ASP.NET Cookies Overview

A cookie is a small bit of text that accompanies requests and pages as they go between the Web server and browser. The cookie contains information the Web application can read whenever the user visits the site.

For example, if a user requests a page from your site and your application sends not just a page, but also a cookie containing the date and time, when the user’s browser gets the page, the browser also gets the cookie, which it stores in a folder on the user’s hard disk.

Later, if user requests a page from your site again, when the user enters the URL the browser looks on the local hard disk for a cookie associated with the URL. If the cookie exists, the browser sends the cookie to your site along with the page request. Your application can then determine the date and time that the user last visited the site. You might use the information to display a message to the user or check an expiration date.

Cookies are associated with a Web site, not with a specific page, so the browser and server will exchange cookie information no matter what page the user requests from your site. As the user visits different sites, each site might send a cookie to the user’s browser as well; the browser stores all the cookies separately.

Cookies help Web sites store information about visitors. More generally, cookies are one way of maintaining continuity in a Web application—that is, of performing state management. Except for the brief time when they are actually exchanging information, the browser and Web server are disconnected. Each request a user makes to a Web server is treated independently of any other request. Many times, however, it’s useful for the Web server to recognize users when they request a page. For example, the Web server on a shopping site keeps track of individual shoppers so the site can manage shopping carts and other user-specific information. A cookie therefore acts as a kind of calling card, presenting pertinent identification that helps an application know how to proceed.

Cookies are used for many purposes, all relating to helping the Web site remember users. For example, a site conducting a poll might use a cookie simply as a Boolean value to indicate whether a user’s browser has already participated in voting so that the user cannot vote twice. A site that asks a user to log on might use a cookie to record that the user already logged on so that the user does not have to keep entering credentials.

Cookie Limitations

Most browsers support cookies of up to 4096 bytes. Because of this small limit, cookies are best used to store small amounts of data, or better yet, an identifier such as a user ID. The user ID can then be used to identify the user and read user information from a database or other data store. (See the section “Cookies and Security” below for information about security implications of storing user information.)

Browsers also impose limitations on how many cookies your site can store on the user’s computer. Most browsers allow only 20 cookies per site; if you try to store more, the oldest cookies are discarded. Some browsers also put an absolute limit, usually 300, on the number of cookies they will accept from all sites combined.

A cookie limitation that you might encounter is that users can set their browser to refuse cookies. If you define a P3P privacy policy and place it in the root of your Web site, more browsers will accept cookies from your site. However, you might have to avoid cookies altogether and use a different mechanism to store user-specific information. A common method for storing user information is session state, but session state depends on cookies, as explained later in the section “Cookies and Session State.”

Although cookies can be very useful in your application, the application should not depend on being able to store cookies. Do not use cookies to support critical features. If your application must rely on cookies, you can test to see whether the browser will accept cookies.

Writing Cookies

The browser is responsible for managing cookies on a user system. Cookies are sent to the browser via the HttpResponse object that exposes a collection called Cookies. You can access the HttpResponse object as the Response property of your Page class. Any cookies that you want to send to the browser must be added to this collection. When creating a cookie, you specify a Name and Value. Each cookie must have a unique name so that it can be identified later when reading it from the browser. Because cookies are stored by name, naming two cookies the same will cause one to be overwritten.

You can also set a cookie’s date and time expiration. Expired cookies are deleted by the browser when a user visits the site that wrote the cookies. The expiration of a cookie should be set for as long as your application considers the cookie value to be valid.
If you do not set the cookie’s expiration, the cookie is created but it is not stored on the user’s hard disk. Instead, the cookie is maintained as part of the user’s session information. When the user closes the browser, the cookie is discarded. A non-persistent cookie like this is useful for information that needs to be stored for only a short time or that for security reasons should not be written to disk on the client computer. For example, non-persistent cookies are useful if the user is working on a public computer, where you do not want to write the cookie to disk.

You can add cookies to the Cookies collection in a number of ways. The following example shows two methods to write cookies:

Response.Cookies[“userName”].Value = “patrick”;
Response.Cookies[“userName”].Expires = DateTime.Now.AddDays(1);

HttpCookie aCookie = new HttpCookie(“lastVisit”);
aCookie.Value = DateTime.Now.ToString();
aCookie.Expires = DateTime.Now.AddDays(1);
Response.Cookies.Add(aCookie);

Reading Cookies

When a browser makes a request to the server, it sends the cookies for that server along with the request. In your ASP.NET applications, you can read the cookies using the HttpRequest object, which is available as the Request property of your Page class. The structure of the HttpRequest object is essentially the same as that of the HttpResponse object, so you can read cookies out of the HttpRequest object much the same way you wrote cookies into the HttpResponse object. The following code example shows two ways to get the value of a cookie named username and display its value in a Label control:

if(Request.Cookies[“userName”] != null)
Label1.Text = Server.HtmlEncode(Request.Cookies[“userName”].Value);

if(Request.Cookies[“userName”] != null)
{
HttpCookie aCookie = Request.Cookies[“userName”];
Label1.Text = Server.HtmlEncode(aCookie.Value);
}

Before trying to get the value of a cookie, you should make sure that the cookie exists; if the cookie does not exist, you will get a NullReferenceException exception. Notice also that the HtmlEncode method was called to encode the contents of a cookie before displaying it in the page. This makes certain that a malicious user has not added executable script into the cookie.

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