Xml Zone Tip: Lightweight Xml Libraries

The KISS Principle

David Mertz, Ph.D.
Gesticulator, Gnosis Software, Inc.
March, 2002

When not to use heavyweight XML APIs. Standard XML APIs like SAX, DOM, and XSLT provide sophisticated ways of transforming and manipulating XML documents. But each of them is also complex enough to warrant multi-hundred page specification documents, and myriad 3rd party books. For easy tasks, there are easier way to get the XML work done. This tip provides links to a number of lightweight XML libraries, and pointers on when programmers should use them.


XML is meant to be easy. The promise of XML is to provide a simple, direct, and universal means of exchanging data between various platforms and programming languages. Unfortunately, the most common APIs that have sprung up for manipulating XML are anything but simple--they each have multi-hundred page specification documents, and require a steep learning curve. Admittedly, XML itself has also become a bit more complicated than its initial promise. There ought to be an easier way--and, in point of fact, there are a number of easier ways.

Internally, most of the lightweight APIs this tip points out are built as higher-level wrappers around SAX(-like) libraries. To use the high-level APIs, a programmer need not know much anything about the underlying parsers. In one respect or another, simplified APIs just present something easy for an XML programmer to deal with.

There are two general approaches to lightweight XML libraries. One approach transforms XML into a line-oriented format that familiar tools like wc, tail, head, uniq, grep, sed, awk, and in a more sophisticated way perl and other scripting languages are accustomed to dealing with. Another approach is libraries that represent XML documents according to the "native" data structures of a given programming language. Such libraries exist for a number of programming languages, and are also generally simpler (and more intuitive to programmers of a given language) to invoke than are DOM, XSLT or SAX.

Line-oriented Xml

The PYX format is a line-oriented representation of XML documents. PYX is not itself XML, but it is able to represent the information within an XML document. Moreover, PYX documents can themselves be transformed back into XML as needed. In PYX, the first character on each line identifies the content-type of the line. The prefix characters are:

PYX prefix characters

(  start-tag
)  end-tag
A  attribute
-  character data
?  processing instruction

The motivation for PYX is the wide usage, convenience, and familiarity of line-oriented text processing tools and techniques. These types of tools both generally expect newline-delimited records and rely on regular expression patterns to identify parts of texts--good matches for PYX, but not for XML.

PYX libraries exist for several programming languages, but much of the time it is most useful simply to use the command line tools xmln (non-validating) and xmlv (validating).

The PYX format, in contrast to the XML format, allows one to easily pose a variety of ad hoc questions about a document. For example: what are all the attribute values in the sample document? Using PYX, we can simply ask:

An ad hoc query using PYX format

[PYX]# ./xmln test.xml | grep "^A" | awk '{print $2}'

Or another, let us try to dump the non-empty content lines of an XML document:

An ad hoc query using PYX format (contents)

[PYX]# ./xmln test.xml | grep '^-[^\n ]' | sed s/^-//

One could do write custom applications do do these things with SAX or DOM, but queries like this really deserve to be one-liners.

Going Native

The API methods of DOM give one access to a certain data-structure that represents an XML document. The problem is that this data-structure is very little like the built-in data types of programming languages. A number of libraries have made the move to "native" versions of XML documents.

Python's xml_objectify

When my own Python module xml_objectify is used to read in an XML document, what one gets is a very simple Python object, whose object attributes correspond to the subelements and attributes of the root document element. The only difference between subelements and tag attributes is whether they contain futher objects or plain text. Testing the type of thing a (Python) attribute contains is sufficient for determining whether it started out as a subelement or XML attribute.

Remember first how one might use DOM to look at data in an XML document:

Python DOM access to XML data structures

from xml.dom import minidom
dom = minidom.parse('test.xml')
print 'flavor='+dom.childNodes[1]._attrs['flavor'].nodeValue
print 'PCDATA='+dom.childNodes[1].childNodes[5].childNodes[0].nodeValue

In contrast, xml_objectify lets a user refer to the XML document data in much more intuitive, and Pythonic, ways:

[xml_objectify] access to XML data structures

from xml_objectify import XML_Objectify
py_obj = XML_Objectify('test.xml').make_instance()
print 'flavor=' + py_obj.flavor
print 'PCDATA=' + py_obj.MoreSpam.PCDATA

Ruby's REXML

The REXML library is a library for the Ruby programming language that operates in multiple modes. The stream parser works in a way similar to SAX, but with a more Ruby-oriented syntax. The tree mode is the most interesting. Basically, this mode is quite similar to the data representation one gets with xml_objectify or Perl's XML::Parser "Tree" style. One advantage the REXML library has is its integration of an XPATH-like region specifier syntax. For example, the REXML tutorial shows these lines:

REXML tree mode parsing and data structure

require "rexml/document"
include REXML    # don't have to prefix everything with REXML::
doc = Document.new File.new("mydoc.xml")
    { |element| puts element.attributes["name"] }
    # -> health
    # -> food

Java's JDOM

Java gets in the native game also. Even though DOM was itself largely styled around Java, the programming language neutral methods of DOM are still unnecessarily complex to work with (even in Java). JDOM is a more Java-native version of XML processing. Let's just look at the JDOM mission statement to make the point:

There is no compelling reason for a Java API to manipulate XML to be complex, tricky, unintuitive, or a pain in the neck. JDOM is both Java-centric and Java-optimized. It behaves like Java, it uses Java collections, it is completely natural API for current Java developers, and it provides a low-cost entry point for using XML.


In the culture of the Perl programming language, there is a motto held by programmers: "there's more than one way to do it." This slogan is well enough known that it is usually just abbreviated as TMTOWTDI. As one would expect from this motto, Perl developers have come up with quite a few different ways of handling XML. While there do exist Perl modules to support standards like DOM and SAX, most Perl programmers prefer modules that embody the Perlish cardinal virtues: laziness, hubris, and impatience. Perl programmers are the types of folks who think they can do it better, faster, and with less work than conformance with rigid and complex standards allow.

In keeping with the style in other presented programming languages, both XML::Grove and XML::Parser in tree style parse XML documents into very Perlish native data structures.

Haskell's HaXml

HaXml is a lot like Haskell itself. It is not necessarily simple, but it is striking in its elagance. HaXml does a good job of bringing a function programming style to XML manipulation. As with the other modules discussed, HaXml makes XML documents look a lot like native data structures.

A quick example shows how one can do an XSLT-like transformation to HTML:

HaXml program to output an I Ching HTML Table

module Main where
import XmlLib
main = processXmlWith (hexagrams `o` tag "IChing")
hexagrams =
    html [
      hhead [htitle [keep /> tag "title" /> txt] ],
      hbody [htableBorder [rows `o` children `with` tag "hexagram"] ]
htableBorder = mkElemAttr "TABLE" [("BORDER",("1"!))]
rows f = hrow [hcol [num], hcol [nam], hcol [jdg]] f
         where num = keep /> tag "number" /> txt
               nam = keep /> tag "name" /> txt
               jdg = keep /> tag "judgement" /> txt


Everything one really needs to know about XML is in the Extensible Markup Language (XML) 1.0 W3C Recommendation. Of course understanding exactly what this signifies requires some subtlety:


The home page for Pyxie (the Python PYX library, and also C versions of the xmlv and xmln tools) is hosted by Sourceforge:


In a very similar spirit to PYX is a project called "XmlConnect"--in large part the two formats are compatible (both were inspired by ESIS for SGML):


XML Matters #17 discusses PYX in greater detail.

XML Matters #18 discusses REXML in greater detail.

My articles describing xml_objectify can be found on IBM developerWorks at the following URLs"


The homepage for the Ruby REXML library is at:


The homepage for the Java JDOM library is at:


The CPAN documentation for the XML::Grove module can be found at:


The documentation for the XML::Parser module can be found in the distribution, and also at:


XML Matters #14 discusses HaXml in greater detail.

About The Author

Picture of Author David Mertz uses a wholly unstructured brain to write about structured document formats. David may be reached at [email protected]; his life pored over at http://gnosis.cx/publish/.