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Primer: OpenLayers

The OpenLayers mapping library is the key component of GeoExt, performing the core map-related functions of every GeoExt-based application. To get up to speed with GeoExt, let’s discover some OpenLayers basics.


As its name suggests, OpenLayers manages a list of layers that together form a web-based mapping client. Each layer represents a different set of data. For instance, one layer might be responsible for displaying the boundary of a country. Another layer responsible for that country’s roads.

OpenLayers contains many types of layers (you can see them all at the OpenLayers website). For this primer, we’ll focus on two different layer types: WMS and Vector.

The WMS Layer

This is the canonical layer type found in almost all GeoExt applications, where one or more images are used to display map-related information to the user. This type is named ‘WMS’ because it implements the Web Map Service standard set by the Open Geospatial Consortium.

If you followed the GeoExt QuickStart guide, you will have already encountered a MapPanel and created your very own WMS layer. Let’s dissect what you did:

var layer = new OpenLayers.Layer.WMS(
    "Global Imagery",
    {layers: "bluemarble"}

This tells OpenLayers that you’d like to create a new WMS layer referenced by the layer variable, and that you’d like to add that layer to the map. In this case, we’re adding the Blue Marble data set provided by NASA.

In line 2 we provide “Global Imagery” as the name of the layer. This can be anything, and is only used to reference the layer on screen.

In line 3 we provide the location of the WMS server tasked with providing the images. Here, we use a GeoWebCache instance located at

In line 4 we provide extra parameters for the WMS server. Since many servers host different data sets, we need to specify which set we’d like. We do this by creating a new object and setting the layers property to "bluemarble", the identifier for the Blue Marble data set.

Note that layers isn’t the only WMS parameter we can provide. You can find out more in the OpenLayers API Documentation, by selecting ‘Layer’ and then ‘WMS’ in the navigation.

And that’s it! Now let’s move on to the vector layer.

The Vector Layer

The WMS Layer, and many of the layer types provided by OpenLayers, use raster files (images like JPG, GIF, and PNG) to display maps. However, OpenLayers can also render map features directly in the browser, simply by adding an OpenLayers.Layer.Vector to the map. This is useful when displaying data from an OGC Web Feature Service <>, a KML document, or even sketched in by the user. Here’s an example that generates some random data and displays it in a vector layer:

var vectorLayer = new OpenLayers.Layer.Vector();
for (var i = 0; i < 10; i++){
    var x = -180 + Math.random() * 360;
    var y = -90 + Math.random() * 180;
    var numSides = 3 + Math.round(Math.random() * 6);
        new OpenLayers.Feature.Vector(
                new OpenLayers.Geometry.Point(x, y),

var map = new OpenLayers.Map();

While OpenLayers provides customized vector layers for loading data from existing sources, the GeoExt team recommends that you use the generic vector layer and populate it using For more information on doing this, see Vector Data Tutorial.

Other Layers

WMS and Vector are not the only layer types in OpenLayers. There are plenty more available, including Google Maps, Virtual Earth, and many more. Browse the OpenLayers API documentation for more information.


Although OpenLayers is great at managing layers, it also provides a way to interact with those layers, primarily through the use of controls.

Controls are primary user interface elements and/or API hooks that control and manage interaction with an OpenLayers map. For instance, panning and navigating a map is handled by the OpenLayers.Control.Navigation control. If you want a zoom bar in addition to zoom buttons, you’d add a PanZoomBar control. If you then want to see where you’ve navigated, you’d use the NavigationHistory control.

Each control provides different and unique functionality. For this primer, we’ll focus only on the NavigationHistory control.

Initialization w/ Controls

In the above examples, we only added controls to the map using the map.addControl() method. Often, controls are added when the map is initialized bypassing the map.addControl() method. This is done simply by using the controls key and passing an array of controls, as seen below.

var map = new OpenLayers.Map({
    controls: [
        new OpenLayers.Control.Navigation(),
        new OpenLayers.Control.Measure()


If you use the controls key, you will not be given the default controls when initializing the map. You will have to add those controls yourself instead. Find out more.

More Controls

You can find more controls by browsing the OpenLayers source code or by reading OpenLayers’ Control documentation.


Events are the main mechanism for notifying multiple objects that something has happened. For instance, the NavigationHistory control listens to the map’s zoomend event to save the user’s zoom history for a later date; similarly, other objects may listen to the same event without interfering or knowing about the NavigationHistory control. This makes events very powerful, allowing objects to perform their desired function while decreasing coupling within OpenLayers and Ext applications.

Both GeoExt and OpenLayers make extensive use of events. However, the OpenLayers events are slightly different from those in GeoExt, though they provide the same functionality. Let’s explore those differences.

GeoExt Events

GeoExt uses the event library that comes standard with Ext. GeoExt events are synonymous with Ext events.

Ext events can be used in any Ext or GeoExt components that extend the Ext.util.Observable class. More here.

To throw an event in any component that extends Ext.util.Observable, you must first tell the component that the event may be thrown. For instance, in a custom Ext.Panel class, this is done using the addEvents() method below.

var MyPanel = Ext.extend(Ext.Panel, {
    initComponent: function() {
        // ...
        this.addEvents("event1" /*, "event2", ... etc.*/ );;

Finally triggering the event is easy:

var MyPanel = Ext.extend(Ext.Panel, {

    // ...

    myFunction: function() {
        var arg1 = "somevalue";
        this.fireEvent("event1", arg1 /*, arg2, ... etc. */);

Great! Now in order for the event to be useful, we have to listen to it. Below is an example of adding two listeners to an instance of MyPanel using the on() function, and then finally triggering the event by calling myFunction().

var panel = new MyPanel(/* ... */);

// First listener.
panel.on("event1", function(arg1) {
    alert("First listener responded. Got " + arg1 + "!");

// Second listener.
panel.on("event1", function(arg1) {
    alert("Second listener responded. Got " + arg1 + "!");



The on() function takes an optional third parameter that specifies the scope of the listening function. If given, the this identifier within the listening function will refer to the object passed.

And that’s it! Now let’s see how to do the same thing in OpenLayers.

OpenLayers Events

OpenLayers provides similar functionality as the Ext.util.Observable class, but it does so using the OpenLayers.Events class. Unlike Ext.util.Observable, OpenLayers classes do not extend OpenLayers.Events.

Instead, it is customary for OpenLayers classes to create an attribute called events that is an instance of OpenLayers.Events, as per the code below.

var MyControl = new OpenLayers.Class(OpenLayers.Control, {

    events: null,

    initialize: function() { = new OpenLayers.Events(
            ["event1" /*, "event2", ... etc. */]

The first parameter to the OpenLayers.Events constructor is the object that will ‘own’ these events – in other words, the caller that triggers the event. In situations like the example above, it is usually this.

The second parameter specifies a div that will listen to events thrown by the browser. Here, this functionality is ignored; see the note below.

The third parameter is an array specifying the events that this OpenLayers.Events object can throw. This is analogous to Ext.util.Observable‘s addEvents() method, and can accept any number of events.

The fourth parameter is the fallthrough, a boolean that is related to the second parameter above. For our purposes, we’ll leave it as false.


The OpenLayers.Events class handles both browser events like when the window resizes, as well as handling developer-created events like event1 above. This makes initializing an OpenLayers.Events object fairly mucky, though using it like we did above is nearly the same. See more below.

Triggering an event is just as easy as Ext’s fireEvent(), except here we use triggerEvent():

var MyControl = new OpenLayers.Class(OpenLayers.Control, {

    // ...

    myFunction: function() {
        var evt = {
            arg1: "somevalue" /*, arg2: ..., ... etc.*/
        }"event1", evt);


OpenLayers.Events passes data to listeners using a single object with properties – otherwise called ‘the event object’ – instead of passing function arguments like Ext. All listener functions, then, should only expect one named argument. See example below.

Finally, let’s add two listeners and call myFunction():

var control = new MyControl(/* ... */);

// First listener."event1", null, function(evt) {
    alert("First listener responded. Got " + evt.arg1 + "!");

// Second listener."event1", null, function(evt) {
    alert("Second listener responded. Got " + evt.arg1 + "!");



Like Ext’s on() function, OpenLayer’s register() function also takes an optional scope value in order to specify the scope of the listening function, but it expects this value as the second parameter passed to the function. We don’t have a scope for our listeners in this example, hence the null parameters.

And that’s it! Events in GeoExt should now be old hat. Fire away!

More Information

More information about both event types can be found at the links below: