longer rely on “session id” to identify unique instances of the client application!

At least that is the case if the application relies on HTTP cookies for the persistence of session ID. In ASP.NET there is a workaround for the problem … but it’s not pretty. It is possible to have the session ID transmitted to and from the browser via the URI. This would work around the multiple instance problems, but has all kinds of other implications, because now the session ID is part of the URI in the browser, and affects the ability to create bookmarks etc.

This whole thing is potentially a huge problem for a lot of server-side web applications. In fact, if your web applications do rely on session state in this way, and have ever encountered “weird random issues”, this could very well explain why!

So what’s the answer for existing applications … well, I honestly don’t know what to tell you. Passing session ID around via the URI may be an easy fix for you, but may not! If it’s not then the only solution I can currently offer is … don’t use session state; but if you use session state, then transitioning to not using it is probably a very large task!

By the way, today I read that the proposed HTML5 standard includes a solution to this very issue. Apparently it’s called “Session Storage”. Great news! The problem is that, according to some Microsoft engineers who are definitely “in the know”, it is very possible that the HTML5 standard may not be fully ratified until the year 2022! Seriously!


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