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Implementing XPath for Wireless Devices, Part II
By Bilal Siddiqui
July 17, 2002

In the first part of this article, we introduced XPath and discussed various XPath queries ranging from simple to complex. By applying XPath queries to sample XML files, we elaborated upon various important definitions of XPath such as location step, context node, location path, axes, and node-test. We then discussed complex XPath queries that combine more than one simple query. We also discussed the abstract structure of Wireless Binary XML (WBXML), which is the wireless counterpart of XML. Finally we presented the design of a simple XPath processing engine.

In this part, we will discuss the features of XPath which allow for complex search operations on an XML file. We will discuss predicates or filtered queries and the use of functions in XPath. We will present various XPath queries for the processing of WSDL and WML. We will also enhance the simple design of our XPath engine to include support for predicates, functions, and different data types.

Related Reading

XML in a Nutshell, 2nd Edition

XML in a Nutshell, 2nd Edition
A Desktop Quick Reference
By W. Scott Means, Elliotte Rusty Harold

Filtered Queries and Predicates

Let's start with a simple query which will return the root node of any XML file:

./node()

We can take this further with another simple query, which selects all the immediate children of the root node:

./node()/*

What if you want to find all the nodes that are the immediate children of the root node and have a type attribute? The following query will help:

./node()/*[attribute::type]

This query will return the binding element from Listing 1. This shows that the code attribute::query written within square brackets acts as a filter. Filters in XPath are called predicates and are written inside square brackets. A predicate acts on a node-set -- in this example, the node-set consists of all immediate children of the root node -- and applies the filtering condition -- here: the node must have a type attribute -- to the node-set. The result is a reduced, that is, filtered node-set.

Predicates can range from simple to very complex. Perhaps the simplest form of XPath predicate is just a number as shown in the following query which returns the second child (message element) of the root element:

./node()/*[2]

The query, ./node()/message[attribute::name="TotalBill"]/text() will look for a particular message child of the root element whose attribute name has a value TotalBill. The query will return all text nodes of the particular message element. This query will return the second of the two message elements of Listing 1.

XPath Functions

Suppose you want to answer following questions about the WSDL file in Listing 1:

1. What is the value of the name attribute of last operation element?
2. How many message child elements does the definitions element have?
3. What is the name of the first child element of the root element?

The last() Function

The last() function will always point to the last node in the node set. The following query, when applied to the WSDL file in Listing 1, will return the second message element (i.e. the message element whose name is TotalBill):

./node()/message[last()]

Note that the following query also returns the same message element:

./node()/message[2]

The only difference between the two queries is that we have replaced the last() method with a number two (2). It is correct to conclude that the last() function in this case is actually returning the number 2 (the number of nodes in the node set of the particular location step). Apply the same two queries to the WSDL file of Listing 2 (you may use the XPath Tester application mentioned in the resources) and you will see that this time the two queries do not return the same result. There are three message elements in Listing 2, so the last() function is now returning the number 3.

Notice from this discussion that the last() function always returns a number.

The position() Function

If you apply the following queries to the WSDL file in Listing 2,

./node()/message[1]/part
./node()/message[2]/part
./node()/message[3]/part

they will return the part children of the first, second, and third message elements respectively. This shows that there is a proximity position of each node in the node set. The proximity position of the first node is one, the second node is two and so on.

What if you want to find all the message elements except the second? You can use the position() function which works on the proximity position of a context node. The following query will return the first and third message elements of Listing 2:

./node()/message[position()!=2]

The position() function simply returns the proximity position of the context node being evaluated. The predicate [position()!=2] will compare the proximity position with the number 2 and include the context node in the node-set only if proximity position is not equal to two.

The count() Function

How many message children does the portType element in Listing 1 have? Count them and you will find two message elements. Specifying a "how many" question in XPath is a two-step procedure. First write an XPath query that will find all those elements that you wish to count. Then pass the XPath query to the count() function as shown below:

Step1: ./node()/message
Step 2: count(./node()/message)

The count() function calculates and returns the number of nodes in the resulting node-set of the XPath query.

The name(), local-name() and namespace-uri() Functions

What does the following query return when applied to the WSDL file of Listing 1?

./node()/*[5]

It returns the fifth child (the service element) of the root element. The service element itself is a complete structure and contains child elements. Therefore, the returned value of this XPath query is actually an XML node and not just the name of an element.

The name() function returns the name of the XML node in question. For example, the following query will return the string "service" when applied to Listing 1:

name(./node()/*[5])

Similarly, the following query will return the string "wsd:definitions" (fully qualified name of the root element with the namespace prefix):

name(./node())

The local-name() and namespace-uri() functions are similar to the name() function, except that the local-name method returns only the local name of the element without the namespace prefix, and the namespace-uri function returns only the namespace URI. For example, try the following queries on Listing 1:

local-name(./node())
namespace-uri(./node())

The first query returns a string "definitions", while the second returns "http://schemas.xmlsoap.org/wsdl/".

String Functions

We have seen that the name(), local-name(), and namespace-uri() functions return strings. XPath offers several functions for the processing of strings, such as string(), substring(), substring-before(), substring-after(), concat(), starts-with() etc. For example the following query demonstrates how to use the string() function:

string(./node()/*[2]/part/attribute::name)

The above query will look for the second child of the root element, then it will find all the part child elements of the root's second child. It will then look for the name attribute of the part child elements, and, as a last step, it will convert the value of the name attribute to a string form. When applied to Listing 1, it will yield bill.

XPath also provides several functions that return true or false (Boolean data type). Consider the following query:

boolean(./node()/message)

It returns true when applied to Listing 1. That's because the boolean() function checks whether a node-set resulting from an XPath query is empty or not (in our case, it contains two message children of the root element). If it is empty, the boolean() function returns false, otherwise true.

A Comprehensive WSDL Processing Example

The following WSDL processing scenario uses all the XPath concepts which we've discussed so far. The search requirement for the scenario is as follows:

Find a service element which is a direct child of definitions (root) element and whose name attribute matches with the name attribute of the definitions element. Then look into that service element and find a port element whose binding attribute matches the name attribute of a binding element, which is a direct child of the definitions (root) element.

This WSDL processing can be fulfilled in four steps:

1. Find the value of the name attribute of the definitions (root) element. The following XPath query (which returns the string BillingService from Listing 1) performs this job:

string(//node()[1]/@name)

2. Then find the service element whose name attribute matches the name of the definitions element. The following query contains the query of point 1 in a predicate and will return the required service element:

./node()[1]/service[@name=string(//node()[1]/@name)]

3. Then find the value of the name attribute of the binding element:

string(//node()[1]/binding/@name)

4. Finally look for the required port element (whose binding attribute matches the name of the binding element of point 3) inside the service element of point 2:

./node()[1]/service[@name=string(//node()[1]/@name)]
     /port[@binding=string(//node()[1]/binding/@name)]

This example demonstrates that XPath predicates can contain simple logical conditions, function calls or even complete XPath queries.

WML Processing with XPath

WML is an XML language defined by the WAP Forum. WML provides a presentation format for small-device displays. WML is to a small-device display what HTML is to a personal computer.

Imagine a WML file consisting of a deck of cards, where each card is wrapped by a card element. Listing 3 is a simple WML file that contains two card elements.

The following XPath query will return all p (paragraph) elements contained within the first card (the card element whose id is "first") of Listing 3:

./node()/card[string(@id)="first"]/p

The next query returns the textual contents of the first paragraph of the second card:

string(./node()/card[string(@id)="second"]/p[1]/text())

Implementing XPath Predicates and Functions

We will now see how to include the support of predicates and Functions in the simple design of our XPath Engine.

The four pseudo-code classes XPathExpression (Listing 4), XPathLocationStep (Listing 5), XPathResult (Listing 6), and Predicate (Listing 7) form the updated design that includes support of predicates and functions. We have introduced the following enhancements to the classes presented in part 1:

1. XPath can return various types of data. Examples of data types XPath may return include nodes, strings, numbers, and Booleans. Our XPath engine design supported only XML nodes as return data types. We have now provided a generic class named XPathResult (Listing 6) to support the different data types. Implementations based on our design will need to extend XPathResult for each data type separately.

2. The updated design now includes an architecture to support functions. A function call may occur at the beginning of an XPath query or inside any XPath location step. Therefore, both the XPathExpression Listing 4 and XPathLocationStep (Listing 5) classes now have added support for function calls.

3. We have provided a separate class for predicates (Listing 7). A predicate may consist of only a logical condition or an entire XPath query. Therefore, the Predicate class constructor will check whether the predicate is a complete query or just a condition. If it is a complete XPath query, the Predicate expression will instantiate a new XPathExpression object, otherwise it will just evaluate the logical condition to evaluate the filtered results.

Summary

In the preceding, we discussed the syntax and use of predicates and functions in XPath. We presented various WSDL and WML processing examples and demonstrated how to form complex XPath queries. Finally, we enhanced the design of the XPath engine introduced in the first article.

Resources

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