Architecture





Architecture

According to the seminal book on software architecture, written by Shaw and Garlan [1996], software architecture "involves the description of elements from which systems are built, interactions among those elements, patterns that guide their composition, and constraints on these patterns. In general, a particular system is defined in terms of a collection of components and interactions among those components." What we're most concerned with here is what Shaw and Garlan refer to as the architectural pattern or style.

Style is the general model of how the system is composed and how the different parts interact with each other. You've probably run across object-oriented, layered, and client-server styles of software architecture. We'll use a style that should be familiar to you (especially if you do a lot of work from a UNIX shell prompt) but that you may not know by the name used here: pipe and filter.

The basic idea is that you have a number of different programs, or filters, that read input in one format, transform it, and produce output in a different format. The output of one filter is connected to the input of another via a pipe. The filters are independent of each other, with only the constraint that the output of one filter be useable as the input of the next. In our approach, the pipes are disk files or sets of files in directories, but they could just as easily be in-memory data structures, database tables, or something else. Figure shows the basic pipe and filter style.

1. Basic Pipe and Filter Style

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A modified pipe and filter style (Figure) allows the filters to accept input or parameters other than just the input files. This allows the filter programs to produce different types of output. In reality, most pipe and filter systems in use are of this modified style; ours is too.

2. Modified Pipe and Filter Style

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Want to build a system that converts CSV to XML? Easy—just use the CSV to XML Converter program as the filter (Figure).

3. CSV to XML Application

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You don't like the XML that this produces? You want to produce an XML file that conforms to your customer's invoice specification? No problem. Add the XSLT transformer to build a more general purpose application (Figure).

4. CSV to XML to XML Application

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Now let's say you have a customer (or maybe you're a consultant and your client has a customer) who wants to send you orders using the X12 EDI standard. The version of Peachtree Accounting you're using processes only CSV files, and you don't want to buy an EDI system for just this one application. We can easily build a system to solve this problem too (Figure).

5. EDI to XML to CSV Application

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By now it should be pretty obvious that you can take the building blocks here and make pretty much whatever pipe and filter system you might need. Once you think about it, the pipe and filter style is a very logical choice for the type of format conversion problems we're dealing with in this book. Even if you're a developer who wants to enable your product to work with XML, knowing that the XML your application reads or writes is probably going to live in this type of environment can help you make some better-informed design decisions.

Beyond our basic pipe and filter approach, it would be nice to have something that helps us build these specialized little pipe and filter applications. In Chapter 11 we'll put a lot of the pieces together and go over just how such a system might look.

Why Not Use XSLT for Everything?

There are two different opinions about using XSLT for non-XML transformations where the source or target is a format other than XML. One camp says that XSLT can and should be used for everything. The other camp says that XSLT is wonderful for transforming an XML document into a different flavor of XML document but that there are better ways to deal with non-XML formats.

So, why am I in the latter camp? It's an issue of using the right tool for the job. If you're camping and you forget an essential tool, you can open a can of beans with a hatchet or maybe even cut down a tree with your Swiss Army knife. But those aren't exactly the easiest ways to do things. It's the same way with XSLT. XSLT has a fairly concise language for identifying items in source XML documents and creating corresponding items in target XML documents. However, when dealing with other formats the language is not so elegant. For example, to parse an input fixed record length file it is necessary to use things like substring functions. Parsing an input CSV file requires repeated use of a search function to find the delimiter and then substring functions to isolate individual fields. Creating target documents in non-XML formats requires similar operations.

There are some drawbacks to using XSLT for everything. The most efficient design approach using just XSLT is to try to do everything with one XSLT stylesheet. In this approach the code that parses the input or formats the output is mixed up with the code that does the logical transformation between documents. By "logical" I mean correlating input fields to output fields, along with any manipulation or value conversions required. One example of a logical transformation is concatenating a person's first and last names into a single customer name. This approach of trying to do everything with a single stylesheet doesn't support modularity, reusability, understandability, or maintainability very well.

A less efficient approach that is somewhat more modular and reusable is to use two XSLT transformations. One transforms the non-XML format to or from XML, and the other performs the logical transformation of XML to XML. This approach is somewhat better than a single XSLT stylesheet that does everything. However, it is still hampered by a limitation in the XSLT 1.0 language that restricts it to generating just one output file per transformation. As we'll see in later chapters, several types of transformations require us to generate multiple XML documents from one non-XML input file. Some XSLT 1.0 processors include nonstandard functions that provide this functionality. There is discussion of supporting it in XSLT 1.1, but it isn't there yet as a standard. In addition, for more complex operations like dealing with EDI acknowledgments and keeping track of the documents exchanged with different trading partners, it is much more appropriate to use a programming language like Java, C, or C++ than XSLT.

An advantage of using a more conventional programming language for handling non-XML files is that we can implement a general purpose solution rather than a series of XSLT stylesheets that are each useful for only one particular file organization. In our general purpose solution fairly simple parameter files handle the differences in file organization. These files are themselves coded as simple XML documents.

In addition to these considerations, presenting the techniques for handling non-XML files with XML files is a good introduction to the type of XML programming that will be required to XML-enable legacy business applications. In other words, it's a good teaching tool.

I should mention one final caveat regarding XSLT. There are, of course, wide variations among different XSLT processors, but as a group they tend to have poorer performance than commercial EAI or EDI conversion utilities. XSLT, and therefore the architecture, is probably not well suited to production situations that need to handle large amounts of data in a short amount of time. However, earlier in the chapter I noted that in this book I assume that cost and portability are more important considerations than performance. XSLT fits the bill.

Two Implementations of the Architecture: Java and C++

In this book I present two different implementations of our architecture. Why? Basically, for reasons of platform independence and portability. However, I'm also doing it out of a pragmatic recognition that there isn't just one dominant programming language, and I want to be able to speak to both camps.

We can use an analogy to home building in order to understand the two implementations of a single software architecture. The analogy isn't exact, but there are enough high-level similarities between building houses and building software to serve our purpose.

When an architect designs a house, he or she first establishes the number and types of rooms that the client wants as well as the general characteristics. Then the architect develops a detailed floor plan with approximate room dimensions, locations of windows and fixtures, and so on. At this point the architect may not have decided yet on specific materials. The actual house could be constructed out of wood, brick, or even recycled tires; the materials will be selected during a second phase of home design. The first phase of home design corresponds to software architecture. Just as we could build two houses with the same floor plans but with different materials, we can implement a software architecture in two different languages.

So, this book presents implementations in Java and C++. The Java implementation uses the Sun Microsystems and Apache Foundation XML libraries, and the C++ implementation uses Microsoft's MSXML library.

Why Java and C++? Well, most applications these days are written in either Java or C++. Most environments in which those applications are run use standard Java or C++ libraries. "But," you say, "my legacy application is written in COBOL!" This gets to the bottom line of cheap, simple and easy. Reading (parsing), writing (serializing), and validating XML documents are not easy tasks. This is especially true in the case of validating against schemas written in the W3C XML Schema language. It takes a lot of complicated, hard-to-write, and hard-to-debug code to do such things. We don't want to write that code. We want to use libraries that someone else has written. And because we're concerned about portability and platform independence we would like to use standard libraries rather than proprietary approaches. These standard libraries are primarily object-oriented, which again makes them a good fit for Java and C++. In Chapter 12 I'll talk a bit more about some other alternatives, including some for procedural languages such as COBOL. However, our most important nonfunctional requirements point us to standard, object-oriented application programming interface (API) libraries.

Even with the standard API libraries there are implementation choices other than Java and C++. For example, Perl, Python, and Visual Basic all have fairly sophisticated XML support. Visual Basic even uses the same API library, MSXML, that we'll use for C++. The techniques discussed in the next two chapters on basic conversions involving CSV files and XML could be implemented in these languages. However, the more sophisticated conversions and utilities built later in the book are complex enough that these languages would not be appropriate. In addition, very few real applications are written in these languages. So, we'll keep our focus fairly limited and be concerned primarily with the Java and C++ implementations. However, the basic techniques will still be relevant if you want to cobble together some simple utilities using Perl or whatever. As I'll discuss shortly, the basic operations using the standard APIs are presented in pseudocode that is language independent. Even though I won't offer the specific Perl or Visual Basic syntax, you could still port the techniques fairly directly to these languages from the pseudocode design.

If you are an end user, you really don't care much whether the program is written in Java, C++, Perl, COBOL, ALGOL, or fuggly old IBM 360 Assembler. In this case, the types of libraries and utilities you can install and run in your environment dictate your choice of implementation. Java can run pretty much anywhere, so you may want to install the relevant Java libraries and filter programs. If you can't install things directly where your application is running, maybe you can hijack a PC networked to your application's box and install the conversion libraries and utilities there. In that case, the WIN32 C++ implementation might be a bit easier since there are fewer pieces to install.

Before wrapping up this section there are a few other developer-oriented issues we need to discuss. We've already decided that we're going to use a standard API library. Even with this restriction we still have a few choices. I have chosen to use the W3C's Document Object Model (the DOM). But before discussing why I'm using the DOM, let's look at what it is.

The Document Object Model

Like nearly all other basic XML technologies, the DOM is a creation of the W3C, which defines the DOM as:

a platform- and language-neutral interface that will allow programs and scripts to dynamically access and update the content, structure and style of documents. The document can be further processed and the results of that processing can be incorporated back into the presented page. [W3C 2002]

What does this mean? Basically, the DOM specifies a set of program routines, or an API. It is not itself an object; but similar to how Java does things, it specifies an interface to the object model, with that interface composed of a number of different methods. Since it is just a specification, there isn't any actual W3C-produced code. So, in general terms, why use the DOM? Again, the W3C says:

"Dynamic HTML" is a term used by some vendors to describe the combination of HTML, style sheets and scripts that allows documents to be animated. The W3C has received several submissions from members companies on the way in which the object model of HTML documents should be exposed to scripts. These submissions do not propose any new HTML tags or style sheet technology. The W3C DOM WG is working hard to make sure interoperable and scripting-language neutral solutions are agreed upon. [W3C 2002]

What does this really mean? It means they developed the DOM so that application programmers can have a standardized way to deal with documents. It is also notable that the DOM was developed first to deal with HTML documents and not XML documents. However, the XML world has embraced it wholeheartedly.

The hope was that if enough tool vendors (like Microsoft, Sun, Oracle, and so on) developed DOM implementations, application developers would have a fairly easy, standardized way to deal with documents programmatically. This has come to pass, and there are enough different implementations that porting HTML or XML code between implementations is a lot easier than it would have been if there were no DOM. The DOM also makes it fairly easy to talk about coding in a generic way; most of the XML processing logic discussed in the book's utilities is applicable to both C++ and Java environments.

The W3C has defined several different "levels" of the DOM. Level 1 was released in October 1998, Level 2 was released in November 2000, and Level 3 was still a working draft at the time of this book's preparation. Basically, each level has a few more features and a bit more functionality than the previous version. For the most part, we don't need to be too worried about the DOM level we're using. Both the C++ and Java libraries used in this book support Level 2, with a few additional features from Level 3.

Why Use the DOM?

We already agreed that we don't want to reinvent the wheel. So, from a programming perspective, the DOM fits the bill. However, it's not the only language-independent API we can use. There is one other predominate API, called SAX (Simple API for XML, not the musical instrument that John Coltrane and a certain past U.S. president played). SAX, like the DOM, specifies an interface that can be used to process XML documents in a somewhat platform-independent fashion. It doesn't matter a lot in practical terms since it's becoming customary for most XML libraries to support both, but the DOM is an "official" W3C Recommendation and SAX isn't.

How are the DOM and SAX different, and why have I chosen the DOM? The DOM handles a complete document as an object in memory, specifically a tree. SAX, on the other hand, is an event-driven API. It calls a specific method (via callbacks) for each type of XML construct it encounters as it reads in an XML instance document. The most important difference between the two APIs is that the DOM makes it fairly easy to build or manipulate a document in memory. Some SAX implementations offer ways to build documents, but there isn't a standard SAX approach. So, SAX is not as well suited in this respect. On the other hand, SAX is well suited to parsing very large XML documents that might cause performance problems (or even crashes) if we tried to read them into memory using the DOM. Since it's much simpler to use just one API if possible, I'm using the DOM in this book. I'll discuss this topic again in Chapter 12, but the choice of the DOM for this book's utilities will become more understandable as the overall design approach progresses.

I should note, though, that while the current versions of the DOM make it fairly easy to build and manipulate XML documents in memory, through Level 2 the DOM doesn't specify how XML (or HTML) documents are actually read or written. Curious but true. I would have thought those things to be fairly fundamental, but I guess the HTML heritage as well as different priorities in the W3C left those details to the implementers. The draft Level 3 requirements do finally deal with such things. The fact that actually reading or writing XML documents isn't specified in Level 2 really isn't too much of a problem since most XML libraries provide the functionality. However, because it isn't specified there are often differences in the particular methods used. We'll see this as we develop the C++ and Java code later in the book.

One final note on the DOM: While many implementations use the exact W3C method and object names in their libraries, Microsoft's MSXML library sometimes slightly modifies the names specified by the DOM. It also allows many of the DOM object properties (or attributes) to be accessed directly rather than just through get methods. This means that the C++ code in this book may have to be modified if you want to use it with a different C++ DOM library. (At least a global search and replace will be required. Other changes will probably be required as well, but those are beyond the scope of this book.)


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