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A Technical Introduction to XML
by Norman Walsh | Pages: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6


What is XML?

XML is a markup language for documents containing structured information.

Structured information contains both content (words, pictures, etc.) and some indication of what role that content plays (for example, content in a section heading has a different meaning from content in a footnote, which means something different than content in a figure caption or content in a database table, etc.). Almost all documents have some structure.

A markup language is a mechanism to identify structures in a document. The XML specification defines a standard way to add markup to documents.

What's a Document?

The number of applications currently being developed that are based on, or make use of, XML documents is truly amazing (particularly when you consider that XML is not yet a year old)! For our purposes, the word "document" refers not only to traditional documents, like this one, but also to the myriad of other XML "data formats". These include vector graphics, e-commerce transactions, mathematical equations, object meta-data, server APIs, and a thousand other kinds of structured information.

So XML is Just Like HTML?

No. In HTML, both the tag semantics and the tag set are fixed. An <h1> is always a first level heading and the tag <ati.product.code> is meaningless. The W3C, in conjunction with browser vendors and the WWW community, is constantly working to extend the definition of HTML to allow new tags to keep pace with changing technology and to bring variations in presentation (stylesheets) to the Web. However, these changes are always rigidly confined by what the browser vendors have implemented and by the fact that backward compatibility is paramount. And for people who want to disseminate information widely, features supported by only the latest releases of Netscape and Internet Explorer are not useful.

XML specifies neither semantics nor a tag set. In fact XML is really a meta-language for describing markup languages. In other words, XML provides a facility to define tags and the structural relationships between them. Since there's no predefined tag set, there can't be any preconceived semantics. All of the semantics of an XML document will either be defined by the applications that process them or by stylesheets.

So XML Is Just Like SGML?

No. Well, yes, sort of. XML is defined as an application profile of SGML. SGML is the Standard Generalized Markup Language defined by ISO 8879. SGML has been the standard, vendor-independent way to maintain repositories of structured documentation for more than a decade, but it is not well suited to serving documents over the web (for a number of technical reasons beyond the scope of this article). Defining XML as an application profile of SGML means that any fully conformant SGML system will be able to read XML documents. However, using and understanding XML documents does not require a system that is capable of understanding the full generality of SGML. XML is, roughly speaking, a restricted form of SGML.

For technical purists, it's important to note that there may also be subtle differences between documents as understood by XML systems and those same documents as understood by SGML systems. In particular, treatment of white space immediately adjacent to tags may be different.

Why XML?

In order to appreciate XML, it is important to understand why it was created. XML was created so that richly structured documents could be used over the web. The only viable alternatives, HTML and SGML, are not practical for this purpose.

HTML, as we've already discussed, comes bound with a set of semantics and does not provide arbitrary structure.

SGML provides arbitrary structure, but is too difficult to implement just for a web browser. Full SGML systems solve large, complex problems that justify their expense. Viewing structured documents sent over the web rarely carries such justification.

This is not to say that XML can be expected to completely replace SGML. While XML is being designed to deliver structured content over the web, some of the very features it lacks to make this practical, make SGML a more satisfactory solution for the creation and long-time storage of complex documents. In many organizations, filtering SGML to XML will be the standard procedure for web delivery.

XML Development Goals

The XML specification sets out the following goals for XML: [Section 1.1] (In this article, citations of the form [Section 1.1], these are references to the W3C Recommendation Extensible Markup Language (XML) 1.0. If you are interested in more technical detail about a particular topic, please consult the specification)

  1. It shall be straightforward to use XML over the Internet. Users must be able to view XML documents as quickly and easily as HTML documents. In practice, this will only be possible when XML browsers are as robust and widely available as HTML browsers, but the principle remains.
  2. XML shall support a wide variety of applications. XML should be beneficial to a wide variety of diverse applications: authoring, browsing, content analysis, etc. Although the initial focus is on serving structured documents over the web, it is not meant to narrowly define XML.
  3. XML shall be compatible with SGML. Most of the people involved in the XML effort come from organizations that have a large, in some cases staggering, amount of material in SGML. XML was designed pragmatically, to be compatible with existing standards while solving the relatively new problem of sending richly structured documents over the web.
  4. It shall be easy to write programs that process XML documents. The colloquial way of expressing this goal while the spec was being developed was that it ought to take about two weeks for a competent computer science graduate student to build a program that can process XML documents.
  5. The number of optional features in XML is to be kept to an absolute minimum, ideally zero. Optional features inevitably raise compatibility problems when users want to share documents and sometimes lead to confusion and frustration.
  6. XML documents should be human-legible and reasonably clear. If you don't have an XML browser and you've received a hunk of XML from somewhere, you ought to be able to look at it in your favorite text editor and actually figure out what the content means.
  7. The XML design should be prepared quickly. Standards efforts are notoriously slow. XML was needed immediately and was developed as quickly as possible.
  8. The design of XML shall be formal and concise. In many ways a corollary to rule 4, it essentially means that XML must be expressed in EBNF and must be amenable to modern compiler tools and techniques.
    There are a number of technical reasons why the SGML grammar cannot be expressed in EBNF. Writing a proper SGML parser requires handling a variety of rarely used and difficult to parse language features. XML does not.
  9. XML documents shall be easy to create. Although there will eventually be sophisticated editors to create and edit XML content, they won't appear immediately. In the interim, it must be possible to create XML documents in other ways: directly in a text editor, with simple shell and Perl scripts, etc.
  10. Terseness in XML markup is of minimal importance. Several SGML language features were designed to minimize the amount of typing required to manually key in SGML documents. These features are not supported in XML. From an abstract point of view, these documents are indistinguishable from their more fully specified forms, but supporting these features adds a considerable burden to the SGML parser (or the person writing it, anyway). In addition, most modern editors offer better facilities to define shortcuts when entering text.

How Is XML Defined?

XML is defined by a number of related specifications:

Extensible Markup Language (XML) 1.0
Defines the syntax of XML. The XML specification is the primary focus of this article.
XML Pointer Language (XPointer) and XML Linking Language (XLink)
Defines a standard way to represent links between resources. In addition to simple links, like HTML's <A> tag, XML has mechanisms for links between multiple resources and links between read-only resources. XPointer describes how to address a resource, XLink describes how to associate two or more resources.
Extensible Style Language (XSL)
Defines the standard stylesheet language for XML.

As time goes on, additional requirements will be addressed by other specifications. Currently (Sep, 1998), namespaces (dealing with tags from multiple tag sets), a query language (finding out what's in a document or a collection of documents), and a schema language (describing the relationships between tags, DTDs in XML) are all being actively pursued.

Understanding the Specs

For the most part, reading and understanding the XML specifications does not require extensive knowledge of SGML or any of the related technologies.

One topic that may be new is the use of EBNF to describe the syntax of XML. Please consult the discussion of EBNF in the appendix of this article for a detailed description of how this grammar works.

Pages: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

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