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Multi-Interface Web Services Made Easy

Multi-Interface Web Services Made Easy

May 08, 2002

Editor's Note: Kip Hampton will be presenting a tutorial on Perl and XML at the upcoming O'Reilly Open Source Convention.


There is little doubt that the hype associated with web services has reached astronomical proportions. Notably missing from the current flood of information, however, is a nuts-and-bolts examination of how to build applications which provide both browser-based access for human users and programmatic access for automated clients. This month we will take a look at just how easy it is to build these multi-interface services using Perl and XML.

This is not about the relative merits or weaknesses of SOAP, XML-RPC, or REST, nor will it attempt address the reasons why you might choose one and not another. The goal here is to demonstrate that, with a little forethought and a few Perl modules, you can easily create useful Web applications that can accessed from any or all of these types of clients.

We have a lot to cover, so let's get straight to business.

Example -- WebSemDiff: A Multi-Interface XML Semantic Diff Web Service

For this month's sole code example we will build a Web interface to my XML::SemanticDiff module. For those unfamiliar with it, XML::SemanticDiff compares the contents of two XML documents while ignoring common things like formatting differencesC and uncommon things like otherwise identical elements and attributes with divergent namespace prefixes bound to the same URI.

Before we begin, a basic understanding of Christian Glahn's CGI::XMLApplication is suggested before proceeding. It's not a requirement; you will still be able to follow along, but having a more detailed introduction can only help. If you are impatient and decide to skip reading that previous column, it is enough to understand that the typical CGI::XMLApplication application consists of three parts: a tiny CGI script that connects the client to the application, a Perl module that handles the heavy-lifting, and one or more XSLT stylesheets that transforms DOM tree returned from the Perl module into something palatable for the requesting client.

Understanding CGI::XMLApplication's basic architecture is important because, from a high level, it is exactly the same model used by Paul Kulchenko's wildly popular SOAP::Lite module. The key to providing simple, multi-client access lies in understanding how these two fine modules can be used together.

First, we will look at the base module that both CGI::XMLApplication and SOAP::Lite will use to compare the files uploaded to the server:

package WebSemDiff;

use strict;
use CGI::XMLApplication;
use XML::SemanticDiff;
use XML::LibXML::SAX::Builder;
use XML::Generator::PerlData;

use vars qw( @ISA );
@ISA = qw( CGI::XMLApplication );

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After importing the necessary modules and declaring the package's inheritance from CGI::XMLApplication, we need to implement the methods required to make the browser interface work.

The browser interface has two states: a default state that prompts the user to upload two XML documents to compare, and a result state that shows the result of the comparison (or any errors that may have occurred while processing). The selectStylesheet() method returns the path to the appropriate stylesheet that will transform the DOM tree built by our application. To keep things on track we will not look at two stylesheets, (semdiff_default.xsl and semdiff_result.xsl) themselves; but they are available in this month's sample code if you are curious.

sub selectStylesheet {
    my ( $self, $context ) = @_;
    my $style = $context->{style} || 'default';
    my $style_path = '/www/site/stylesheets/';
    return $style_path . 'semdiff_' . $style . '.xsl';

By default, the required getDOM() method is expected to return an XML::LibXML::Document object. This document object, which we will create later, is transformed by the XSLT stylesheet set by the selectStylesheet() method before delivering the result to the browser.

sub getDOM {
    my ( $self, $context ) = @_;
    return $context->{domtree};

The getXSLParameter() method provides a way to pass values from this class out to the stylesheets (the values are available via <xsl:param> elements). Here we just push all the request parameters, leaving it to the stylesheet to pick and choose which fields are relevant.

sub getXSLParameter {
    my $self = shift;
    return $self->Vars;

With the low-level details out of the way we will now create the event callbacks which will be called in response to the state of the browser interface. Since the default state is a simple prompt that requires no application logic or special processing, we need only implement the callback for the result state.

# event registration and event callbacks
sub registerEvents {
    return qw( semdiff_result );

sub event_semdiff_result {
    my ( $self, $context ) = @_;
    my ( $file1, $file2, $error );
    my $fh1 = $self->upload('file1');
    my $fh3 = $self->upload('file2');
    $context->{style} = 'result';

After setting the appropriate style for the application state, we retrieve the filehandles that contain the uploaded XML documents. We check to see that both are defined and, if so, we convert them to plain scalars.

    if ( defined( $fh1 ) and defined( $fh3 ) ) {
        local $/ = undef;
        $file1 = <$fh1>
        $file2 = <$fh3>;

Next we create the DOM tree that contains the results of the comparison by calling the compare_as_dom() method. Wrapping this call in an eval block ensures that we can safely capture any parsing errors encountered while processing the uploaded documents. We will look at the details of the compare_as_dom() and dom_from_data() methods shortly.

        eval {
            $context->{domtree} = $self->compare_as_dom( $file1, $file2 );

        if ( $@ ) {
            $error = $@;
    else {
        $error = 'You must select two XML files to compare 
                        and wait for them to finish uploading';

    if ( $error ) {
        $context->{domtree} =  $self->dom_from_data( {  error => $error } );

The compare_as_dom() method returns undef if the two documents are identical. If no DOM object was returned and no error were occurred, we create a document with a single <message> element telling the user that the document are semantically the same.

    unless ( defined( $context->{domtree} )) {
        my $msg = "Files are semantically identical.";
        $context->{domtree} =  $self->dom_from_data( {  message => $msg } );

Having completed the single event callback we can move on to writing the core methods which both it and the SOAP dispatcher will share.

First, we will create the compare() method. Not much more than a wrapper for the XML::SemanticDiff method of the same name, it accepts two scalars containing the XML documents to be compared and returns the results, if any, as an array reference.

sub compare {
    my $self = shift;
    my ( $xmlstring1, $xmlstring2 ) = @_;
    my $diff = XML::SemanticDiff->new( keeplinenums => 1 );
    my @results = $diff->compare( $xmlstring1, $xmlstring2 );
    return \@results;

We will finish up the WebSemDiff class with a couple of handy convenience methods.

The dom_from_data() method creates an XML::LibXML::Document object (an XML document in the form of a DOM tree) by processing a reference to any common Perl data structure through XML::Generator::PerlData and hooking that generator to XML::LibXML::SAX::Builder to populate the tree. Recall that we call this method in the result event callback to create the DOM tree containing the appropriate messages if an error occurred, or if the documents being compared are identical.

sub dom_from_data {
    my ( $self, $ref ) = @_;
    my $builder = XML::LibXML::SAX::Builder->new();
    my $generator = XML::Generator::PerlData->new( Handler => $builder );
    my $dom = $generator->parse( $ref );
    return $dom;

Finally, we will create the compare_as_dom() method. A simple wrapper for the last two methods, it returns the results of a semantic comparison between two documents as a DOM object.

sub compare_as_dom {
    my $self = shift;
    my $diff_messages = $self->compare( @_ );
    return undef unless scalar( @{$diff_messages} ) > 0;
    return $self->dom_from_data( {  difference => $diff_messages } );


With the foundation now in place, we need only create the CGI script that will provide access to the various clients, which is where the architectural overlap between CGI::XMLApplication and SOAP::Lite really pays off.

#!/usr/bin/perl -w
use strict;
use SOAP::Transport::HTTP;
use WebSemDiff;

if ( defined( $ENV{'HTTP_SOAPACTION'} )) {
        -> dispatch_to('WebSemDiff')
        -> handle;
else {
    my $app = WebSemDiff->new();

Yes. That's all there is to it.

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