31. Program to Standard APIs

Parsers, DOM implementations, XSLT engines, and other XML-related tools vary widely in speed, efficiency, specification conformance, and bugginess. Sometimes these characteristics are innate characteristics of the code and the skill of the programmers who wrote it. Other times the relative quality depends on the environment. For instance, early versions of the Xerces XML parser for Java, written by IBM, tended to perform very well on IBM's Java virtual machine and very poorly on Sun's Java virtual machine, while the Crimson parser written by the Sun team had almost precisely opposite performance characteristics. And still other times, the relative performance of tools depends on the documents they process. For instance, some DOM implementations are tuned for relatively small document sizes while others are tuned for very large documents. Benchmarks based primarily on large or small documents can come to very different conclusions about the same tools.

One of the best ways to improve performance is to try out different libraries on your code and pick the one that performs the best for your application in your environment. However, this only works if you haven't tied yourself too closely to one parser's API. In SAX2 and DOM3 it's normally possible to write completely parser independent code. Do so. For Java, JAXP extends this capability to DOM2. Always prefer implementation independent APIs like DOM and SAX to parser dependent APIs like the Xerces Native Interface or ElectricXML.

A few APIs such as XOM and JDOM fall somewhere in the middle. They allow you to choose a different parser, but not a different implementation of their core classes. If parsing is the bottleneck, this can be helpful. However, if the bottleneck lies elsewhere, for instance an inefficient use of strings that bedeviled one JDOM beta, then you're pretty much stuck with it.

Unfortunately, not all standard APIs are as complete as you might wish, so you may sometimes need to tie yourself to a specific implementation. If this proves necessary, try to clearly delineate the implementation dependent parts of your code, and keep those parts as small as possible.

Let us now investigate the details of writing implementation independent code with different APIs and tools.

  1. SAX

SAX enables you to write code that is completely independent of the underlying parser. The major issue is that you use the XMLReaderFactory.createXMLReader() method to construct new instances of the XMLReader interface rather than calling the constructor directly. For example, this is the correct way to load a SAX2 parser:

XMLReader parser = XMLReaderFactory.createXMLReader();

This is the wrong way to load a SAX parser:

XMLReader parser = new org.apache.xerces.parsers.SAXParser();

The first statement loads the parser named by the org.xml.sax.driver system property. This is easy to adjust at runtime. The second always loads Xerces, and can't be changed without recompiling. Both statements may actually create the same object, but the first leaves open the possibility of using a different parser, without even recompiling the code.

You can hard code the parser you want as a string if you really want to rely on a specific parser:

XMLReader parser = XMLReaderFactory.createXMLReader("org.apache.xerces.parsers.SAXParser");

Ideally, however, the string containing the fully package qualified class name should be part of a resource bundle or other configuration file that is separate from the code itself, so it can be modified without recompiling.


This doesn't work quite as well in other languages as it does in Java. For instance C and C++ bind early rather than late so you probably need to recompile to switch to a different parser. Furthermore, although SAX is fairly common in C and C++ parsers, there is no official standard for it, so there are often subtle differences between implementations. Editing code may be required. Languages like Python and Perl fall somewhere in between Java and C++ in terms of ease of switching parsers. This doesn't reflect any fundamental limitations in these languages, just that the programmers who wrote the first parsers and defined SAX preferred to work in Java. Nonetheless, even if you're not working in Java, you should still endeavor to write code that's as parser independent as possible in order to minimize the amount of work you have to do when swapping out one parser for another.

End Note

Furthermore, unless you have very good reasons to limit the choice of parser, you should always provide a fallback to the default parser if you fail to load a specific parser by name. Exactly which parsers are available can vary a lot from environment to environment, especially in Java 1.3 and earlier. For example,

XMLReader parser;
try {
  parser =
catch (SAXException ex) { // Xerces not found
  parser = XMLReaderFactory.createXMLReader();

As long as you stick to the core classes in the org.xml.sax and org.xml.sax.helpers packages, your code should be reasonably portable to any parser that implements SAX2. And although technically optional, every SAX2 parser I've ever encountered also implements the optional interfaces in the org.xml.sax.ext packages; that is, LexicalHandler and DeclHandler.

One area in which SAX parsers do differ is support for various features and properties. Although SAX2 defines over a dozen standard features and properties, only two must be implemented by all conformant processors (http://xml.org/sax/features/namespaces and http://xml.org/sax/features/namespace-prefixes). The others are all optional, and some parsers do omit them. If you attempt to set or read a feature or property which the parser does not understand, it will throw a SAXNotRecognizedException. If it recognizes the feature or property name, but cannot set that feature/property to the requested value, it will throw a SAXNotSupportedException. Both are subclasses of SAXException. Be sure to catch these, and respond appropriately.

Sometimes, the feature or property is optional for processing, and you can just ignore a failure to set it. For example, if you attempt to set a LexicalHandler object and fail, you may not be able to round-trip the document. However, you'll still get all the information you really care about:

try {
                      new MyLexicalHandler());
catch (SAXNotRecognizedException ex) { 
  // no big deal; continue normal processing

Other times, you may want to give up completely. For example, if your code depends on interning of names for proper operations--for instance, it compares element names using the == operator--then you'll want to make sure that the http://xml.org/sax/features/string-interning property is true, and not continue if it isn't:

try {
  parser.setFeature("http://xml.org/sax/features/string-interning", true);
catch (SAXException ex) { 

And still other times, you may want to take some intermediate course. For example, if the parser doesn't support validation, you might try to load a different parser that does:

XMLReader parser = XMLReaderFactory.createXMLReader();
try {
  parser.setFeature("http://xml.org/sax/features/validation", true);
catch (SAXNotRecognizedException ex) {
  try { // Load a parser that is known to validate
    parser = 
     parser.setFeature("http://xml.org/sax/features/validation", true);
  catch (SAXException se) {
    // Xerces is not in the classpath
// continue with parsing and validating...

In all cases, however, you should not assume that you can actually set the feature or property you're trying to set. Be prepared for the attempt to fail, and respond accordingly. This will help your code either work properly or fail gracefully no matter which parser is used.

Another area in which parsers differ is support for SAX 2.0.1 This minor upgrade to SAX adds Locator2, Attributes2, and EntityResolver2 interfaces that fill a few small holes in SAX 2.0. These interfaces are not yet broadly supported (and arguably cannot be supported in a JAXP-compliant environment). Thus, you need to be more careful when using them. However, you can test for availability before using them using instanceof. For example, this code prints the encoding if and only if the Locator passed to setDocumentLocator() is a Locator2 object:

public void setDocumentLocator(Locator locator) { 
  if (locator instanceof Locator2) {
    Locator2 locator2 = (Locator2) locator;
    System.out.println("Encoding is " + locator2.getEncoding());

Alternately, you can simply check the values of the http://xml.org/sax/features/use-locator2, http://xml.org/sax/features/use-attributes2, and http://xml.org/sax/features/use-entity-resolver2 features. If the parser supports these SAX 2.0.1 classes, then these features will have the value true. However, if it does not support them, reading these URLs will probably throw a SAXNotRecognizedException rather than returning false. This makes them a little more cumbersome than simply using instanceof.

  1. DOM

DOM Level 3 should finally make it possible to write completely implementation independent DOM code, at least in Java. However, in DOM Level 2 some crucial parts of DOM require parser dependent code, and in other languages this is likely to remain true in DOM Level 3. In particular, DOM2 defines no way to:

Everything else can be done with pure DOM, but these two operations require implementation-specific classes. For example, Xerces loads its DOMImplementation using a non-standard static method in the org.apache.xerces.dom.DOMImplementationImpl class:

DOMImplementation impl = DOMImplementationImpl.getDOMImplementation();

Parsing a document into a DOM tree with Xerces requires instantiating a non-standard DOMParser class through its constructor like so:

DOMParser parser = new DOMParser(); 
Document doc = parser.getDocument();

Other DOM implementations such as Crimson, GNU JAXP, and Oracle use different classes and patterns.

In Java, JAXP provides a partial solution for those DOM implementations that implement JAXP (which is most of the major DOM implementations for Java nowadays). The javax.xml.parsers.DOMBuilderFactory class can load a javax.xml.parsers.DOMBuilder object. This DOMBuilder object can parse a document or locate a DOMImplementation object:

DocumentBuilderFactory builderFactory = DocumentBuilderFactory.newInstance();
DocumentBuilder parser = builderFactory.newDocumentBuilder(); 
DOMImplementation impl = parser.getDOMImplementation();
Document doc = parser.parse("http://www.example.com");

The exact implementation loaded is read from the javax.xml.parsers.DocumentBuilderFactory Java system property. If this property is not set, then JAXP looks in the lib/jaxp.properties properties file in the JRE directory. If that fails to locate a parser, next JAXP looks for a META- INF/services/javax.xml.parsers.DocumentBuilderFactory file in all the JAR files in the classpath. Finally if that fails, then DocumentBuilderFactory.newInstance() returns a default implementation.

As with SAX parsers, you do have to worry a little about exactly which features the underlying implementation supports. However, for most applications the basic features shared by all conformant implementations suffice.

The second step in writing implementation independent DOM code is making sure you only use standard DOM methods. Many DOM implementations including Xerces's provide extra, useful methods in their implementation classes. Sometimes these methods can be very helpful and even let you do things that simply cannot be done via standard methods, such as changing or adding a document type declaration to a document. However, using any of these methods ties your code to that one implementation, binding it far more tightly than how you load the parser or the implementation. Implementation-specific methods can infect the entire design of your code, requiring you to completely redesign a program in order to move it to another implementation, not just changing a few lines here or there. Think very carefully about whether you're willing to lock yourself into a single implementation before doing this.

By far the worst offender here is the Microsoft DOM implementation in MSXML and .Net. While MSXML supports all the standard parts of DOM, it also includes many, many non-standard extensions. Worse yet, very little third-party documentation and almost no official Microsoft documentation bothers to note the difference between the standard parts and the Microsoft extensions. Most tutorials and sample code make very heavy use of the Microsoft extensions, even to the point where there's almost no standard DOM code left. (By contrast, the documentation for Xerces-J focuses almost exclusively on the standard DOM interfaces. The documentation for their non-standard extensions is relatively hidden, and few books discuss it. It is meant primarily for "maintainers and developers of the Xerces2 reference implementation", not for end users, and its existence is an open secret for the initiated.) In particular be wary of the following fields and methods that are very common in programs that use the MSXML DOM:

These are all non-standard Microsoft extensions to DOM, and using any of them effectively ties your program to MSXML such that it cannot be easily ported to other implementations.

One final thing to keep in mind: although with care you can swap one DOM implementation for another, you cannot generally mix and match different DOM implementations in the same program. For example, you cannot add a GNU JAXP Element object to a Xerces Document object. Internally, all DOM implementations I've encountered do make intimate use of the detailed implementation classes, rather than limiting themselves to the public interfaces. This may be necessary and even desirable for the implementation internals, but it is not an excuse for doing the same in the public code that lives above the interface.

  1. JDOM

There's only one implementation of JDOM, and JDOM is designed around classes rather than interfaces. Thus, some of the same issues that arise with DOM and SAX don't apply here. It's always been intended that you use the classes directly in JDOM. However, JDOM does not include its own parser. Instead it relies on an underlying SAX parser. By default JDOM ships with and uses Xerces, but this can be changed. Simply pass the fully package qualified name of the SAX XMLReader implementation class you want to use to the SAXBuilder constructor. For example,

SAXBuilder parser = new SAXBuilder("com.bluecast.xml.Piccolo");

This may speed up parsing a little and save some memory (Piccolo is quite bit more efficient than Xerces). However any improvement is limited to the actual parsing of the document. Everything after that, including building, manipulating, and serializing the object tree takes place with the same JDOM classes no matter which parser you used initially.

Whichever API you choose, try to stick to its well-documented parts. To the extent possible, use only those methods and classes that are part of the standard API. That way, if you do encounter performance problems or outright bugs, you'll have the opportunity to easily fix the problem by switching to a better implementation rather than having to adjust your processing avoid the issues.