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CORBA and XML; conflict or cooperation?

Every now and then the computer industry gets swept up in a wave of enthusiasm for some new Silver Bullet that's apparently going to solve everyone's problems overnight. Actually, these days the wild surges of millennial euphoria seem to come at annual intervals. Usually the technology in question actually is a step forward, able to solve real problems better or faster than was possible before. However, as word spreads about the power of the new technique some people will inevitably try to apply it to the wrong problems. It's a bit like the enthusiasm for microwave ovens when they first became cheap enough for anyone to buy; one could buy microwave cookbooks explaining how to use them to cook everything from a complete Christmas dinner to a soufflé. Fortunately, after a while sanity returned, and people now use microwaves for what they're best at, and go back to making toast in the toaster or roasting the turkey in the oven, just as they always did, because they're the best tools for the job.

The same is true in the computer business, and as with cooking gadgets, it's important to get the balance right. Pointing out that you shouldn't try to make soup in your bread maker doesn't in anyway diminish the fact that it's very, very good at making bread. In just the same way, this paper aims to put the current enthusiasm for XML in perspective without in any way detracting from or criticising XML, which is an excellent tool for job for which it was designed. However, the question "Will XML replace middleware?" is being asked so often at the moment that it seems appropriate to pen a few words on what applications XML is (and is not) suited for, and in particular why it isn't going to replace middleware solutions like CORBA (or vice versa, for that matter). To do this properly, we have to start with a little history. So, are you sitting comfortably? Then we'll begin.

A Little History
XML stands for eXtensible Markup Language. It's a simplified subset of a previous markup language standard called SGML (Standard Generalised Markup Language), and was devised by a committee of the World Wide Web consortium in response to the need for a generalisation of HTML, the Hypertext Markup Language used for formatting Web pages.

SGML was conceived as a successor to document markup languages like TeX, troff, and nroff. These languages add formatting directives to plain text to tell typesetters, laser printer and other high quality output devices how to format the text in various fonts of different sizes and styles. When they first appeared in the 1960s, markup languages were designed to be written by hand; one would use a text editor to create a plain text document, adding in the occasional markup directive to indicate that some piece of text should be printed in bold, or centred, or whatever. Of course, it was important to make sure there was no confusion between the content and the markup directives, so each family of markup languages had a set of conventions for separating them. For instance, in nroff and troff the directives are on lines beginning with a full stop (or period), while TeX begins directives with a "\" character.

As use of markup languages became more widespread, macros were added as a convenience feature. If headings in your document are to be displayed in centred bold 14 point Helvetica, it would soon get tedious to write four directives to change font, size, weight and justification for each heading. With a macro facility one can define a single command to do all this. Better yet, if you later decide your headings should be in Zapf Chancery instead, changing the definition of the "heading" macro automatically does the job everywhere you've used the macro.

Structure vs. presentation

Pretty soon authors creating complex documents found themselves maintaining large libraries of macro definitions, and never using raw formatting directives in the documents at all. Unix man pages are a good example - they're defined using the "man" macros for the nroff text formatter, making it easy to create manual pages with a consistent appearance.

During the 70s and 80s it became clear that the best way to use markup was by formalising this approach; create a set of directives for describing the structure of the document as sections, subsections, bulleted items and so on, then separately define how to format those structural elements on paper. By keeping these two kinds of definitions (of structure and presentation) separate, altering the formatting of the documents or even re-using the content in new documents could be a completely mechanical process. Furthermore, automatic tools can process the documents to do jobs like building a contents page by listing all the headings. If your job is maintaining the many tons of paper documentation for (say) a commercial airliner, representing the logical structure of the document in this way is no small advantage, since it allows the same source documents to be used to deliver information in a number of different formats. Again, Unix man pages are a good example; when the manuals are printed on a high resolution printer, using the same source text with a different library of (troff) macro definitions automatically creates book-quality manual pages rather than the screen-formatted pages generated from the same sources by nroff.


SGML was designed by ISO (the International Standards Organisation) as a new standardised markup language that enshrined this separation of structure and presentation. In order to apply SGML one creates a Document Type Definition (DTD) that defines the set of valid tags for the documents being created, and uses DSSSL (the ISO-standardised Document Style Semantics and Specification Language that accompanies SGML) to define how to display text labelled with those tags. Between them the DTD and DSSSL definitions fill the same rôle as the macro library in older markup languages.

SGML has achieved limited success in large organisations that maintain very large documentation sets, but the SGML standard alone is over 500 pages, and the accompanying DSSSL (rhymes with "whistle") standard is also rather large and uses a syntax based on the Scheme programming language, which some people find hard to learn. Many users lack the will or resources to climb the SGML learning curve.

Meanwhile, at CERN in Geneva, Tim Berners-Lee was creating a simple SGML DTD to define a few document structure tags like "heading" and "numbered list" for defining the structure of documentation to be shared between nuclear physicists over computer networks. This simple application of SGML, called HTML (HyperText Markup Language) didn't have any accompanying way of defining the appearance of documents - that was provided by settings in the Web browser used to display the HTML document. The original HTML specification was simply a conforming SGML DTD describing the syntax of HTML documents, with the added wrinkle that one of the tags defined a way to hyperlink to another HTML document.

HTML has, of course, been much more widely used than SGML, but as its use spread, two problems became apparent. The first was that HTML defined only the structure of Web page elements, with no associated way of specifying their presentation, so the Web page designers had no way of controlling exactly how their creations looked. As Web pages became more sophisticated, with more graphic content, this became a serious problem, and ad-hoc extensions were added to HTML to allow direct control of presentation by specifying fonts, font sizes, text colours, and so on (which of course completely violates the original SGML design principles). At the same time, because the HTML had one fixed DTD, document designers had no way to create new structure tags to represent document structure in particular HTML applications. Without either an extension mechanism (like macros) or a way of defining and controlling presentation, the original HTML neatly fell between two stools, and short-term product development pressures have inevitably pushed it towards being a presentation markup language which provides the Web page designer with detailed control over how his/her document appears, rather than representing its logical structure. While this deals effectively with the primary purpose of Web pages, which is to be viewed by people using Web browsers, the increasing size and ubiquity of the Web is creating an increasing demand for Web pages that can be manipulated by Web-scanning "robots" such as the search engines which "read" and catalogue millions of Web pages daily. It became clear that the lack of structure encoding threatened to slow down the development of the Web.

Enter XML

One solution to the problem of HTML's lack of structure would simply have been to step up one level and use SGML and DSSSL directly on the Web. However, the complexity of the ISO standards mitigated against this; something simpler was needed. In mid-1996 Jon Bosak, an influential member of the SGML community, persuaded W3C to set up an SGML Editorial Review Board and Working Group, to define a simplified, extensible subset of SGML designed for the Web. The final XML 1.0 specification was published by W3C in February 1998, and will be complemented by two further specifications currently being prepared; XLL (the eXtensible Linking Language, for defining how XML documents are linked together) and XSL (the eXtensible Style Language, for defining how XML markup is formatted for display).

What should XML be used for?

XML is being enthusiastically embraced in many application domains because there are a lot of applications that need to store data intended for human use, but which it will be useful to manipulate by machine. One example might be storing and displaying mailing list information. Defining and using an XML DTD for storing address data makes it comparatively easy to write applications to (say) generate address labels without inadvertently printing the phone number in the postcode field. There are a large number of initiatives to replace home-grown markup formats with applications of XML - examples include Bioinformatic Sequence Markup Language (BSML), Weather Observation Markup Format (OMF), the Extensible Log Format (XLF - a markup format for logging information generated by Web servers), and others for legal documents, real estate information and many more. In each case the working group simply needs to define a DTD that defines the tags and how they can be legally combined. These DTDs can then be used with XML parsers and other XML tools to rapidly create applications to process and display the stored information in whatever way is required. Of course, there are still standardisation issues to be addressed, such as who controls the libraries of tag definitions, how to manage version control in those libraries, how to manage using multiple libraries simultaneously (especially when tag names collide). But nevertheless using XML for these applications is a lot simpler than creating a completely new markup language from scratch every time, with a lot more scope for re-using the work of others.

One important point to note is that nowhere in the XML DTDs is there a way of specifying what an XML tag "means", just where it can be positioned in relationship to other tags, and (using XSL) how to format it on a display. Creators of XML DTDs naturally usually choose short, descriptive names for their tags, just as PC users choose short descriptive names for their files, so it's very appealing to think that XML files are "self-describing", because to an English speaker it's intuitive that an <address> tag labels an address or a <date-of-birth> tag labels a person's birthday. However, this is just the intuitive "meaning" we assign to the terms by assuming that the creator of the DTD used these words in the way we would expect; if the creator of the DTD had instead specified his tags in a foreign language or using some private code we'd be none the wiser. XML files are in fact just as "self-describing" as a C program or a database schema.

What shouldn't XML be used for?

The common thread in XML applications is that the document content is intended to be read by people. Because XML is intended for marking up human-readable, textual data, it is by the same token a rather inefficient way of storing information that only ever needs to be machine-readable. The embedded XML tags provide a way to extract or format particular parts of the content, but the content itself will not usually be interpreted by the computers, only by the ultimate human user - which is why it makes sense to store it in human-readable form. Of course, it's perfectly possible to write parsers to read in (say) formatted floating point numbers from an XML file so that they can be processed, but it's relatively time-consuming, and the XML file would be relatively much larger than one written in native floating-point format.

When the requirement is to exchange data between cooperating computer applications, there are other, more efficient ways of defining and storing the data. Traditionally these definitions of data formats for machine communication are called Interface Definition Languages (IDLs) because they're used for defining the interfaces between cooperating computer applications. In contrast to markup, which is used for the long-term storage of human-readable data, IDLs define the smaller packets of transient, machine readable data that are exchanged between the components of a distributed application when some particular event occurs.

Interface Definition Languages are the most visible components of a class of software known as "middleware", that class of software which is neither part of an operating system nor an application, but is used to link together the various parts of a distributed application spread across geographically separated computers. By their very nature, successful middleware solutions blend into the background, making few impositions on the users, designers and programmers of a distributed system. Today's most widely-used middleware packages all implement the CORBA (Common Object Request Broker Architecture) specification, published by the OMG (Object Management Group).

Although IDL is the most visible aspect of middleware, there's much more to it than that; middleware solutions like CORBA also provide security to authenticate users and control access to resources, error handling to gracefully handle the failures that are inevitable in a distributed computing system, and a host of other support functions to keep computer networks running smoothly. In these sorts of distributed computing applications the data are transient, transferred between computers, often not permanently stored anywhere and probably never seen by human eyes. To use XML as the data encoding in such applications is less efficient that the compact, native machine representations used to marshal data in (for instance) the IIOP wire format used by CORBA implementations. Of course, if the requirement is to store data for the long term and extract human-readable summaries and reports then XML would be the more appropriate medium - but for the data exchanges that tie together the components of a distributed system , using XML would be expensive and pointless.


XML and middleware are complimentary technologies. XML is intended for the storage and manipulation of text making up humane-readable documents like Web pages, while middleware solutions like CORBA tie together cooperating computer applications exchanging transient data that will probably never be directly read by anyone. Neither of these technologies will replace the other, but instead they will increasingly be used together - not least in the specifications published by OMG, the body responsible for the CORBA specification. [an error occurred while processing this directive]

Last updated on 12/16/2013


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