13.3. The world’s simplest web browser

Perhaps the easiest way to show how the HTTP protocol works is to write a very simple Python program that makes a connection to a web server and follows the rules of the HTTP protocol to request a document and display what the server sends back.

First the program makes a connection to port 80 on the server www.py4e.com. Since our program is playing the role of the “web browser”, the HTTP protocol says we must send the GET command followed by a blank line. \r\n signifies an EOL (end of line), so \r\n\r\n signifies nothing between two EOL sequences. That is the equivalent of a blank line.

A Socket Connection

Once we send that blank line, we write a loop that receives data in 512-character chunks from the socket and prints the data out until there is no more data to read (i.e., the recv() returns an empty string).

The output starts with headers which the web server sends to describe the document. For example, the Content-Type header indicates that the document is a plain text document (text/plain).

After the server sends us the headers, it adds a blank line to indicate the end of the headers, and then sends the actual data of the file romeo.txt.

This example shows how to make a low-level network connection with sockets. Sockets can be used to communicate with a web server or with a mail server or many other kinds of servers. All that is needed is to find the document which describes the protocol and write the code to send and receive the data according to the protocol.

However, since the protocol that we use most commonly is the HTTP web protocol, Python has a special library specifically designed to support the HTTP protocol for the retrieval of documents and data over the web.

One of the requirements for using the HTTP protocol is the need to send and receive data as bytes objects, instead of strings. In the preceding example, the encode() and decode() methods convert strings into bytes objects and back again.

The next example uses b'' notation to specify that a variable should be stored as a bytes object. encode() and b'' are equivalent.

>>> b'Hello world'
b'Hello world'
>>> 'Hello world'.encode()
b'Hello world'
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