XPLT: eXtensible Parser Language Transformations

When you dream of software regularly, it's a bit of a worry. Anyhow, this is an idea I had while mowing the lawn today. I think it could really speed things up interconnecting legacy systems with the XML-aware world. What do you think?

XPL: completes the transformation cycle

XPLT borrows from XSLT and Regular Expressions (RE), but also provides a more human-readable style of Pattern-Matching, encapsulated within the Pattern element. Patterns are combined with templates and flow control semantics, that allow for very flexible document transformations.

XPL Transformers could be written on any platform, for any technology. Collections of specific and re-usable XPL documents for converting between any two text-formats could be shared and distributed.

Underlying principles of XPL

  1. Human Readable
  2. Not concerned with Terseness
  3. Platform Independent
  4. Transport Indepedent
  5. XPL documents are valid XML documents

How is it used?

Here are some typical scenarios for which XPLT is useful.

  • EDI documents, containing data in fixed-width fields, need to be converted to XML for transmission to a web service
  • A legacy system produces CSV documents. They can be converted to XML using XPLT.
  • A trading partner produces XML documents that are not always well-formed. They can be 'pre-processed' with XPLT to produce well-formed XML.
  • An RSS aggregator receives some documents that are in an obscure format. They can be transformed to valid RSS using XPLT
  • A HTML doc needs to be parsed to retrieve certain values.
  • VB.net code needs to be changed into C#
  • HTML code includes embedded font tags. It needs to be altered to use CSS.
  • Wiki Text needs to be converted to xHTML.
  • A regular expression needs to be converted into a human-readable explanation
[Read on for further details]

These problems can be solved by writing custom parsers, or, at best, through clever use of Regular Expressions.

Maintenance of such code can prove remarkably expensive. Why?

  • System boundaries are *always* in a state of flux.
  • Custom parsing is notoriously buggy -- even if it runs error-free for six months, you know there is a chance that an unexpected character combination could upset it.
  • Regular Expressions are deliberately terse. This limits the number of developers who take the time to master them.
  • The platform and underlying technology of a system boundary can change. Any platform or technology dependent code then needs to be rewritten completely.

Features of the Language

The main features of the language are:

  • the Pattern
  • flow control
  • the replace construct
  • the template

From XSLT it borrows elements used for these constructs:

  • If/else statements
  • Choose statements
  • for-each
  • Sort

In XSLT, the 'Match' and 'Select' attributes reference an Xpath expression. In XPLT the equivalent attributes reference a named Pattern element.

The Pattern Element

A pattern element serves a purpose analogous with a Regular Expression (RE). It can, infact, be simply a RE, for example:

[Thanks to Darren Neimke for the RE example, taken from RegExLib.]

Any such pattern can also be expanded using the far more verbose pattern semantics of XPLT.

Okay - the names Char, Chargroup etc, are pretty ugly. But I've just invented them now. The structure of those pieces could be altered and improved, I am sure. Just food for thought. Rather than

You could just say:

And Rather than

You could just say:

I guess you would also have 'greedy' and/or 'non-greedy' attributes.

Here's the original picture I came up with -- the complete loop converting proprietary text into XML by using XPLT. Then converting the XML back into properietary text, by way of XSLT.

closing the transformation cycle

I'm damn tired now -- so i'll stop there. Cheers!


XPL is not any of the following:

  • A language for writing compilers.
  • A scripting language for the Note Bene word processor.
  • A MIDI programming language for Amiga.
  • A language called eXtensible Programming Language.
  • A Pascal-like language named XPL0.

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