All About Cookies in JavaScript

This JavaScript article tutorial gives us a full detailed documentation about cookie and how to use cookie in JavaScript. Please go to the inner post page for full detailed instructions, documentation and live JavaScript code examples.

Read more JavaScript cookies tutorials on jsB@nk:

- Browser Cookie with JavaScript and jQuery
- Cookie and Javascript: How to Handle
- Delicious Cookies
- Cookies in JavaScript


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One of the most powerful tools available to the web developer are http cookies. Used and, more often-than-not, misused, cookies are what power every major website on the net today. Did you know cookies can be tagged secure or hidden from Javascript? Here's the 411 on how cookies work, complete with public domain Javascript and PhP functions to use them, and an image hot link protection example that uses cookies in addition to referrers.

Introduction

Long before the web, Unix programs exchanged information via a process known as a "magic cookie". When the browser became popular the "magic cookie" concept was introduced to allow browsers to retain small chunks of persistent data which could then be passed back to the server. Today, because of their wide-spread use, cookies are not so quite as magical, or mysterious as they used to be. However, with the Internet deep within the throes of Web 2.0 they are more important than ever.

One possible source of the term, which cannot be proven definitely today, was the comic strip Odd Bodkins by Dan O'Neill published in the San Francisco Chronicle during most of the 1960s. Several of O'Neill's characters ate Magic Cookies from the Magic Cookie Bush, many thought this was a euphemism for LSD mentionable in a major newspaper. In any case, the Magic Cookie transported the eater into Magic Cookie Land; thus, perhaps, a small token produced a whole context or experience. -- Wikipedia

The Limits

Cookies, from a programming perspective, are highly unreliable. It's like having your data stored on a hard drive that sometimes will be missing, corrupt, or missing the data you expected. There are a LOT of people who surf with cookies off or opt-in (where the user manually approves each site allowed to store cookies on his or her computer).

Even if a user surfs with cookies fully allowed, the cookies your site stores may suddenly disappear if the browser decides it needs to make some space. The cookie may also be deleted if the user opts to "purge private data", and more than a few "tune-up" programs arbitrarily purge cookies along with temporary internet files as part of their "enhancements." If the user just fiddles around with his system clock and advances the date a few years all of your stored cookies could suddenly disappear.

All browsers are required to be able to store at least 300 cookies -- total. Fortunately most browsers store far more than this. Each individual domain name can store 20 cookies with each cookie having a maximum size of 4096 bytes (4k). While most browsers will store more than 300 cookies, almost all of them strictly enforce the 20 cookies per site and 4k size limits.

That is actually quite a lot of data however. Each domain can store 81,920 bytes or 80k in the browser. Now here's the reason why you shouldn't even consider storing more than a few hundred bytes: A site's cookies are transmitted back to the server with every last single http request. If the web page wants an image, the cookies are transmitted. If the web page wants an external style-sheet or javascript the cookies are transmitted. If you have an Ajax routine which queries the database each time the user hits a key on the keyboard then those cookies will be transmitted along with the request every time a user hits a key. Even on broadband 80k a keystroke is a burden, on dial up this will break most user experiences irretrievably.

Best Practice

Unless you just have no access to server-side scripting at all, you will want to keep your cookie data as small as possible. Ideally you would want just a user id code that identifies the browser to the database and then have your database supply all the data you would have ordinarily kept in the browser's cookie. Not only is this friendlier to your users in terms of bandwidth and response times, but it's also safer for you since the user data will be stored in your database and not in the extremely unreliable client.

If you're matching the user id in your database the worst that can happen if the user loses his cookie is that he or she will have to log in again to get his or her cookie back.

A Cookie's Structure

A cookie is just a single line of text. When transmitted between the browser and the server it looks much like this:

foo=bar; path=/; expires=Mon, 09-Dec-2008 13:46:00 GMT

In this case the cookie's name is "foo", the value = "bar", it's valid for all paths on the domain and it expires at 1:46 GMT on December 9th 2008.

Cookie Crumbs -- Its Attributes

The attributes a cookie can have are as follows

Name=Value
Required. The name of the state information ("cookie") is NAME, and its value is VALUE. foo=bar for instance. NAME can not begin with a dollar sign.
Comment=comment
Optional. This is a bit of information a browser can display to help the user decide whether to approve the cookie or not. In practice this is not used anywhere.
Domain=domain
Optional. The Domain attribute specifies the domain for which the cookie is valid. An explicitly specified domain must always start with a dot.
Expires=delta-seconds
Optional. The Max-Age attribute defines the lifetime of the cookie, in seconds. The delta-seconds value is a decimal non- negative integer. After delta-seconds seconds elapse, the client should discard the cookie. A value of zero means the cookie should be discarded immediately.
Path=path
Optional. The Path attribute specifies the subset of URLs to which this cookie applies. For instance '/images' would send the cookie only if the url were some variation of 'mydomain.com/images'.
Secure
When this is attribute is present (no value required) the cookie will be transmitted ONLY when a secure connection has been initiated between the client and server. This should be used if you are transmitting sensitive information like social security numbers or credit card via a cookie (which is bad practice).
Version=version
The official RFC states that this is required, however in practice it is usually never specified and used by the various interfaces.

Despite all the options, most applications use only name, value and sometimes expires with secure running a distant (but still useful) fourth.

Javascript Cookies

While Javascript supports cookies through the use of document.cookie, it is extremely unfortunate that the API is very weak. document.cookie is a string that is built and maintained by the browser. If you set the string (document.cookie='name=value') then the browser will attempt to create a cookie from the data you set and then the string will revert to the cookies actually stored in the browser. It's a string that acts like a function and it's very unnerving.

What's more, when you access document.cookie it shows only the name/value pairs and no other information about the cookie so you won't be able to tell when it expires, what paths and domains its good for. All document.cookie will show you will be the cookie names and their values.

To effectively use javascript cookies you'll need four standard functions to set, read, delete, and check your cookies. The good news is that once these are added to your toolbox, managing your site's cookies becomes a breeze.

I'm not re-inventing the wheel here. Get and delete cookie are public domain functions, setCookie is a modified variant of a public domain function and I quickly wrote cookiesAllowed() to test if the browser will accept cookies or not. They're of course all released into the public domain for you to use as you see fit.

function cookiesAllowed() {
   setCookie('checkCookie', 'test', 1);
   if (getCookie('checkCookie')) {
      deleteCookie('checkCookie');
      return true;
   }
   return false;
}

This function returns true if the user has cookies enabled (or disabled but enabled for your site), and false if cookies are disabled. All it does is attempt to set a cookie and if the cookie isn't subsequently found, it returns false. If the cookie is found, the cookie is deleted and the function returns true. Note that this function will return false if the site is using 20 cookies already, or the size of the site's cookies doesn't allow enough space for this test to work.

function setCookie(name,value,expires, options) {
   if (options==undefined) { options = {}; }
   if ( expires ) {
      var expires_date = new Date();
      expires_date.setDate(expires_date.getDate() + expires)
   }
   document.cookie = name+'='+escape( value ) +
      ( ( expires ) ? ';expires='+expires_date.toGMTString() : '' ) + 
      ( ( options.path ) ? ';path=' + options.path : '' ) +
      ( ( options.domain ) ? ';domain=' + options.domain : '' ) +
      ( ( options.secure ) ? ';secure' : '' );
}

This is the most complex of the functions, but, without question, the most important. This function accepts up to 6 arguments. Only Name and Value are required, the rest are optional although expires should probably always be set.

name is a string which indicates the name of your cookie. It's the same as a variable name. You should avoid using symbols in the name of your cookie. value is the value of the cookie. You don't have to use any other values: you can simply call setCookie('name', 'value'), but if you'd like for the cookie to expire you can specify the number of days to keep the cookie. For instance for the cookie "name" to exist for only 4 days you'd specify "setCookie('name', 'value', 4);" .

The rest of the options are passed in Javascript object notation (JSON!) to allow you some flexibility for what you want to set and what you don't want to set. The names that are looked for are path, domain, and secure. You can specify any or all of them. If you want to set a path and secure you would call the function as such...

setCookie('name','value',1, { "path" : "/", "secure" : "true" });

To set domain and path with a different syntax (but passing the same basic object)...

var cookieOptions = {};
cookieOptions.domain='yahoo.com';
cookieOptions.path='/';
setCookie('name', 'value', 1, cookieOptions);

And if you just want to make the cookie secure using no other options...

setCookie('name', 'value', 1, {"secure" : "true"});

Here's a brief overview of the three options:

path (optional) specifies which path in the url to send the cookies, generally this is '/' which specifies a site-wide cookie. If you set path equal to '/images' then the cookie will only be sent and usable when you're actually in the images directory. Note that if you want to set a path you MUST specify expires.

domain (optional) specifies which domain the cookie is for. If you specify a domain you must specify an expires and path. There's a little idiosyncrasy here in that your domain name needs to BEGIN with a period. So if you want to specify mydomain.com then you need to pass '.mydomain.com' as the domain. Fortunately you can only set the domain for which the web-site is a domain. That is, if the page is being served from "mydomain.com" then you can specify any prefix to mydomain.com you want from ".www.mydomain.com" to ".wow.this.is.a.really.long.domain.name.at.mydomain.com" however you can not set the cookie for ".yahoo.com" or ".com".

secure can be any non-falsy value (passing true is recommended). If secure has a truthy value then the cookie will be flagged secure which means it will be transmitted ONLY when the browser and server have established an encrypted link. If you want to establish a secure flag you will need to pass expires, path, and domain.

Here are a few examples:

setCookie('user', '19') 
     -- sets a cookie with a name of "user" and a value of "19".
setCookie('sky','blue',12) 
     -- Sets a cookie with a name of "sky", and a value of "blue" 
        which will expire in 12 days.
setCookie('person', '21', 12, '/', 'somedomain.com', true)
     -- Sets a cookie with a name of "person" and a value of "21"
        which will be sent on all paths of "somedomain.com"
        but only when the connection is encrypted.

Once a cookie has been set you'll need a way to read it.

function getCookie( name ) {
	var start = document.cookie.indexOf( name + "=" );
	var len = start + name.length + 1;
	if ( ( !start ) && ( name != document.cookie.substring( 0, name.length ) ) ) {
		return null;
	}
	if ( start == -1 ) return null;
	var end = document.cookie.indexOf( ';', len );
	if ( end == -1 ) end = document.cookie.length;
	return unescape( document.cookie.substring( len, end ) );
}

This function accepts a name of a cookie and if it exists it will pass back the value, and if it doesn't exist it will pass back null. It's an extremely easy function to use. Sticking with the examples we gave for setCookie...

getCookie('user') -- will return 19.
getCookie('sky') -- will return blue.
getCookie('person') -- will return 21.
getCookie('monster') -- will return null since we never set it.

Finally you'll need a way to delete the cookie.

function deleteCookie( name, path, domain ) {
   if ( getCookie( name ) ) document.cookie = name + '=' +
      ( ( path ) ? ';path=' + path : '') +
      ( ( domain ) ? ';domain=' + domain : '' ) +
      ';expires=Thu, 01-Jan-1970 00:00:01 GMT';
}

This function accepts a name (mandatory) and an optional path and domain. If the name of the cookie is found ( it calls getCookie ), the expires value of the cookie is set to a date in the far past which automatically deletes the cookie.

So to delete our examples.

   deleteCookie('user');
   deleteCookie('sky');
   deleteCookie('person');
   deleteCookie('monster');

In the above example user,sky, and person would all be deleted from the browser's cookie. Monster never existed so it won't be deleted but it also won't throw an error or do anything unexpected.

Server Cookies

As you might expect PhP has several commands to handle and process cookies on the server side. First off, all cookies are placed in the $_COOKIE array. Using our examples, we can extract the values in PHP as follows.

   $user=$_COOKIE["user"];       -- $user=19
   $sky =$_COOKIE["sky"];        -- $sky=blue;
   $person=$_COOKIE["person"];   -- $person=21;
   $monster=$_COOKIE["monster"]; -- $monster=null;

You can test to see if a cookie exists with the isset command.

   if (isset($_COOKIE["sky"])) { }     -- This will be true
   if (isset($_COOKIE["monster"])) { } -- This will be false

You can set cookies with the setcookie command.

setcookie ( string name [, string value [, int expire [, string path [, string domain [, bool secure [, bool httponly]]]]]] )

This is similar to our javascript function but a little different. expires is the number of seconds until the cookie expires. If you use zero or a negative number here it will delete any existing cookie of the name you passed. To get a "days" value like javascript, you'll need to do a little math: time()+(days* 60 * 60 * 24) where days is the number of days you want to keep the cookie before it expires.

Path, domain, and secure are the same as our javascript function but there's an added argument here called httponly. If you pass httponly true the the cookie will only be visible to the server, javascript will have no access to the cookie which is very useful if you're concerned about theft of sensitive data.

Here's the php equivelant of our javascript example.

setcookie('user', '19') 
     -- sets a cookie with a name of "user" and a value of "19".
setcookie('sky','blue',(time()+12*60*60*24)) 
     -- Sets a cookie with a name of "sky", and a value of "blue" 
        which will expire in 12 days.
setcookie('person', '21', (time()+12*60*60*24), '/', 'somedomain.com', true, true)
     -- Sets a cookie with a name of "person" and a value of "21"
        which will be sent on all paths of "somedomain.com"
        but only when the connection is encrypted and this cookie will be
        visible only to the server, not to javascript.

To delete a cookie in php you just use setcookie, specifying the name of the cookie you want to delete, a value (which can be anything), and then specify a time of zero or a negative number.

Practical Uses

For me personally, the only valid use of a cookie is a small, discrete user code after the user has submitted a login and password to your site. The user code can then be used to match the browser in a database and from there access necessary data and preferences.

There are of course other valid uses for cookies. Marketing types use cookies to assist in filtering out hits from unique users. Some websites store user preferences in cookies. Cookies are pretty much mandatory for e-commerce shopping carts.

One of the more interesting uses of cookies is a means of preventing hot-linking. Using a server language like php and a few tweaks to your web server you can have all image requests redirected to your script. If the user has the appropriate cookie, set by your site, then the script sends the appropriate headers and then passes along the image/file. If the cookie isn't set then the file is processed differently. It's not a perfect solution since there are as many users which surf without cookies are there are that surf without referrers, but through a combination of cookie and referrer checks you can drastically minimize the false positives.

Hotlink Protection Example

Here's a little hot-link protection system that uses a combination of cookies and referrer tracking to prevent other sites from using your images on apache web-servers.

The first step is to modify .htaccess, we'll intercept all requests for /images/ and pass it to a php program NAMED images. If you have a url of "http://www.domain.com/images/pretty-sunset.gif" then pretty-sunset.gif would be in your root directory. There is no directory named images, but there is a php program NAMED "images".

<FilesMatch "^images$"> 
   ForceType application/x-httpd-php 
</FilesMatch>

This tells the server that any file named "images" is actually a php program even though it doesn't have a .php extension.

Next, create a file named "images" in your root directory.

<?php
   if ((isset($_COOKIE["allowImages"]))||(@preg_match($HTTP_REFERER,"mydomain.com"))) {
      // extract the url, decode it and escape the characters so it doesn't do anything nasty.
      $uri = htmlentities( urldecode ( $HTTP_SERVER_VARS["REQUEST_URI"] ) );
      $expl = explode("/",$uri);         // split the url on the slashes
      $fname = $expl[count($expl)-1];    // extract the filename 
      header('Content-Type: image/gif'); // tell browser we're sending a gif file
      readfile($fname);                  // send the gif file.
   } else {
      header('Content-Type: image/gif'); // tell browser we're sending a gif file
      readfile('error.gif');             // send error.gif
   }
?>

Simply put this function looks for a cookie named allowImages, and if it exists OR the refferer is from your domain (you'll need to change mydomain.com) then this php example will show the requested gif file, otherwise it will show a file named error.gif. Remember that this works only for .gif files, you'll need to test fname and send the appropriate mime-types for jpg, png, etc. Also, even though it looks like the images are in a directory named images, they should all be in your root directory.

All you need to do is somewhere in your site set a cookie named "allowImages", once you do that, even if the user doesn't transmit referrer requests the image will still be displayed because he has the cookie which says it's ok to show the image.

Additional Reading

Cookies are like an iceberg in that they're a lot deeper than they appear. I've tried to go into as much detail as possible, without overwhelming you, but if you are pushing the cutting edge you'll want to check out the official RFC and the Wikipedia entry which contain much in the way of abstract information but little in the way of practical use. Wikipedia especially is very good at going over the privacy and security concerns inherent in using cookies.

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