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Parsing and Manipulating XML - A Broad Overview


In today's web-centric environment, XML continues to have a role in data structuring and transmission. Despite the rise of more modern data formats like JSON, XML remains an enduring standard due to its compatibility with diverse systems, its readability, and its robustness in representing complex data structures.

Understanding how to parse and manipulate XML data could be an indispensable competency for anyone working in areas where data needs to be transmitted and understood across different platforms - such as in web services, document storage, and even in the configuration files of many software applications.

So, our goal with this article is to provide you with a broad yet insightful exploration of these essential procedures.

What is Parsing?

Parsing, in the context of computing, refers to the process of analyzing an input sequence (in this case, an XML document) in accordance with specific syntactic rules to determine its structure. In simpler terms, parsing breaks down a file or data into smaller, more manageable parts, enabling easier comprehension and manipulation of the data.

An XML parser takes XML data, verifies its syntax for compliance with XML rules (well-formedness), and converts it into a format that can be utilized by other software - from web browsers rendering an RSS feed, to a Python script analyzing a large data set, to a Java application reading configuration files. The parser ensures the XML is not only syntactically correct but also manageable and usable by different systems.

To find more information on XML's Syntax feel free to check out XML Syntax - A Detailed Overview

Parsing, Manipulating, and Serializing XML with JavaScript

When working with XML data, we typically need to transform it into a more software-friendly format. This transformation process is known as parsing. In JavaScript, the DOMParser interface from the Web API facilitates this by converting XML data into a structured Document Object Model (DOM). A DOM represents the hierarchical structure of XML elements as objects, enabling them to be programmatically accessed and manipulated.

Let's use a JavaScript example to illustrate this process, which includes parsing an XML string, manipulating its content, and then serializing it back into a string:

<!DOCTYPE html>

<p id="test"></p>

// Define XML string
const xmlStr = `
    <title>A Brief History of Time</title>
    <author>Stephen Hawking</author>
      <location>New York</location>
    <title>The Universe in a Nutshell</title>
    <author>Stephen Hawking</author>
      <location>New York</location>

// Parse XML string
const parser = new DOMParser();
const xmlDoc = parser.parseFromString(xmlStr, "application/xml");

// Check for parsing errors
const errorNode = xmlDoc.querySelector("parsererror");
if (errorNode) {
  document.getElementById("test").innerHTML = "Error while parsing XML string";
} else {
  document.getElementById("test").innerHTML = "XML string parsed successfully";

// Access the titles of all books
const bookTitles = xmlDoc.getElementsByTagName("title");
for (let i = 0; i < bookTitles.length; i++) {
  document.getElementById("test").innerHTML += `<br>Book ${i+1} Title: ${bookTitles[i].textContent}`;

// Modify the title of the first book
bookTitles[0].textContent = "A Briefer History of Time";

// Serialize back to XML string
const serializer = new XMLSerializer();
const xmlString = serializer.serializeToString(xmlDoc);
document.getElementById("test").innerHTML += `<br>Modified XML string:<br>${xmlString.replace(/</g, '&lt;').replace(/>/g, '&gt;')}`;


The above code works as follows:

  • Define an XML string (const xmlStr) representing a catalog of books.

  • Parse this string into an XML DOM object: const xmlDoc = parser.parseFromString(xmlStr, "application/xml");. The operation transforms the XML data into a format that JavaScript can interact with. If any parsing errors occur, we display an error message.

  • Access all book titles in the catalog using the DOM: const bookTitles = xmlDoc.getElementsByTagName("title");. Then display them on the webpage.

  • Modify the title of the first book: bookTitles[0].textContent = "A Briefer History of Time";. This demonstrates how the DOM allows for the manipulation of XML data.

  • Serialize the modified DOM back into an XML string: const xmlString = serializer.serializeToString(xmlDoc);. This process is known as serialization. Specifically, we use XMLSerializer to convert the updated DOM object back into an XML string. We replace < and > with their HTML entities to ensure the string displays correctly on the webpage.

Note that "application/xml" in the parseFromString function is known as a MIME type, which specifies the data format. In this case, we're telling the DOMParser that we're parsing XML data.

In addition, HTML serves as a platform for executing and displaying the results of the JavaScript code in a web browser. The XML parsing and manipulation are confined within JavaScript. Our HTML merely provides the structure for the webpage and displays the results of the JavaScript code.

In this context, it's worth mentioning the XMLHttpRequest object which is used in web development to fetch XML data from a server, parse it, and display it on a webpage. However, this example specifically focuses on parsing, manipulating, and serializing XML in JavaScript without external data sources.

The output of this script will display a message indicating successful XML parsing, the original titles of the books, and the XML string after modifying the title of the first book:

XML string parsed successfully
Book 1 Title: A Brief History of Time
Book 2 Title: The Universe in a Nutshell
Modified XML string:
<catalog> <book> <title>A Briefer History of Time</title> <author>Stephen Hawking</author> <year>1988</year> <publisher> <name>Bantam</name> <location>New York</location> </publisher> </book> <book> <title>The Universe in a Nutshell</title> <author>Stephen Hawking</author> <year>2001</year> <publisher> <name>Bantam</name> <location>New York</location> </publisher> </book> </catalog>

XML Parsing: Variations and Advanced Techniques

Our discussion so far has primarily centered around basic XML parsing in JavaScript, involving simple examples of extracting data from XML strings. However, XML parsing is a widely used technique across many programming languages, each with its unique approach and tools.

For instance, Python offers a built-in module called xml.etree.ElementTree, which simplifies the process of parsing and creating XML data.

Diving into different parsing techniques, you'll find strategies such as the DOM Parser (mirrored in our JavaScript examples), which constructs an in-memory tree of the XML document, and the SAX Parser, which adopts an event-based, sequential method. Both have their strengths and limitations, along with more specialized parsers like JDOM and StAX. There's also XPath, as a tool for navigating XML documents, used in conjunction with these parsers.

Beyond this, there are advanced aspects related to XML parsing, including XML namespaces, XSLT, Pull Parsing, and XML Schema or DTD validation. While these concepts may seem overwhelming at first, they add to the robustness and versatility of XML processing, enabling more complex operations like element selection, document transformation, client-controlled parsing, and data validation. We've touched on some of these topics in this series, and we encourage you to explore them as per your needs.

It's worth emphasizing that the right parsing technique largely depends on the specific requirements of an application. The following section provides a list of curated resources that can help you further explore XML parsing and its associated techniques.

Additional Resources

Python's xml.etree.ElementTree Module

XML Parsing for Java

PHP's XML Manipulation Manual

XML Processing Options in Microsoft's Ecosystem