When you connect to the internet, HTTP lets you view webpages and interact with them by following hyperlinks. If the pages are shared documents or on a wiki knowledgebase website, you can edit them. Other pages are read-only for most users. HTTP can’t edit those, which is where WebDAV — or, Web Distributed Authoring and Versioning — comes in. We’re going to explain what WebDAV is in the rest of the article.
You can use WebDAV to collaborate with others on files hosted on remote servers, access your cloud storage and web hosting service from a single app if they support it, transfer files and feel awesome that you know how to use such a techy protocol.
WebDAV is meant for remote file editing and manipulation, but it can also transfer files. If you’re not tech savvy and want a more user-friendly option than WebDAV, read our articles on how to share files online, sharing with Google Drive and sharing via Dropbox.
What Is WebDAV?
WebDAV stands for Web Distributed Authoring and Versioning, which is an extension to HTTP that lets clients edit remote content on the web. In essence, WebDAV enables a web server to act as a file server, allowing authors to collaborate on web content.
WebDAV enriches the standard set of HTTP headers and methods to let you create, move and edit files, as well as delete or copy files and folders. As an extension to HTTP, Web Distributed Authoring and Versioning usually uses port 80 for plain, unencrypted access and port 443 if you use the SSL/TLS protocol.
File access and manipulation are familiar for many users, but tracking revisions is not. Revisions are part of a versioning system that was added to WebDAV after it was defined in the Delta-V extension. WebDAV servers are split into two categories based on it: Class 1 and Class 2.
Class 1 WebDAV servers provide you with basic management features, such as the ability to create, copy, move or delete files and folders. You can perform those actions on custom properties for files and folders, too. Many clients treat Class 1 WebDAV servers as read-only because they can’t protect files from simultaneous modifications. Without that, they can’t be used for real-world apps.
However, Class 2 WebDAV servers can prevent such modifications because they can lock files. Many WebDAV clients — including Microsoft Office and Web Folder apps, Mac OS X WebDAV and OpenOffice — require it.
The WebDAV protocol is the foundation for other protocols, including CalDAV and CardDAV. CalDAV lets a client access scheduling information on a remote server, while CardDAV is an address book protocol that lets users access and share contact data on a server.
The History of WebDAV
Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web and the web browser called WorldWideWeb. It was different from today’s browsers because you could not only view webpages, you could also edit them. As the web grew, it became a read-only medium for most users.
A group of people, including Jim Whitehead, who received a doctorate from the University of California, Irvine, wanted to overcome that limitation. To do that, Whitehead organized a meeting with members of the World Wide Web Consortium in 1996 to discuss the problem of authoring on the web.
The protocol was first defined in RFC 2518 and didn’t include versioning because it was thought that doing both would be too much effort. The work was split between two groups, and the Delta-V protocol — an extension for WebDAV — was defined in 2002 with RFC 3253. Finally, the Web Distributed Authoring and Versioning protocol, or WebDAV, was updated with RFC 4918 in 2007.
Other extensions, such as RFC 5323, a search protocol, and RFC 5995, adding other members to WebDAV using POST, were left to their individual authors to finish, independent of the formal group.
WebDAV Features and Use
WebDAV extends HTTP headers for communication with a server. The new headers include:
- COPY, copy a resource
- MOVE, move a resource
- MKCOL, create a collection, for example, a folder
- PROPFIND, retrieve properties stored as XML
- PROPPATCH, change and/or remove properties
- LOCK, put a lock on a resource
- UNLOCK, remove a lock from a resource
The WebDAV protocol is supported on various servers, including the Apache HTTP server, Microsoft’s Internet Information Services, the SabreDAV server, Nginx server, ownCloud and Nextcloud.
Nextcloud and ownCloud are suites of client-server software for creating and using file hosting services. Though similar to Dropbox, both are open source, which allows anyone to install and operate them free of charge on a private server.
If you’re not inclined to build your own cloud storage, you can use existing services that support WebDAV. Some of the best cloud storage services, including pCloud and Google Drive, support Web Distributed Authoring and Versioning (you can use our cloud comparison chart to make sure you get the best service, though).
You can use WebDAV with Box, too, but as of Oct. 25, 2019, Box ended WebDAV support. This means you can still use the Web Distributed Authoring and Versioning protocol, but Box’s support services will not resolve any issues concerning it.
Microsoft Windows has native support for WebDAV in its explorer. Linux supports WebDAV in GNOME Files and Konqueror and Dolphin file managers. There’s native support for CalDAV and CardDAV on macOS. Version control systems, such as Git and Apache Subversion, use WebDAV, as well.
Microsoft Office, Apple iWork, Adobe Photoshop and Dreamweaver use WebDAV behind the scenes. Instead of editing local files using those apps, you can use a WebDAV URL to edit files on remote servers without downloading them to your local machine.
There are apps that exclusively focus on Web Distributed Authoring and Versioning, such as cadaver, which is a command-line tool for Linux, DAV Explorer and WebDrive. WinSCP, Cyberduck and others can work with multiple protocols (read our Cyberduck guide).
The WebDAV — or, Web Distributed Authoring and Versioning — protocol started as a way to give the editing functionality back to the World Wide Web. Since then, WebDAV has been extended many times, most notably to support versioning capabilities, which are necessary for editing. Other extensions added scheduling, contact sharing and search to enhance working on remote servers.
Any web server that supports WebDAV can act as a file server, which is no small thing. You can access a server using the command-line or more user-friendly graphical clients. Cloud storage used for collaboration and other productivity apps are a more practical choice. There’s no questioning that WebDAV delivers for accessing multiple remote repositories, though.
What do you think of Web Distributed Authoring and Versioning? Does the complexity of the WebDAV protocol outweigh its usefulness for you? Let us know in the comments below. Thank you for reading this WebDAV guide.