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Chapter 1. Introducing XML

XML, the Extensible Markup Language, is a W3C-endorsed standard for document markup. It defines a generic syntax used to mark up data with simple, human-readable tags. It provides a standard format for computer documents. This format is flexible enough to be customized for domains as diverse as web sites, electronic data interchange, vector graphics, genealogy, real-estate listings, object serialization, remote procedure calls, voice-mail systems, and more.

You can write your own programs that interact with, massage, and manipulate the data in XML documents. If you do, you'll have access to a wide range of free libraries in a variety of languages that can read and write XML so that you can focus on the unique needs of your program. Or you can use off-the-shelf software, such as web browsers and text editors, to work with XML documents. Some tools are able to work with any XML document. Others are customized to support a particular XML application in a particular domain, such as vector graphics, and may not be of much use outside that domain. But in all cases, the same underlying syntax is used, even if it's deliberately hidden by the more user-friendly tools or restricted to a single application.

1.1. The Benefits of XML

XML is a metamarkup language for text documents. Data is included in XML documents as strings of text. The data is surrounded by text markup that describes the data. XML's basic unit of data and markup is called an element. The XML specification defines the exact syntax this markup must follow: how elements are delimited by tags, what a tag looks like, what names are acceptable for elements, where attributes are placed, and so forth. Superficially, the markup in an XML document looks a lot like the markup in an HTML document, but there are some crucial differences.

Most importantly, XML is a metamarkup language. That means it doesn't have a fixed set of tags and elements that are supposed to work for everybody in all areas of interest for all time. Any attempt to create a finite set of such tags is doomed to failure. Instead, XML allows developers and writers to define the elements they need as they need them. Chemists can use elements that describe molecules, atoms, bonds, reactions, and other items encountered in chemistry. Real-estate agents can use elements that describe apartments, rents, commissions, locations, and other items needed for real estate. Musicians can use elements that describe quarter notes, half notes, G-clefs, lyrics, and other objects common in music. The X in XML stands for Extensible. Extensible means that the language can be extended and adapted to meet many different needs.

Although XML is quite flexible in the elements it allows to be defined, it is quite strict in many other respects. It provides a grammar for XML documents that says where tags may be placed, what they must look like, which element names are legal, how attributes are attached to elements, and so forth. This grammar is specific enough to allow the development of XML parsers that can read any XML document. Documents that satisfy this grammar are said to be well-formed. Documents that are not well-formed are not allowed, any more than a C program that contains a syntax error is allowed. XML processors will reject documents that contain well-formedness errors.

For reasons of interoperability, individuals or organizations may agree to use only certain tags. These tag sets are called XML applications. An XML application is not a software application that uses XML, such as Mozilla or Microsoft Word. Rather, it's an application of XML in a particular domain like vector graphics or cooking.

The markup in an XML document describes the structure of the document. It lets you see which elements are associated with which other elements. In a well-designed XML document, the markup also describes the document's semantics. For instance, the markup can indicate that an element is a date or a person or a bar code. In well-designed XML applications, the markup says nothing about how the document should be displayed. That is, it does not say that an element is bold or italicized or a list item. XML is a structural and semantic markup language, not a presentation language.[1]

[1]A few XML applications, such as XSL Formatting Objects, are designed to describe the presentation of text. However, these are exceptions that prove the rule. Although XSL-FO does describe presentation, you'd never write an XSL-FO document directly. Instead, you'd write a more semantically structured XML document, then use an XSL Transformations stylesheet to change the structure-oriented XML into presentation-oriented XML.

The markup permitted in a particular XML application can be documented in a schema. Particular document instances can be compared to the schema. Documents that match the schema are said to be valid. Documents that do not match are invalid. Validity depends on the schema. That is, whether a document is valid or invalid depends on which schema you compare it to. Not all documents need to be valid. For many purposes it is enough that the document merely be well-formed.

There are many different XML schema languages, with different levels of expressivity. The most broadly supported schema language and the only one defined by the XML 1.0 specification itself is the document type definition (DTD). A DTD lists all the legal markup and specifies where and how it may be included in a document. DTDs are optional in XML. On the other hand, DTDs may not always be enough. The DTD syntax is quite limited and does not allow you to make many useful statements such as "This element contains a number" or "This string of text is a date between 1974 and 2032." The W3C XML Schema Language (which sometimes goes by the misleadingly generic label schemas) does allow you to express constraints of this nature. Besides these two, there are many other schema languages from which to choose, including RELAX NG, Schematron, Hook, and Examplotron, and this is hardly an exhaustive list.

All current schema languages are purely declarative. However, there are always some constraints that cannot be expressed in anything less than a Turing complete programming language. For example, given an XML document that represents an order, a Turing complete language is required to multiply the price of each order_item by its quantity, sum them all up, and verify that the sum equals the value of the subtotal element. Today's schema languages are also incapable of verifying extra-document constraints such as "Every SKU element matches the SKU field of a record in the products table of the inventory database." If you're writing programs to read XML documents, you can add code to verify statements like these, just as you would if you were writing code to read a tab-delimited text file. The difference is that XML parsers present you with the data in a much more convenient format and do more of the work for you before you have to resort to your own custom code.

1.1.1. What XML Is Not

XML is a markup language, and it is only a markup language. It's important to remember that. The XML hype has gotten so extreme that some people expect XML to do everything up to and including washing the family dog.

First of all, XML is not a programming language. There's no such thing as an XML compiler that reads XML files and produces executable code. You might perhaps define a scripting language that used a native XML format and was interpreted by a binary program, but even this application would be unusual.[2] XML can be used as a format for instructions to programs that do make things happen, just like a traditional program may read a text config file and take different action depending on what it sees there. Indeed, there's no reason a config file can't be XML instead of unstructured text. Some more recent programs are beginning to use XML config files; but in all cases it's the program taking action, not the XML document itself. An XML document by itself simply is. It does not do anything.

[2]At least one XML application, XSL Transformations, has been proven to be Turing complete by construction. See http://www.unidex.com/turing/utm.htm for one universal Turing machine written in XSLT.

Secondly, XML is not a network transport protocol. XML won't send data across the network, any more than HTML will. Data sent across the network using HTTP, FTP, NFS, or some other protocol might happen to be encoded in an XML format, but again there has to be some software outside the XML document that actually does the sending.

Finally, to mention the example where the hype most often obscures the reality, XML is not a database. You're not going to replace an Oracle or MySQL server with XML. A database can contain XML data, either as a VARCHAR or a BLOB or as some custom XML data type, but the database itself is not an XML document. You can store XML data into a database on a server or retrieve data from a database in an XML format, but to do this, you need to be running software written in a real programming language such as C or Java. To store XML in a database, software on the client side will send the XML data to the server using an established network protocol such as TCP/IP. Software on the server side will receive the XML data, parse it, and store it in the database. To retrieve an XML document from a database, you'll generally pass through some middleware product like Enhydra that makes SQL queries against the database and formats the result set as XML before returning it to the client. Indeed, some databases may integrate this software code into their core server or provide plug-ins to do it such as the Oracle XSQL servlet. XML serves very well as a ubiquitous, platform-independent transport format in these scenarios. However, it is not the database, and it shouldn't be used as one.

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