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A Uniform Resource Identifier (URI) is a string of characters in a particular syntax that identifies a resource. The resource identified may be a file on a server; but it may also be an email address, a news message, a book, a person’s name, an Internet host, the current stock price of Oracle, or something else.

A resource is a thing that is identified by a URI. A URI is a string that identifies a resource. Yes, it is exactly that circular. Don’t spend too much time worrying about what a resource is or isn’t, because you’ll never see one anyway. All you ever receive from a server is a representation of a resource which comes in the form of bytes. However a single resource may have different representations. For instance, https://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/ identifies the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; but there are representations of the declaration in plain text, XML, PDF, and other formats. There are also representations of this resource in English, French, Arabic, and many other languages.


One of the key principles of good web architecture is to be profligate with URIs. If anyone might want to address something or refer to something, give it a URI (and in practice a URL). Just because a resource is a part of another resource, or a collection of other resources, or a state of another resource at a particular time, doesn’t mean it can’t have its own URI. For instance, in an email service, every user, every message received, every message sent, every filtered view of the inbox, every contact, every filter rule, and every single page a user might ever look at should have a unique URI. Although architecturally URIs are opaque strings, in practice it’s useful to design them with human-readable substructure. For instance, http://mail.example.com/ might be a particular mail server, http://mail.example.com/johndoe might be John Doe’s mail box on that server, and http://mail.example.com/johndoe?messageID=162977.1361.JavaMail.nobody%40meetup.com might be a particular message in that mailbox.

The syntax of a URI is composed of a scheme and a scheme-specific part, separated by a colon, like this:


The syntax of the scheme-specific part depends on the scheme being used. Current schemes include:

data : Base64-encoded data included directly in a link;

file : A file on a local disk

ftp : An FTP server

http : A World Wide Web server using the Hypertext Transfer Protocol

mailto : An email address

magnet : A resource available for download via peer-to-peer networks such as BitTorrent

telnet : A connection to a Telnet-based service

urn : A Uniform Resource Name

In addition, Java makes heavy use of nonstandard custom schemes such as rmi, jar,jndi, and doc for various purposes. There is no specific syntax that applies to the scheme-specific parts of all URIs. However, many have a hierarchical form, like this:


The authority part of the URI names the authority responsible for resolving the rest of the URI. For instance, the URI http://www.ietf.org/rfc/rfc3986.txt has the scheme http, the authority www.ietf.org, and the path /rfc/rfc3986.txt (initial slash included). This means the server at www.ietf.org is responsible for mapping the path /rfc/rfc3986.txt to a resource. This URI does not have a query part. The URI http://www.powells.com/cgibin/biblio?inkey=62-1565928709-0 has the scheme http, the authority www.powells.com, the path /cgi-bin/biblio, and the query inkey=62-1565928709-0. The URI urn:isbn:156592870 has the scheme urn but doesn’t follow the hierarchical //authority/path?query form for scheme-specific parts.

Some URIs aren’t at all hierarchical, at least in the filesystem sense. For example, snews://secnews.netscape.com/netscape.devs-java has a path of /netscape.devs-java. Although there’s some hierarchy to the newsgroup names indicated by the period between netscape and devs-java, it’s not encoded as part of the URI.

The scheme part is composed of lowercase letters, digits, and the plus sign, period, and hyphen. The other three parts of a typical URI (authority, path, and query) should each be composed of the ASCII alphanumeric characters (i.e., the letters A–Z, a–z, and the digits 0–9). In addition, the punctuation characters – _ . ! and ~ may also be used. Delimiters such as / ? & and = may be used for their predefined purposes. All other characters, including non-ASCII alphanumerics such as á and ζ as well as delimiters not being used as delimiters should be escaped by a percent sign (%) followed by the hexadecimal codes for the character as encoded in UTF-8. For instance, in UTF-8, á is the two bytes 0xC3 0xA1 so it would be encoded as %c3%a1. The Chinese character 木 is Unicode code point 0x6728. In UTF-8, this is encoded as the three bytes E6, 9C, and A8. Thus, in a URI it would be encoded as %E6%9C%A8.


A URL is a URI that, as well as identifying a resource, provides a specific network location for the resource that a client can use to retrieve a representation of that resource. By contrast, a generic URI may tell you what a resource is, but not actually tell you where or how to get that resource.

The network location in a URL usually includes the protocol used to access a server(e.g., FTP, HTTP), the hostname or IP address of the server, and the path to the resource on that server. A typical URL looks like http://www.ibiblio.org/javafaq/javatutorial.html. This specifies that there is a file called javatutorial.html in a directory called javafaq on the server www.ibiblio.org, and that this file can be accessed via the HTTP protocol. The syntax of a URL is:


Here the protocol is another word for what was called the scheme of the URI. (Scheme is the word used in the URI RFC. Protocol is the word used in the Java documentation.) In a URL, the protocol part can be file, ftp, http, https, magnet, telnet, or various other strings (though not urn).

The host part of a URL is the name of the server that provides the resource you want. It can be a hostname such as www.oreilly.com or utopia.poly.edu or an IP address, such as or

The userInfo is optional login information for the server. If present, it contains a username and, rarely, a password.

The port number is also optional. It’s not necessary if the service is running on its default port (port 80 for HTTP servers).

Together, the userInfo, host, and port constitute the authority. The path points to a particular resource on the specified server. It often looks like a filesystem path such as /forum/index.php. However, it may or may not actually map to a filesystem on the server. If it does map to a filesystem, the path is relative to the document root of the server, not necessarily to the root of the filesystem on the server.

As a rule, servers that are open to the public do not show their entire filesystem to clients. Rather, they show only the contents of a specified directory. This directory is called the document root, and all paths and filenames are relative to it. Thus, on a Unix server, all files that are available to the public might be in /var/public/html, but to somebody connecting from a remote machine, this directory looks like the root of the filesystem.

The query string provides additional arguments for the server. It’s commonly used only in http URLs, where it contains form data for input to programs running on the server.

Finally, the fragment references a particular part of the remote resource. If the remote resource is HTML, the fragment identifier names an anchor in the HTML document.

Point to Remember

Technically, a string that contains a fragment identifier is a URL reference, not a URL. Java, however, does not distinguish between URLs and URL references.

Relative URLs

A URL tells a web browser a lot about a document: the protocol used to retrieve the document, the host where the document lives, and the path to the document on that host. Most of this information is likely to be the same for other URLs that are referenced in the document. Therefore, rather than requiring each URL to be specified in its entirety, a URL may inherit the protocol, hostname, and path of its parent document (i.e., the document in which it appears). URLs that aren’t complete but inherit pieces from their parent are called relative URLs. In contrast, a completely specified URL is called an absolute URL. In a relative URL, any pieces that are missing are assumed to be the same as the corresponding pieces from the URL of the document in which the URL is found. For example, suppose that while browsing http://www.ibiblio.org/javafaq/javatutorial.html you click on this hyperlink:

<a href=”javafaq.html”>

The browser cuts javatutorial.html off the end of http://www.ibiblio.org/javafaq/javatutorial.html to get http://www.ibiblio.org/javafaq/. Then it attaches javafaq.html onto the end of http://www.ibiblio.org/javafaq/ to get http://www.ibiblio.org/javafaq/javafaq.html. Finally, it loads that document. If the relative link begins with a /, then it is relative to the document root instead of relative to the current file. Thus, if you click on the following link while browsing http://www.ibiblio.org/javafaq/javatutorial.html:

<a href=”/projects/ipv6/”>

The browser would throw away /javafaq/javatutorial.html and attach /projects/ipv6/ to the end of http://www.ibiblio.org to get http://www.ibiblio.org/projects/ipv6/.

Relative URLs have a number of advantages. First, and least important, they save a little typing. More importantly, relative URLs allow a single document tree to be served by multiple protocols: for instance, both HTTP and FTP. HTTP might be used for direct surfing, while FTP could be used for mirroring the site. Most importantly of all, relative URLs allow entire trees of documents to be moved or copied from one site to another without breaking all the internal links

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