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Learn About XML


The Extensible Markup Language (XML) is a W3C-recommended general-purpose markup language for creating special-purpose markup languages. It is a simplified subset of SGML, capable of describing many different kinds of data. Its primary purpose is to facilitate the sharing of data across different systems, particularly systems connected via the Internet. Languages based on XML (for example, RDF, RSS, MathML, XHTML and SVG) are defined in a formal way, allowing programs to modify and validate documents in these languages without prior knowledge of their form.



In the mid-1990s, some practitioners of SGML had gained experience with the then-new World Wide Web, and believed that SGML offered solutions to some of the problems the Web was likely to face as it grew. Jon Bosak argued that the W3C should sponsor an "SGML on the Web" activity. After some resistance, he was authorized to launch that activity in mid-1996, albeit with little involvement by or support from the W3C leadership. Bosak was well-connected in the small community of people who had experience both in SGML and the Web. He received active support in his efforts from Microsoft.

XML was designed by an eleven-member Working Group supported by an (approximately) 150-member Interest Group. Technical debate took place on the Interest Group mailing list, and issues were resolved by consensus, or when that failed, majority vote, of the Working Group. James Clark served as Technical Lead of the Working Group, notably contributing the empty-element "<empty/>" syntax and the name "XML". Other names that had been put forward for consideration included "MAGMA" (Minimal Architecture for Generalized Markup Applications), "SLIM" (Structured Language for Internet Markup) and "MGML" (Minimal Generalized Markup Language). The co-editors of the specification were originally Tim Bray and Michael Sperberg-McQueen. Halfway through the project, Bray accepted a consulting engagement with Netscape, provoking vociferous protests from Microsoft. Bray was temporarily asked to resign the editorship. This led to intense dispute in the Working Group, eventually solved by the appointment of Microsoft's Jean Paoli as a third co-editor.

The XML Working Group never met face-to-face; the design was accomplished using a combination of email and weekly teleconferences. The major design decisions were reached in twenty weeks of intense work between July and November of 1996. Further design work continued through 1997, and XML 1.0 became a W3C Recommendation on February 10, 1998.

XML can be viewed as the further development of some dialects of the programming language LISP which featured tree structures (S-expressions) that each had its own property list.

Strengths and weaknesses

The features of XML that make it well-suited for data transfer are:

XML is also heavily used as a format for document storage and processing, both online and offline, and offers several benefits:

For certain applications, XML also has the following weaknesses:

Quick syntax tour

Here is an example of a simple recipe expressed using XML:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>

<Recipe name="bread" prep_time="5 mins" cook_time="3 hours">
  <title>Basic bread</title>
  <ingredient amount="3" unit="cups">Flour</ingredient>
  <ingredient amount="0.25" unit="ounce">Yeast</ingredient>
  <ingredient amount="1.5" unit="cups">Warm Water</ingredient>
  <ingredient amount="1" unit="teaspoon">Salt</ingredient>
   <step>Mix all ingredients together, and knead thoroughly.</step>
   <step>Cover with a cloth, and leave for one hour in warm room.</step>
   <step>Knead again, place in a tin, and then bake in the oven.</step>

The first line is the XML declaration: it is an optional line stating what version of XML is in use (normally version 1.0), and may also contain information about character encoding and external dependencies.

The remainder of this document consists of nested elements, some of which have attributes and content. An element typically consists of two tags, a start tag and an end tag, possibly surrounding text and other elements. The start tag consists of a name surrounded by angle brackets, like "<step>"; the end tag consists of the same name surrounded by angle brackets, but with a forward slash preceding the name, like "</step>". The element's content is everything that appears between the start tag and the end tag, including text and other (child) elements. The following is a complete XML element, with start tag, text content, and end tag:

<step>Knead again, place in a tin, and then bake in the oven.</step>

In addition to content, an element can contain attributes ��" name-value pairs included in the start tag after the element name. Attribute values must always be quoted, using single or double quotes, and each attribute name should appear only once in any element.

<ingredient amount="3" unit="cups">Flour</ingredient>

In this example, the ingredient element has two attributes: amount, having value "3", and units, having value "cups". In both cases, at the markup level, the names and values of the attributes, just like the names and content of the elements, are just textual data ��" the "3" and "cups" are not a quantity and unit of measure, respectively, but rather are just character sequences that the document author may be using to represent those things.

In addition to text, elements may contain other elements:

 <step>Mix all ingredients together, and knead thoroughly.</step>
 <step>Cover with a cloth, and leave for one hour in warm room.</step>
 <step>Knead again, place in a tin, and then bake in the oven.</step>

In this case, the Instructions element contains three step elements. XML requires that elements be properly nested ��" elements may never overlap. For example, this is not well-formed XML, because the em and strong elements overlap:

<p>Normal <em>emphasized <strong>strong emphasized</em> strong</strong></p>

Every XML document must have exactly one top-level root element (alternatively called a document element), so the following would also be a malformed XML document:

<thing>Thing #1</thing>
<thing>Thing #2</thing>

XML provides special syntax for representing an element with empty content. Instead of writing a start tag followed immediately by an end tag, a document may contain the empty element tag where a slash follows the element name. The following two examples are exactly equivalent:


XML provides two methods for escaping (or simply representing) special characters: entity references and numeric character references. An entity in XML is a named body of data, usually representing text, such as an unusual character. An entity reference is a placeholder for that entity, and consists of the entity's name preceded by an ampersand ("&") and followed by a semicolon (";"). XML has several predeclared entities, such as "lt" (referenced as "&lt;") for the left angle bracket (<) and "amp" (referenced as "&amp;") for the ampersand (&) itself, and it is possible to declare additional ones if desired. Aside from representing individual characters, reproducing chunks of boilerplate text is another common use for entities. Here is an example using a predeclared XML entity to escape the ampersand in the name "AT&T":


The full list of predeclared entities includes &amp; ("&"), &lt; ("<"), &gt; (">"), &apos; ("'"), and &quot; (""") ��" the last two are useful for escaping delimiters inside attribute values. If more entities need to be declared, this is done in the document's DTD, which is not demonstrated in this example, for brevity.

Numeric character references look like entities, but instead of a name, they contain the "#" character followed by a number between the ampersand and the semicolon. The number (in decimal or hexadecimal) represents a Unicode code point, and is typically used to represent characters that are not directly encodable, such as an Arabic character in an ASCII-encoded document. The ampersand in the "AT&T" example could also be escaped like this (decimal 38 is the Unicode value for "&"):


There are many more rules necessary to be sure of writing well-formed XML documents, such as the exact characters allowed in an XML name, but this quick tour provides the basics necessary to read and understand most XML documents.

Correctness in an XML document

For an XML document to be correct, it must be:

Well-formed documents

An XML document is text, a sequence of characters. The specification requires support for Unicode encodings UTF-8 and UTF-16 (UTF-32 is not mandatory). The use of other non-Unicode based encodings, such as ISO-8859, is admitted and is indeed widely used and supported.

A well-formed document must conform to the following rules, among others:

Element names are case-sensitive. For example, the following is a well-formed matching pair

<Step> ... </Step>

whereas this is not

<Step> ... </step>

The careful choice of names for XML elements will convey the meaning of the data in the markup. This increases human readability while retaining the rigor needed for software parsing.

Choosing meaningful names implies the semantics of elements and attributes to a human reader without reference to external documentation. However, this can lead to verbosity, which complicates authoring and increases file size.

Valid documents

An XML document that complies with a particular schema, in addition to being well-formed, is said to be valid.

An XML schema is a description of a type of XML document, typically expressed in terms of constraints on the structure and content of documents of that type, above and beyond the basic constraints imposed by XML itself. A number of standard and proprietary XML schema languages have emerged for the purpose of formally expressing such schemas, and some of these languages are XML-based, themselves.

Before the advent of generalised data description languages such as SGML and XML, software designers had to define special file formats or small languages to share data between programs. This required writing detailed specifications and special-purpose parsers and writers.

XML's regular structure and strict parsing rules allow software designers to leave parsing to standard tools, and since XML provides a general, data model-oriented framework for the development of application-specific languages, software designers need only concentrate on the development of rules for their data, at relatively high levels of abstraction.

Well-tested tools exist to validate an XML document "against" a schema: the tool automatically verifies whether the document conforms to constraints expressed in the schema. Some of these validation tools are included in XML parsers, and some are packaged separately.

Other usages of schemas exist: XML editors, for instance, can use schemas to support the editing process.


The oldest schema format for XML is the Document Type Definition (DTD), inherited from SGML. While DTD support is ubiquitous due to its inclusion in the XML 1.0 standard, it is seen as limited for the following reasons:

XML Schema

A newer XML schema language, described by the W3C as the successor of DTDs, is XML Schema, or more informally referred to in terms of the initialism for XML Schema instances, XSD (XML Schema Definition). XSDs are far more powerful than DTDs in describing XML languages. They use a rich datatyping system, allow for more detailed constraints on an XML document's logical structure, and are required to be processed in a more robust validation framework. Additionally, XSDs use an XML based format, which makes it possible to use ordinary XML tools to help process them, although WXS (W3C XML Schema) implementations require much more than just the ability to read XML.

Criticisms of WXS include the following:


Another popular schema language for XML is RELAX NG. Initially specified by OASIS, RELAX NG is now also an ISO international standard (as part of DSDL). It has two formats: an XML based syntax and a non-XML compact syntax. The compact syntax aims to increase readability and writability, but since there is a well-defined way to translate compact syntax to the XML syntax and back again by means of James Clark's Trang conversion tool, the advantage of using standard XML tools is not lost. Compared to XML Schema, RELAX NG has a simpler definition and validation framework, making it easier to use and implement. It also has the ability to use any datatype framework on a plug-in basis; for example, a RELAX NG schema author can require values in an XML document to conform to definitions in XML Schema Datatypes.

Other schema languages

Some schema languages not only describe the structure of a particular XML format but also offer limited facilities to influence processing of individual XML files that conform to this format. DTDs and XSDs both have this ability; they can for instance provide attribute defaults. RELAX NG intentionally does not provide these facilities.

Displaying XML on the web

Extensible Stylesheet Language (XSL) is a supporting technology that describes how to format or transform the data in an XML document. The document is changed to a format suitable for browser display. The process is similar to applying a CSS to an HTML document for rendering.

Without using CSS or XSL, a generic XML document is rendered differently in different web browsers. Browsers like Internet Explorer and Mozilla allow viewing of generic XML document similar to directory structure, e.g. expanding or collapsing a subtree. In order to allow CSS styling, the XML document must include a special reference to a style sheet:

<?xml-stylesheet type="text/css" href="myStyleSheet.css"?>

This is different from the HTML way to apply a stylesheet, which uses the <link> element.

For XSL Transformations (XSLT), this is also very similar:

<?xml-stylesheet type="text/xsl" href="transform.xsl"?>

Client-side XSLT is not supported in Opera.

While browser-based XML rendering develops, the alternative is conversion into HTML or PDF or other formats on the server. Programs like Cocoon process an XML file against a stylesheet (and can perform other processing as well) and send the output back to the user's browser without the user needing to be aware of what has been going on in the background.

XML extensions

Processing XML files

SAX and DOM are APIs widely used to process XML data. SAX is used for serial processing whereas DOM is used for random-access processing. Another form of XML Processing API is data binding, where XML data is made available as a strongly typed programming language data structure, in contrast to the DOM. Example data binding systems are the Java Architecture for XML Binding (JAXB) [1] and the Strathclyde Novel Architecture for Querying XML (SNAQue) [2].

A filter in the Extensible Stylesheet Language (XSL) family can transform an XML file for displaying or printing.

The native file format of and AbiWord is XML. Some parts of Microsoft Office 11 will also be able to edit XML files with a user-supplied schema (but not a DTD), and on June 2, 2005 Microsoft announced that, by late 2006 all the files created by users of its Office suite of software will be formatted with web-centered XML specifications. There are dozens of other XML editors available.

Versions of XML

There are two current versions of XML. The first, XML 1.0, was initially defined in 1998. It has undergone minor revisions since then, without being given a new version number, and is currently in its third edition, as published on February 4, 2004. It is widely implemented and still recommended for general use. The second, XML 1.1, was initially published on the same day as XML 1.0 Third Edition. It contains features ��" some contentious ��" that are intended to make XML easier to use for certain classes of users (mainframe programmers, mainly). XML 1.1 is not very widely implemented and is recommended for use only by those who need its unique features.

XML 1.0 and XML 1.1 differ in the requirements of characters used for element names, attribute names etc.: XML 1.0 only allows characters which are defined in Unicode 2.0, which includes most world scripts, but excludes scripts which only entered in a later Unicode version, such as Mongolian, Cambodian, Amharic, Burmese, etc.. XML 1.1 only disallows certain control characters, which means that any other character can be used, even if it is not defined in the current version of Unicode.

It should be noted here that the restriction present in XML 1.0 only applies to element/attribute names: both XML 1.0 and XML 1.1 allow for the use of full Unicode in the content itself. Thus XML 1.1 is only needed if in addition to using a script added after Unicode 2.0 you also wish to write element and attribute names in that script.

Other minor changes between XML 1.0 and XML 1.1 are that control characters are now allowed to be included but only when escaped, and two special Unicode line break characters are included, which must be treated as whitespace.

XML 1.0 documents are well-formed XML 1.1 documents with one exception: XML documents that contain unescaped C1 control characters are now malformed: this is because XML 1.1 requires the C1 control characters to be escaped with numeric character references.

There are also discussions on an XML 2.0, although it remains to be seen if such will ever come about. XML-SW (SW for skunk works), written by one of the original developers of XML, contains some proposals for what an XML 2.0 might look like: elimination of DTDs from syntax, integration of namespaces, XML Base and XML Information Set (infoset) into the base standard.

The World Wide Web Consortium also has a XML Binary Characterization Working Group doing preliminary research into use cases and properties for a binary encoding of the XML infoset. The working group is not chartered to produce any official standards. Since XML is by definition text-based, ITU-T and ISO are using the name Fast Infoset for their own binary infoset to avoid confusion (see ITU-T Rec. X.891 | ISO/IEC 24824-1).

See also


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