Here be (XML) dragons

Spoiler alert: if you like to learn things the hard way, don’t follow this link. It points to a clear description of all the problems, frustrations, disillusions and “ah ah!” moments that are ahead of you as you start to use XML and grow into an expert.

If, on the other hand, you like to be fully prepared and informed when you choose a technology and if you don’t mind sacrificing some adventure and excitement in the process, then you owe it to yourself to read Erik Wilde and Robert Glushko’s XML Fever article. Even if you already consider yourself an XML expert. Especially if you do.

I knew I would like it when I read this in the introduction:

Advanced strains of XML fever often take hold after exposure to the proliferation of more complex and esoteric XML-based technologies layered on top of it. These advanced diseases are harder to catch, but they are also harder to remedy because people who have caught these advanced strains tend to congregate with others with the same diseases and they are continually reinfecting each other.

Oh yes they do. And they speak with such authority that they infect others around them. People who don’t even understand these “more complex and esoteric XML-based technologies” end up being convinced of their magical properties and the need to use them.

I am not going to attempt to summarize the article because it is too tightly packed with great content to be summarized without being butchered. The “tree trauma” section alone could probably save the world billions of dollars in lost productivity if it was widely read.  I’ll just quote a few sections to motivate you to go read the whole thing.

Tree tremors. Whereas tree trauma (discussed earlier) is a basic strain of XML fever caused by the various flavors of trees in XML technologies, tree tremors are a more serious condition afflicting victims trying to manage data in XML that is not inherently tree-structured. The most common causes are data models requiring nontree graph structures and document models needing overlapping structures. In both cases, mapping these models to XML’s tree model results in XML structures that cannot conveniently represent the application-level model.

(…)

The choice of schema languages, however, is more often determined by available tool support and acquired habits than by a thorough analysis of what would be the most appropriate language.

(…)

Triple shock. While RDF itself is simple, large datasets easily contain millions of triples (for truly large datasets this can go up to billions), and managing and querying such a big dataset can become a considerable challenge. If the schema of these large datasets is simple, but ontology overkill has set in and it has been reformulated as an ontology, handling this dataset may become considerably harder, without any immediate benefit.

This is true not just for RDF (a graph model that can be serialized in XML) but for any non-tree model that can be serialized in XML (which is to say any model one can think of). Including every graph model.

Maybe it would help if the article stated more clearly that it’s ok to serialize such a model as XML (e.g. for transmission) as long as you don’t process it (at the application level) as XML. As long as it gets accessed using an API and concepts that are aligned with the semantics of the model.

Imagine that you are receiving an RDF dataset over the wire. You could (if your app runs on the network card rather than in CPU) process it as a bunch of electrical impulses, but that wouldn’t be very convenient. You could process it as a bunch of bits, but that’s still hard. You could process it as a character stream but that’s not that much better. You could process it as XML but that’s still no great. Or you could process it as RDF triplets and be home on time to have dinner with your family. It’s not the fact that it is represented as XML at some point that’s the problem, it’s the fact that your application processes it as XML. Said in another way, just because it makes sense to store it or to send it over the network in XML doesn’t mean that you have to process it as XML in your application.

There is at least one more problem (not covered by the article) that people will eventually run into. You’d think that XML technologies are a consistent and complementary set. Not true. The lack of consistency is illustrated by the “tree trauma” section of the article. But there is also a complementarity problem, in the sense that there are large gaps between the specifications, as anyone who has tried to serialize an XPath nodeset has found out.

As the article points out, all this doesn’t mean that XML is bad or useless. XML technologies can be very useful, but for not for all tasks.

3 Comments

Filed under Everything, Graph query, Modeling, Query, RDF, Specs, Standards, Tech, XPath, XQuery

3 Responses to Here be (XML) dragons

  1. Thanks a lot for the positive review of our article! And since you seemed to be missing one thing in our discussion of XML, namely the fact that XML might not always be an appropriate representation for data models, we have quickly written a follow-up article, “Document Design Matters”, which will be published in the October edition of CACM.

    Just kidding about the just-in-time-writing, of course, but we did write that article and it will be published in October and if you don’t want to wait, a preprint version is available at http://dret.net/netdret/docs/wilde-cacm2008-document-design-matters in the same old-school vi-edited HTML/CSS style. Hope you like this one as well!

  2. Thanks for the pointer to the new paper Erik. I like it (and agree with its content) but I don’t see it as as major a contribution as your “XML Fever” paper. In the SOAP world, the fallacy of assuming that an XML serialization magically gives you a robust and widely re-usable API (a.k.a the “loose coupling” buzzword) has been pretty widely debunked. Especially by the Alpine paper in the case where the system model is based on the Java object model. Of course the fact that it has been debunked doesn’t mean that the lesson has actually been learned…

    What I think your paper does, in this context, is illustrate and explain this phenomenon in a more general way (rather than focusing on the shortcomings of java2wsdl). This is useful and needed.

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