Internet Explorer blocks Firefox downloads

When designing the school reports I decided to use a GET request on form submission so that it would be easier to bookmark or share a report. I knew at the time that using GET might cause problems down the road, but the utility/programming trade-off seemed worthwhile.

Long URLs

The main problem with GET is that the total size a URL is allowed to be (and thus the amount of data passed) is fairly limited when compared to POST. The exact limit varies by browser and web server, but a practical limit is the lowest limit across platforms. In this case that is 2083 characters in Internet Explorer.

Since each report has to pass the list of included packets and items, the URL could easily surpass this limit. Recently one user generated a report that went over the IE limit. Figuring this out, though, proved to be somewhat difficult.

Held up at security

The user in question was using Firefox to access the utility. The report in question was generating and displaying just fine. However, when the user tried to download the report an error would result. It seemed odd that the browser would display the report on screen without issue then error out when attempting to download the same report.

I tried many options, but no matter what I did I was unable to download the report in Firefox. Next I tried the same report in IE and the situation started to clarify. IE would not even display the report. So now I was beginning to think that maybe the GET request was causing problems. Still it was difficult to fathom Firefox displaying the report on screen but refusing to download it.

A little web research finally clarified everything. Firefox attempts to honor the Windows Internet security zone settings for downloaded files. In order to apply the security zone settings Windows has to pass the URL to the IE engine for analysis. Firefox allows URLs of significantly larger size than IE, so the same URL that displays correctly on Firefox will thus cause IE to error out. Since Firefox attempts to honors the security settings, when IE coughs up a hairball due to the URL length the download is aborted.

Solving the problem

Initially I thought to just shorten the request by modifying the variable names on the form. This worked well enough for the problem at hand, but I could easily see having to address the problem again in the future. In the end I decided to modify the code behind the page so that the report parameters are submitted by POST instead of GET. It required more work up front, but will prevent this problem from cropping up in the future.

Plus, the utility has an option to save reports, so bookmarking/sharing is not as much of an issue.


CakePHP, Apache, and Ampersands

I’m still learning CakePHP. My most recent experimentation is with forms and URL redirecting. In the process I noticed that if the URL includes an ampersand, even in URL-encoded form, CakePHP will read in the URL incorrectly.

In my case, I was taking a form submission and redirecting it to a new page, appending the submitted data as URL parameters (e.g. of the form /controller/action/name:value). CakePHP handles ampersand in POST-submitted forms just fine, but during the redirect I noticed that the value of the parameter was cut off at the ampersand. For example, I’m creating a search form for a list of items (located at /items/index). When you submit the form with a value of “ball & chain” the controller sees it just fine. The form is submitted to the search action (/items/search) which takes the values, constructs a new URL, and redirects back to the item list (/items/index/Search.keywords:ball+%26+chain). However, the index action only sees “ball ” … the rest of the value is assumed to be additional key/value pairs in the querystring.

This problem seems like a pretty major issue to me. A bug report has already been filed, but I don’t believe it will be addressed anytime soon. And for good reason, the bug is actually in Apache’s mod_rewrite module rather than in CakePHP. When mod_rewrite processes a URL it unescapes any escaped characters (newer releases unescape to two levels). What this means for CakePHP is that any escaped characters in the URL become normal characters in the querystring (%26 becomes &).

The best overview of the problem has a good work-around, but it requires modification of the core CakePHP scripts. I’ll leave that to the experts. On our install I’ve found that a triple-escaped value will only be unescaped twice, resulting in the proper escaping after being parsed by mod_rewrite.