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What is an XML Parser?

Many different website platforms use data stored into an XML document - which can then be sent around the web and interpreted by an XML Parser into a format which can then generate the HTML and CSS to render a web page.

About XML and What Parsing Is

XML stands for (eXtensible Markup Language) - which represents an entire method of data control, but commonly can be found as a type of file, .XML, which can be interpreted by a web application XML Parser as a way to customize the content for a particular user.

XML is a type of data encapsulation, and other, similar formats exist such as YAML and JSON. XML is frequently used in the ASP.NET applications, as well as with PHP and Perl, but any language with the right library can function as a Parser and interpret the data in such a way as to populate the content of a webpage through the Document Object Model (DOM).

An XML parser will receive data in the form that looks like this - where each bracketed word contains what is called an XML element:

<CATALOG>
<CD>
<TITLE>Empire Burlesque</TITLE>
<ARTIST>Bob Dylan</ARTIST>
<COUNTRY>USA</COUNTRY>
<COMPANY>Columbia</COMPANY>
<PRICE>10.90</PRICE>
<YEAR>1985</YEAR>
</CD>
<CD>
<TITLE>Hide your heart</TITLE>
<ARTIST>Bonnie Tyler</ARTIST>
<COUNTRY>UK</COUNTRY>
<COMPANY>CBS Records</COMPANY>
<PRICE>9.90</PRICE>
<YEAR>1988</YEAR>

In this example, you have two "CD" objects, each with a set of attributes which can be interpreted by a web application. So if a user did a search for a type of CD's - the query might run, and send an XML file back, which could be interpreted on the user's computer to populate an HTML table with data stored in each of the XML fields.

Title Artist Country Company Price Year
Empire Burlesque Bob Dylan USA Columbia $10.90 1985
Hide your heart Bonnie Tyler UK CBS Records $9.90 1988

The interpreter converts tagged information into a format which renders onto the page. This doesn't have to be a table, it could be in literally any format desired by the site developer. It could populate sentence content into a longer paragraph: In the year 1985, the artist Bob Dylan released an album called "Empire Burlesque" which was distributed by Columbia at the price of $10.90. How the information is displayed is entirely up to how the developer uses the interpreter and what they want to do with the data.

Very often, the data itself is not stored permanently in an XML file. Instead, and XML file might be generated from a relational database like Microsoft SQL or MySQL. For popular site services like Wordpress - an XML file is generated from stored MySQL records and sent to the web server where it is converted into readable text and streamed to the reader's DOM as HTML.

Similarly, Wordpress post entries can be either exported or imported as XML files. Migrating information from one system to another can be done with XML, it is a powerful way to exchange information over the web, and has no preference for which system receives and manipulates the data inside.

Available XML Parsers

It should first be noted, that all modern browsers have XML-parsing support built in automatically. The XML parser converts into an XML document which is then manipulated in the browser's DOM, generally with JavaScript. Typically though, the XML is controlled by the application server, and static or dynamic HTML is sent to the user based on input criteria.

So for each programming language and for many web platforms, there exists XML parsers that deal with the element bindings and converts them into useable code objects for constructing pages, here's just a few examples:

  • XML Parser for PHP - by including the parser and the libxml extention, PHP can be made to create a custom XML parser which handles elements and manipulates namespace declarations.
  • Class XmlParserin Groovy - a helper class which can split XML into node instances for handling XML at a simple level.
  • jQuery.parseXML() - with the jQuery library for Javascript, a huge toolset exists that allows an XML string to be converted into a jQuery object, which can then be used with any Javascript logic desired.
  • XmlReader Class - for use in the ASP.Net framework, either through C# or Visual Basic. The XmlReader class has dozens of properties and methods for controlling inbound XML.

Nearly any popular language should have some means of interpreting XML. For more obscure languages, a parser can be written from scratch, and it would require some use of regular expressions and application of compiler theory. The function behind any of these readers is to simply convert a named XML element into useable code objects that can be used to modify the content of a page or change a configuration status.

Hosting for XML Parsers

Since any language or platform will have an XML parser at some level of the code, the hosting platform matters relatively little. By definition, every web host exists to send HTTP requests between a client and a server - with very few outdated exceptions, any web host will have support for applications which can handle XML. Where things can get tricky is sending data and files over websockets using the XMPP (Extensible Messaging and Presense Protocol) - however, that is a somewhat related but much deeper and more complex technology which is useful for creating live data streams.

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