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Dynamically Creating PDFs in a Web Application

by Sean C. Sullivan
06/18/2003

On a recent logistics project, a customer asked our team to build a web site that would allow users to query a legacy system for shipment information. The customer defined three main requirements:

  1. The shipping information had to be returned in the form of a PDF document.
  2. The PDF file must be downloadable through a web browser.
  3. The PDF file must be viewable using the Adobe Acrobat Reader.

Our team had plenty of experience with J2EE web applications, but we had little experience with PDF documents. We needed to find a pure Java class library that could produce sophisticated PDF documents in a server-side web application. We found a solution that completely met our needs: iText.

iText Class Library

iText is an open source pure Java class library for creating and manipulating PDF documents. Bruno Lowagie and Paulo Soares lead the project. The iText API enables a Java developer to programmatically create PDF documents. iText delivers a rich set of features:

Related Reading

Java Servlet Programming
By Jason Hunter

  • Support for both PDF and FDF documents
  • Various page sizes
  • Landscape or portrait layouts
  • Margins
  • Tables
  • Hyphenation
  • Page headers
  • Page footers
  • Page numbering
  • Barcodes
  • Fonts
  • Colors
  • Document encryption
  • JPEG, GIF, PNG, and WMF images
  • Ordered and unordered lists
  • Shading
  • Watermarks
  • Document templates

iText is an open source library. At the time of this writing, the iText software is available under a dual license: the Mozilla Public License (MPL) and the LGPL. Consult the iText web site for details. In this article, you'll see the iText API in action. We will demonstrate how to use iText and servlets to dynamically generate PDF documents in a server-side application.

Getting Started

First, you will need to obtain the iText JAR file. Visit the iText web site and download the current release. At the time of this writing, the current iText release is version 0.99. The iText web site provides API documentation and a comprehensive tutorial.

In addition to iText, we'll be using servlets, too. If you aren't familiar with servlets, you can learn about them in Jason Hunter's book, Java Servlet Programming. You will need to obtain a J2EE application server or a standalone servlet engine. Some good open source options are Tomcat, Jetty, and JBoss. The rest of this article assumes that you are using Jakarta Tomcat 4.1.

The iText API

The iText API is intuitive and easy to use. Using iText, you will be able to programmatically create customized PDF documents. The iText library consists of the following packages:

com.lowagie.servlets
com.lowagie.text
com.lowagie.text.html
com.lowagie.text.markup
com.lowagie.text.pdf
com.lowagie.text.pdf.codec
com.lowagie.text.pdf.hyphenation
com.lowagie.text.pdf.wmf
com.lowagie.text.rtf
com.lowagie.text.xml
com.lowagie.tools

For generating PDF files, you'll need only com.lowagie.text and com.lowagie.text.pdf.

Our example application uses these iText classes:

com.lowagie.text.pdf.PdfWriter
com.lowagie.text.Document
com.lowagie.text.HeaderFooter
com.lowagie.text.Paragraph
com.lowagie.text.Phrase
com.lowagie.text.Table
com.lowagie.text.Cell

The key classes are Document and PdfWriter. You will always use both of these classes when creating PDF documents. Document is an object-oriented representation of a PDF document. You can add content to the document by invoking methods provided by the Document class. A PdfWriter object associates a Document with a java.io.OutputStream object.

Coordinate System for iText Documents

When I wrote my first iText program, I stumbled over the coordinate system. I naively assumed that iText's coordinate system was identical to Swing's coordinate system. This is not the case.

In Swing, the origin (0, 0) is located in the upper left-hand corner of a component. In iText, the origin is located in the bottom left-hand corner of a page.

Using iText in a Web Application

During your design phase, you must decide how you plan to use iText. I've built web applications using both of the following techniques.

Technique A

Create the PDF file on the server's filesystem. The application uses java.io.FileOutputStream to write the file to the server's filesystem. The user will download the file via HTTP GET.

Technique B

Create the PDF file in memory using java.io.ByteArrayOutputStream. The application sends the PDF bytes to the client via the servlet's output stream.

Source Code

Download the source code for this example:
pdfservlet-files.zip

I prefer technique B to technique A because the application does not write to the server's filesystem, and the application is guaranteed to work in a clustered server environment. Technique A can fail if your application runs in a clustered environment, and the server cluster does not provide session affinity.

Example: PDFServlet

Our example application consists of a single class: PDFServlet. This servlet uses technique B from the previous section. The OutputStream is a java.io.ByteArrayOutputStream. With ByteArrayOutputStream, the PDF document bytes will be in memory. When PDFServlet receives an HTTP request, it will dynamically generate a PDF document and send the document to the client.

The PDFServlet class extends javax.servlet.http.HttpServlet and imports two of the iText packages, com.lowagie.text and com.lowagie.text.pdf.

The doGet Method

Most servlets override either the doPost method or the doGet method. Our servlet is no different. The PDFServlet class overrides the doGet method. The servlet will generate a PDF file any time it receives an incoming HTTP GET request.

In a nutshell, the servlet's doGet method does the following:

  1. Creates a ByteArrayOutputStream object that contains the PDF document bytes.
  2. Sets the HTTP response headers on the response object.
  3. Gets the servlet output stream.
  4. Writes the document bytes to the servlet output stream.
  5. Flushes the servlet output stream.


Figure 1. Editing doGet in Eclipse

The generatePDFDocumentBytes Method

The generatePDFDocumentBytes method is responsible for creating the PDF document. The three most important objects in this method are the Document object, the ByteArrayOutputStream object, and the PdfWriter object. The PdfWriter associates the Document with the ByteArrayOutputStream.

Document doc = new Document();
ByteArrayOutputStream baosPDF = new ByteArrayOutputStream();
PdfWriter docWriter = null;
docWriter = PdfWriter.getInstance(doc, baosPDF);
// ...

Adding content to a Document is done with the add method.

doc.add(new Paragraph(
    "This document was created by a class named: "
    + this.getClass().getName()));

doc.add(new Paragraph(
    "This document was created on "
    + new java.util.Date()));

When you are done adding content, close the Document and PdfWriter objects.

doc.close();
docWriter.close();

After closing the document, the ByteArrayOutputStream object is returned to the caller.

return baosPDF;

The ByteArrayOutputStream contains all bytes for the PDF document.

HTTP Response Headers

In this application, we care only about four HTTP response headers: Content-type, Content-disposition, Content-length, and Cache-control. If you've never worked with HTTP headers before, consult the HTTP 1.1 specification.

Examine the doGet method in the PDFServlet. You'll notice that the HTTP response headers are set before any data is written to the servlet output stream. This is an important, yet subtle, point.

Let's look at each response header in more detail.

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