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Introduction to XML

This section covers the basics of XML. The goal is to give you just enough information to get started, so you understand what XML is all about. (You'll learn about XML in later sections of the tutorial.) We then outline the major features that make XML great for information storage and interchange, and give you a general idea of how XML can be used.

What Is XML?

XML is a text-based markup language that is fast becoming the standard for data interchange on the Web. As with HTML, you identify data using tags (identifiers enclosed in angle brackets, like this: <...>). Collectively, the tags are known as "markup".

But unlike HTML, XML tags identify the data, rather than specifying how to display it. Where an HTML tag says something like "display this data in bold font" (<b>...</b>), an XML tag acts like a field name in your program. It puts a label on a piece of data that identifies it (for example: <message>...</message>).


Note: Since identifying the data gives you some sense of what means (how to interpret it, what you should do with it), XML is sometimes described as a mechanism for specifying the semantics (meaning) of the data.


In the same way that you define the field names for a data structure, you are free to use any XML tags that make sense for a given application. Naturally, though, for multiple applications to use the same XML data, they have to agree on the tag names they intend to use.

Here is an example of some XML data you might use for a messaging application:

<message>
  <to>you@yourAddress.com</to>
  <from>me@myAddress.com</from>
  <subject>XML Is Really Cool</subject>
  <text>
    How many ways is XML cool? Let me count the ways...
  </text>
</message> 

Note: Throughout this tutorial, we use boldface text to highlight things we want to bring to your attention. XML does not require anything to be in bold!


The tags in this example identify the message as a whole, the destination and sender addresses, the subject, and the text of the message. As in HTML, the <to> tag has a matching end tag: </to>. The data between the tag and its matching end tag defines an element of the XML data. Note, too, that the content of the <to> tag is entirely contained within the scope of the <message>..</message> tag. It is this ability for one tag to contain others that gives XML its ability to represent hierarchical data structures.

Once again, as with HTML, whitespace is essentially irrelevant, so you can format the data for readability and yet still process it easily with a program. Unlike HTML, however, in XML you could easily search a data set for messages containing "cool" in the subject, because the XML tags identify the content of the data, rather than specifying its representation.

Tags and Attributes

Tags can also contain attributes--additional information included as part of the tag itself, within the tag's angle brackets. The following example shows an email message structure that uses attributes for the "to", "from", and "subject" fields:

<message to="you@yourAddress.com" from="me@myAddress.com" 
    subject="XML Is Really Cool"> 
  <text>
    How many ways is XML cool? Let me count the ways...
  </text>
</message> 

As in HTML, the attribute name is followed by an equal sign and the attribute value, and multiple attributes are separated by spaces. Unlike HTML, however, in XML commas between attributes are not ignored--if present, they generate an error.

Since you could design a data structure like <message> equally well using either attributes or tags, it can take a considerable amount of thought to figure out which design is best for your purposes. Designing an XML Data Structure, includes ideas to help you decide when to use attributes and when to use tags.

Empty Tags

One really big difference between XML and HTML is that an XML document is always constrained to be well formed. There are several rules that determine when a document is well-formed, but one of the most important is that every tag has a closing tag. So, in XML, the </to> tag is not optional. The <to> element is never terminated by any tag other than </to>.


Note: Another important aspect of a well-formed document is that all tags are completely nested. So you can have <message>..<to>..</to>..</message>, but never <message>..<to>..</message>..</to>. A complete list of requirements is contained in the list of XML Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) at http://www.ucc.ie/xml/#FAQ-VALIDWF. (This FAQ is on the w3c "Recommended Reading" list at http://www.w3.org/XML/.)


Sometimes, though, it makes sense to have a tag that stands by itself. For example, you might want to add a "flag" tag that marks message as important. A tag like that doesn't enclose any content, so it's known as an "empty tag". You can create an empty tag by ending it with /> instead of >. For example, the following message contains such a tag:

<message to="you@yourAddress.com" from="me@myAddress.com" 
    subject="XML Is Really Cool">
  <flag/> 
  <text>
    How many ways is XML cool? Let me count the ways...
  </text>
</message> 

Note: The empty tag saves you from having to code <flag></flag> in order to have a well-formed document. You can control which tags are allowed to be empty by creating a Document Type Definition, or DTD. We'll talk about that in a few moments. If there is no DTD, then the document can contain any kinds of tags you want, as long as the document is well-formed.


Comments in XML Files

XML comments look just like HTML comments:

<message to="you@yourAddress.com" from="me@myAddress.com" 
    subject="XML Is Really Cool">
  <!-- This is a comment -->
  <text>
    How many ways is XML cool? Let me count the ways...
  </text>
</message> 

The XML Prolog

To complete this journeyman's introduction to XML, note that an XML file always starts with a prolog. The minimal prolog contains a declaration that identifies the document as an XML document, like this:

<?xml version="1.0"?> 

The declaration may also contain additional information, like this:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="ISO-8859-1" standalone="yes"?> 

The XML declaration is essentially the same as the HTML header, <html>, except that it uses <?..?> and it may contain the following attributes:

version

Identifies the version of the XML markup language used in the data. This attribute is not optional.

encoding

Identifies the character set used to encode the data. "ISO-8859-1" is "Latin-1" the Western European and English language character set. (The default is compressed Unicode: UTF-8.)

standalone

Tells whether or not this document references an external entity or an external data type specification (see below). If there are no external references, then "yes" is appropriate

The prolog can also contain definitions of entities (items that are inserted when you reference them from within the document) and specifications that tell which tags are valid in the document, both declared in a Document Type Definition (DTD) that can be defined directly within the prolog, as well as with pointers to external specification files. But those are the subject of later tutorials. For more information on these and many other aspects of XML, see the Recommended Reading list of the w3c XML page at http://www.w3.org/XML/.


Note: The declaration is actually optional. But it's a good idea to include it whenever you create an XML file. The declaration should have the version number, at a minimum, and ideally the encoding as well. That standard simplifies things if the XML standard is extended in the future, and if the data ever needs to be localized for different geographical regions.


Everything that comes after the XML prolog constitutes the document's content.

Processing Instructions

An XML file can also contain processing instructions that give commands or information to an application that is processing the XML data. Processing instructions have the following format:

  <?target instructions?> 

where the target is the name of the application that is expected to do the processing, and instructions is a string of characters that embodies the information or commands for the application to process.

Since the instructions are application specific, an XML file could have multiple processing instructions that tell different applications to do similar things, though in different ways. The XML file for a slideshow, for example, could have processing instructions that let the speaker specify a technical or executive-level version of the presentation. If multiple presentation programs were used, the program might need multiple versions of the processing instructions (although it would be nicer if such applications recognized standard instructions).


Note: The target name "xml" (in any combination of upper or lowercase letters) is reserved for XML standards. In one sense, the declaration is a processing instruction that fits that standard. (However, when you're working with the parser later, you'll see that the method for handling processing instructions never sees the declaration.)


Why Is XML Important?

There are a number of reasons for XML's surging acceptance. This section lists a few of the most prominent.

Plain Text

Since XML is not a binary format, you can create and edit files with anything from a standard text editor to a visual development environment. That makes it easy to debug your programs, and makes it useful for storing small amounts of data. At the other end of the spectrum, an XML front end to a database makes it possible to efficiently store large amounts of XML data as well. So XML provides scalability for anything from small configuration files to a company-wide data repository.

Data Identification

XML tells you what kind of data you have, not how to display it. Because the markup tags identify the information and break up the data into parts, an email program can process it, a search program can look for messages sent to particular people, and an address book can extract the address information from the rest of the message. In short, because the different parts of the information have been identified, they can be used in different ways by different applications.

Stylability

When display is important, the stylesheet standard, XSL, lets you dictate how to portray the data. For example, the stylesheet for:

<to>you@yourAddress.com</to> 

can say:

  1. Start a new line.
  2. Display "To:" in bold, followed by a space
  3. Display the destination data.

Which produces:

To: you@yourAddress 

Of course, you could have done the same thing in HTML, but you wouldn't be able to process the data with search programs and address-extraction programs and the like. More importantly, since XML is inherently style-free, you can use a completely different stylesheet to produce output in postscript, TEX, PDF, or some new format that hasn't even been invented yet. That flexibility amounts to what one author described as "future-proofing" your information. The XML documents you author today can be used in future document-delivery systems that haven't even been imagined yet.

Inline Reusability

One of the nicer aspects of XML documents is that they can be composed from separate entities. You can do that with HTML, but only by linking to other documents. Unlike HTML, XML entities can be included "in line" in a document. The included sections look like a normal part of the document--you can search the whole document at one time or download it in one piece. That lets you modularize your documents without resorting to links. You can single-source a section so that an edit to it is reflected everywhere the section is used, and yet a document composed from such pieces looks for all the world like a one-piece document.

Linkability

Thanks to HTML, the ability to define links between documents is now regarded as a necessity. The next section of this tutorial, XML and Related Specs: Digesting the Alphabet Soup, discusses the link-specification initiative. This initiative lets you define two-way links, multiple-target links, "expanding" links (where clicking a link causes the targeted information to appear inline), and links between two existing documents that are defined in a third.

Easily Processed

As mentioned earlier, regular and consistent notation makes it easier to build a program to process XML data. For example, in HTML a <dt> tag can be delimited by </dt>, another <dt>, <dd>, or </dl>. That makes for some difficult programming. But in XML, the <dt> tag must always have a </dt> terminator, or else it will be defined as a <dt/> tag. That restriction is a critical part of the constraints that make an XML document well-formed. (Otherwise, the XML parser won't be able to read the data.) And since XML is a vendor-neutral standard, you can choose among several XML parsers, any one of which takes the work out of processing XML data.

Hierarchical

Finally, XML documents benefit from their hierarchical structure. Hierarchical document structures are, in general, faster to access because you can drill down to the part you need, like stepping through a table of contents. They are also easier to rearrange, because each piece is delimited. In a document, for example, you could move a heading to a new location and drag everything under it along with the heading, instead of having to page down to make a selection, cut, and then paste the selection into a new location.

How Can You Use XML?

There are several basic ways to make use of XML:

Traditional Data Processing

XML is fast becoming the data representation of choice for the Web. It's terrific when used in conjunction with network-centric Java-platform programs that send and retrieve information. So a client/server application, for example, could transmit XML-encoded data back and forth between the client and the server.

In the future, XML is potentially the answer for data interchange in all sorts of transactions, as long as both sides agree on the markup to use. (For example, should an e-mail program expect to see tags named <FIRST> and <LAST>, or <FIRSTNAME> and <LASTNAME>) The need for common standards will generate a lot of industry-specific standardization efforts in the years ahead. In the meantime, mechanisms that let you "translate" the tags in an XML document will be important. Such mechanisms include projects like the RDF initiative, which defines "meat tags", and the XSL specification, which lets you translate XML tags into other XML tags.

Document-Driven Programming (DDP)

The newest approach to using XML is to construct a document that describes how an application page should look. The document, rather than simply being displayed, consists of references to user interface components and business-logic components that are "hooked together" to create an application on the fly.

Of course, it makes sense to utilize the Java platform for such components. Both Java BeansTM for interfaces and Enterprise Java BeansTM for business logic can be used to construct such applications. Although none of the efforts undertaken so far are ready for commercial use, much preliminary work has already been done.


Note: The Java programming language is also excellent for writing XML-processing tools that are as portable as XML. Several Visual XML editors have been written for the Java platform. For a listing of editors, processing tools, and other XML resources, see the "Software" section of Robin Cover's SGML/XML Web Page at http://www.oasis-open.org/cover/.


Binding

Once you have defined the structure of XML data using either a DTD or the one of the schema standards, a large part of the processing you need to do has already been defined. For example, if the schema says that the text data in a <date> element must follow one of the recognized date formats, then one aspect of the validation criteria for the data has been defined--it only remains to write the code. Although a DTD specification cannot go the same level of detail, a DTD (like a schema) provides a grammar that tells which data structures can occur, in what sequences. That specification tells you how to write the high-level code that processes the data elements.

But when the data structure (and possibly format) is fully specified, the code you need to process it can just as easily be generated automatically. That process is known as binding--creating classes that recognize and process different data elements by processing the specification that defines those elements. As time goes on, you should find that you are using the data specification to generate significant chunks of code, so you can focus on the programming that is unique to your application.

Archiving

The Holy Grail of programming is the construction of reusable, modular components. Ideally, you'd like to take them off the shelf, customize them, and plug them together to construct an application, with a bare minimum of additional coding and additional compilation.

The basic mechanism for saving information is called archiving. You archive a component by writing it to an output stream in a form that you can reuse later. You can then read it in and instantiate it using its saved parameters. (For example, if you saved a table component, its parameters might be the number of rows and columns to display.) Archived components can also be shuffled around the Web and used in a variety of ways.

When components are archived in binary form, however, there are some limitations on the kinds of changes you can make to the underlying classes if you want to retain compatibility with previously saved versions. If you could modify the archived version to reflect the change, that would solve the problem. But that's hard to do with a binary object. Such considerations have prompted a number of investigations into using XML for archiving. But if an object's state were archived in text form using XML, then anything and everything in it could be changed as easily as you can say, "search and replace".

XML's text-based format could also make it easier to transfer objects between applications written in different languages. For all of these reasons, XML-based archiving is likely to become an important force in the not-too-distant future.

Summary

XML is pretty simple, and very flexible. It has many uses yet to be discovered--we are just beginning to scratch the surface of its potential. It is the foundation for a great many standards yet to come, providing a common language that different computer systems can use to exchange data with one another. As each industry-group comes up with standards for what they want to say, computers will begin to link to each other in ways previously unimaginable.

For more information on the background and motivation of XML, see this great article in Scientific American at

http://www.sciam.com/1999/0599issue/0599bosak.html 
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