Xml Matters #18: Rexml

XML Processing in the Ruby Programming Language

David Mertz, Ph.D.
Simplifier, Gnosis Software, Inc.
January 2002

There are at least two attitudes one can have towards XML processing. One attitude is to adopt standard API's that can be called from many programming languages. A second approach is to tailor an XML processing library to the specific strengths of the programming language you will develop an XML application in. Early installments of this column have looked at versions of the second attitude with the author's own Python xml_pickle and xml_objectify, and with the Haskell HaXml library. A commonly used library for the fiarly new, but rapidly growing Ruby programming language also takes the second attitude. The "Ruby Electric XML" (REXML) library takes the strenghts of Ruby, and builds XML processing around those. REXML has analogs for the stream-style of SAX and the tree-style of DOM, but restricts itself to neither API directly.


Regular readers of this column have almost certainly detected my dissatisfaction with the most popular techniques for manipulating XML documents. The articles that have discussed my Python xml_objectify modify has largely been in response to the complexity of DOM. My introduction to the Haskell HaXml library was primarily a reaction to a perceived obtuseness of XSLT. Continuing this pattern, I find SAX also to be far "heavier" than is necessary for many of the problems SAX solves.

The SAX API is, by far, more lightweight than either DOM or XSLT--not only in terms of computer resources, but more importantly in terms of programmer effort and learning curve. Even so, even SAX demands that an XML programmer utilize a parser library, and conform to a callback API. The data inside XML documents simply is not complex enough to warrant these demands. In my opinion, there ought to be an easier way to handle XML documents; and in particular, one ought to be more free to use a variety of familiar tools and techniques when manipulating XML.


Let me first introduce the Ruby language. I cannot say nearly enough here to get unfamiliar readers up to speed--for that I recommend consulting the sources in the Resources. But as a programmer learning the Ruby language myself, I can let readers know why it is interesting. Ruby is a "scripting" language that has been described as "Perl done right;" but then again, so probably has every newer scripting language, including Python. For Ruby, the description rings truer, not in the sense that Perl is done wrong (no language flames here), but in the sense the Ruby keeps much of Perl's conciseness and many of its shortcuts, while starting from a clean Smalltalk-ish OOP attitude. Moreover, at least to me, Ruby achieves conciseness while still avoiding the "executable line noise" quality that some Perl code has. At the same time, a number of Ruby constructs "feel" more direct than Python versions (even if not really saving much overall length).

REXML is a library written by Sean Russell. It is not the only XML library for Ruby, but it is a popular one, and is written in pure Ruby (so is NQXML, but XMLParser wraps around the Jade library, written in C) In his REXML overview, he comments:

I have this problem: I dislike obscifucated sic APIs. There are several XML parser APIs for Java. Most of them follow DOM or SAX, and are very similar in philosophy with an increasing number of Java APIs. Namely, they look like they were designed by theorists who never had to use their own APIs. The extant XML APIs, in general, suck. They take a markup language which was specifically designed to be very simple, elegant, and powerful, and wrap an obnoxious, bloated, and large API around it. I was always having to refer to the API documentation to do even the most basic XML tree manipulations; nothing was intuitive, and almost every operation was complex.

While I might not have put it quite as stridently, I agree with Russell--XML APIs are just plain too much work for most of what one does with them.

Making Easy Things Easy

I would guess that what 80% of all the programmers who need to deal with XML documents really want is just a way to grab the data and easily manipulate it as (structured) data. DOM makes this hard, and SAX makes it even harder. In several previous articles, I have advocated the clarity and simplicity of my own Python xml_objectify module. Let me repeat a quick example, using an the file address.xml which describes an address book:

How to refer to nested data using xml_objectify

>>> from xml_objectify import XML_Objectify
>>> addressbook = XML_Objectify('address.xml').make_instance()
>>> print addressbook.person[1].address.city
New York

We need to know a little bit the format of the data (see Resources for the sample document, used throughout this article). But not too much. We need to know that the root of the document is the address book (but not necessarily that it is named <addressbook>). And we need to know that the document can list multiple persons (but nothing goes wrong if there is only one, who can still be referred to as addressbook.person[0]). All the rest of what we need to know is that, conceptually, persons have addresses and addresses have cities. It all just works!

In contrast, DOM--which advertises itself as OOP-ified XML--makes us jump through hoops. The first challenge is referring to the root element; at least five different ways come to mind:

Using DOM to name the XML document root

>>> from xml.dom import minidom
>>> dom = minidom.parse('address.xml')
>>> dom.firstChild
<DOM Element: addressbook at 1811436>
>>> dom._get_documentElement()
<DOM Element: addressbook at 1811436>
>>> dom._get_firstChild()
<DOM Element: addressbook at 1811436>
>>> dom.getElementsByTagName('addressbook')[0]
<DOM Element: addressbook at 1811436>
>>> dom.childNodes[0]
<DOM Element: addressbook at 1811436>

One also has to guess a bit about exactly what is a method and what is an attribute (or keep a manual handy). Given that we know we want the root element, probably the ._get_documentElement() method is the best choice. Now what if we want to find our way down to the second person's city, as in the xml_objectify example?

How to refer to nested data using DOM

>>> addressbook = dom._get_documentElement()
>>> print addressbook.getElementsByTagName('person')[1].\
... getElementsByTagName('address')[0].getAttribute('city')
New York

This style is quite verbose, but is probably the closest DOM equivalent. One might use the .childNodes attribute array directly to save a few characters, but this is fragile if, for example, there are children of <addressbook> that are things other than <person>. One also has to know the nitty-gritty detail that city is an element attribute rather than a subtag content (either way might make sense for the basic data in question).

Using Rexml In Tree Mode

REXML has the goal of just working. For the most part, it succeeds pretty well. Actually, REXML supports two different styles of XML processing, both "tree" and "stream." The first is an easier version of what DOM tries to do; the second is an easier version of what SAX tries to do. Let us look at the tree style first. Suppose we want to grab the same address book document in the prior example. The below examples, by the way, are from a modified eval.rb that I created; the standard eval.rb (linked to in the Ruby tutorial) can display extremely long results from expression evaluations of complex objects--mine remains quiet in the non-error case:

How to refer to nested data using REXML

ruby> require "rexml/document"
ruby> include REXML
ruby> addrbook = (Document.new File.new "address.xml").root
ruby> persons = addrbook.elements.to_a("//person")
ruby> puts persons[1].elements["address"].attributes["city"]
New York

This expression is rather natural. The .to_a() method creates an array of all the <person> elements in the document, which can be useful in other naming. An element is something like a DOM node, but is really much closer to the XML itself (while also remaining simpler to work with). The argument to .to_a() is an XPATH, in this case identifying all the <person> elements anywhere in the document. If we strictly wanted the one at the first level, we might use:

Creating an array of matching elements

ruby> persons = addrbook.elements.to_a("/addressbook/person")

We can use XPATHs even more directly as overloaded indexes to the .elements attribute. For example:

Another way to refer to nested data using REXML

ruby> puts addrbook.elements["//person[2]/address"].attributes["city"]
New York

Notice that XPATH uses one-based indexing, unlike the zero-based indexing of Ruby and Python arrays. In other words, it is still the same person whose city we are checking. We can see more about this person by looking at the REXML elements themselves:

Displaying the XML source of elements with REXML

ruby> puts addrbook.elements["//person[2]/address"]
<address city='New York' street='118 St.' number='344' state='NY'/>
ruby> puts addrbook.elements["//person[2]/contact-info"]
  <email address='[email protected]'/>
  <home-phone number='03-3987873'/>

Moreover, XPATHs need not match just one element. We saw this in defining the persons array, but another example emphasizes it:

Matching multiple elements with XPATHs

ruby> puts addrbook.elements.to_a("//person/address[@state='CA']")
<address city='Sacramento' street='Spruce Rd.' number='99' state='CA'/>
<address city='Los Angeles' street='Pine Rd.' number='1234' state='CA'/>

In contrast, the indexing of the .elements attribute only produces the first matching element:

When XPATHs match only the first occurrence

ruby> puts addrbook.elements["//person/address[@state='CA']"]
<address city='Sacramento' street='Spruce Rd.' number='99' state='CA'/>
ruby> puts addrbook.elements.to_a("//person/address[@state='CA']")[0]
<address city='Sacramento' street='Spruce Rd.' number='99' state='CA'/>

XPATH addresses may also be used via the XPath class in REXML, which has methods such as .first(), .each() and .match().

One particularly idiomatic method of REXML elements is the .each iterator. While Ruby has a looping construct for that can operate over collections, Ruby programmers generally prefer to use iterator methods that pass control to a codeblock. The two following constructs are equivalent, but the second has a more natural feel in Ruby:

Iterating through matching XPATHs in REXML

ruby> for addr in addrbook.elements.to_a("//address[@state='CA']")
    |    puts addr.attributes["city"]
    | end
Los Angeles
ruby> addrbook.elements.each("//address[@state='CA']") {
    |    |addr| puts addr.attributes["city"]
    | }
Los Angeles

Using Rexml In Stream Mode

For purposes of "just working" the tree mode of REXML is probably the easiest approach in the Ruby language. But REXML also offers a stream mode that is a lot like a lighter weight variant of SAX. As with SAX, REXML gives the application programmer no default data structures from the XML document. Instead, a "listener" or "handler" class is responsible for providing a set of methods that respond to various events in the document stream. These are the usual collection: a tag starts, a tag ends, element text is encountered, and so on.

While stream mode is not nearly as effortless as working in tree mode, it should generally be much faster. The REXML tutorial claims that stream mode is one thousand five hundred times as fast. While I have not attempted to benchmark it, I suspect this is a limit case (my small examples were still instantaneous in tree mode). Either way, the difference in speed is likely to be significant, if speed matters.

Let us look at just a very simple example that does the same thing as the "list the California cities" examples above. Extending this to complex document processing is relatively straightforward:

Stream processing XML documents in REXML

ruby> require "rexml/document"
ruby> require "rexml/streamlistener"
ruby> include REXML
ruby> class Handler
    |    include StreamListener
    |    def tag_start name, attrs
    |       if name=="address" and attrs.assoc("state")[1]=="CA"
    |          puts attrs.assoc("city")[1]
    |       end
    |    end
    | end
ruby> Document.parse_stream((File.new "address.xml"), Handler.new)
Los Angeles

One thing to note in the stream processing example is that tag attributes are passed as an array of arrays, which is slightly more work to handle than a hash would be (but is probably faster to create within the library).


This installment has looked at one more light-weight alternative to the cumbersome APIs of DOM, SAX and XSLT. Along with the xml_objectify, PYX and HaXml options that earlier installments have examined, Ruby programmers also have a quick way of processing XML without a steep learning curve.


Maya Stodte has written an introduction to Ruby for IBM developerWorks (but it is two years old now, Ruby has progressed in that time):


Joshua Drake has also written a more recent--but slightly thin on explanation (too much code illustrating too little, IMO)--description of some basic Ruby constructs:


Ruby, fortunately, has a wonderful tutorial on its website. The language reference and other documents are also worth looking at:


I have also looked at Ruby creator Yukihiro Matsumoto's book for O'Reilly called Ruby in a Nutshell. As a programmer learning Ruby, this is confessedly probably not as well suited to me as to a more experienced Ruby users. Even taking into account my inexperience, I get the feeling this book was "not quite translated enough" (from the Japanese text it derives from). While Ruby in a Nutshell is very well organized as a reference, a good number of the descriptions left me scratching my head, and remaining uncertain about occassional subtleties of the language.

The REXML homepage contains a very good tutorial. The latter is not entirely complete, but it does a good job of getting users up to speed:


Readers might be interested to know that a website exists specifically for news and discussion of Ruby and XML. It has an obvious domain name:


The address book example I use in this article can be found at:


About The Author

Picture of Author David Mertz wishes to let a thousand flowers bloom. David may be reached at [email protected]; his life pored over at http://gnosis.cx/publish/. Suggestions and recommendations on this, past, or future, columns are welcomed.