Ran into an interesting problem at work this past week that had a simple and pleasing resolution. We have an in house developed JavaScript grid on some of our pages and when users entered some text strings we'd generate invalid JSON payloads that would give the user an error page. If they entered strings that looked like an HTML Entity i.e. &#13 which (with the addition of a trailing ; ) is a non-visible HTML character (carriage return) the text wasn't displayed in the widget. To further complicate things some of the content displayed in the grid is HTML which is inserted into the grid as is and can contain escaped HTML characters.

The grid gets its content as a JSON payload from within a hidden div in the HTML which is generated via a template mechanism. Heres a portion of the template where <%= and %> stringifying of the value of the Python variable(s)/code they surround:

<div style="display:none;" id="grid-init-args-<%= count %>">
  <!-- this is the JSON payload loaded via the grid JavaScript -->
  <%= [ columnsIndex, indexColumns, columns, rowBuffer, footerRows, formulas] %>

This approach has a number of problems:

  1. By using the template mechanism to create the JSON payload this template was relying on the similarity of the string representation of Python objects to JSON. After some testing I found the following scenarios: If a string contained a single quote character the string representation was a double quoted string around the text and the single quote; a valid JSON string. If the string contained a double quote character the string representation was a single quoted string around the text and the double quote; an invalid JSON string. If the string contained both a single and a double quote the string representation would be a single quoted string containing a slash escaped single quote and the double quote; an invalid JSON string. Depending on the browser (of course) the JSON string would fail to parse correctly when the double quote was encountered within the single quoted string.
  2. The JSON payload had to be HTML encoded (converting <, >, ", and &) since it was parsed by the browser as HTML.
  3. The HTML encoding would encode or double encode HTML to be inserted directly into the grid's DOM.

The variation in single/double quoting was an easy fix, I changed to simplejson.dumps() which correctly double quotes key/values in dicts and escapes embedded double quotes (single quotes don't need to be escaped). I didn't time it but with the C extension it may be faster than the template engine for our larger datasets.

I played around with (not) encoding various portions of the payload and then it hit me that I should change the grid to get its payload from a non HTML element so that only HTML destined for insertion into the DOM would be HTML encoded (which is as you'd expect for normal HTML handling). I started changing the payload to be stored in JavaScript generated in the template but didn't like the impact the change would have on all the existing templates. So I started Googling and found Ben Nadel's blog post on using script tags as data containers.

So here's my solution:

<div style="display:none;" id="grid-init-args-<%= count %>">
<script type="application/json">
<%= simplejson.dumps([ columnsIndex, indexColumns, columns, rowBuffer, footerRows, formulas]) %>

There were two changes:

  1. Used simplejson.dumps to correctly double quote and escape double quotes within the variables in the payload.
  2. Change the textarea to a script element.

By converting to a script tag within the hidden div the HTML parser no longer parsed the content of the JSON payload. so the JSON payload only needed to HTML encode HTML elements that were being inserted into the DOM created by the grid.

This change also meant I was able to delete the unnecessary HTML encoding of non-HTML JSON payload data. Got to love solutions that involve deleting code.

Ultimately, we'll convert to loading the JSON payload as a separate AJAX request from the page to the server, but for now this simplifies the markup and handles all types of user input and HTML encoded characters correctly.