C/C++ developers: Fill your XML toolbox

Tools advice for C and C++ programmers ramping up on XML

It seems as if everywhere you look there is some new XML-related tool being released in source code form written in Java. Despite Java's apparent dominance in the XML arena, many C/C++ programmers do XML development, and there are a large assortment of XML tools for the C and C++ programmer. We'll confront XML library issues like validation, schemas, and API models. Next, we'll look at a collection of generic XML tools like IDEs and schema designers. Finally, we'll conclude with a list and discussion of libraries either usable from or actually written in C and/or C++.

In this article, I'll skip arguments for using XML; I'll assume that you already have good reasons for wanting to ramp up on this technology. Also, I'll leave the more detailed explanations of XML to the background sources in Related topics. Suffice it to say that XML is a standard for data exchange (not just a file format). The data may be exchanged in the form of application files in XML format, or over network connections that exist only for a moment before being discarded at the conclusion of an online transaction or at the close of a network connection.

Also, this isn't a comparative review that rates tools. My goal is to explain the types of tools you'll probably need and to point you to likely candidates. You'll still need to research, test, and compare tool features against your project needs to assemble your ultimate toolbox.

Two sets of tools

To incorporate XML in your own software projects, you're going to want to have two sets of tools in your bag of tricks. The first set is a dialect designer (or more properly "schema designer"). The second set of tools includes software libraries that will add parsing and XML-generation features to your application.

Designing your own XML dialect

An XML dialect is just a particular set of XML tags along with some rules for how the tags fit together. The two dominant ways for specifying or defining an XML dialect currently are through a Document Type Definition (DTD) or an XML Schema. I'll refer to both of these collectively as a schema.

Your project's domain may already have a particular schema designed for you. If not, you can hack up your own schema using a plain text editor. A more refined approach is to use an actual dialect designer that can check syntax. (An incorrect schema won't help when you try to use it later to validate your XML data.)

Design tools

Nowadays, most programmers' text editors -- particularly the ones found in IDEs -- have decent macro and template support for features like syntax highlighting and autocompletion of a partially typed word or phrase. Therefore I am omitting from this discussion any XML editors that do only syntax highlighting and autocompletion. Microsoft Word or an Emacs macro can do that, so "XML editor" ought to mean something more.

The tools shown in Table 1 fall into three categories:

  • The IDE (integrated development environment, the Swiss Army knife approach)
  • The schema-sensitive XML editor (reinforces allowable tag structure and attributes found in a schema or DTD)
  • Schema designer (for writing your own Schema or DTD)

Because all of the tools in Table 1 are running applications, they are suitable for all XML developers -- not just those using C++ (unlike the tools listed in the other tables in this article).

Table 1. Dialect design tools for various platforms

KomodoActive StateXML editor and IDEcommercialLinux, Win32, others
XML SpyAltovaIDE for XML editing and schema designcommercialWin32
XML NotepadMicrosoftXML editorfreeWin32
Morphon XMLLunatech ResearchSchema-sensitive XML data editorcommercialJava
XEDUniversity of EdinburghSchema-sensitive XML data editornoncommercialWin32, Linux, Unix
XeenaIBM alphaWorksSchema-sensitive XML data editorfree trial/commercialMac, Unix, Win32
NetpaddPhillip LenssenAlternative to Microsoft's XML NotepadnoncommercialWin32
XMetalSoftquadDTD sensitive XML editorcommercialWin32
MerlotChannelpointVisual XML editor; supports plug-ins for DTDsnoncommercialJava

C and C++ tools

The rest of this article serves up the meat and potatoes of adding XML functionality for the C/C++ programmer through software libraries. You'll see in the next sections of this article that many more command-line utilities can be found included as test and/or sample programs in the software libraries. As an example, Transformiix can be used as a library, a Perl module, or a command-line tool.

Up until now I've tried to be frugal in my use of XML-related terms. Before you read further, though, if you are not familiar with XML basics, you might want to scan the terms defined in the XML terminology sidebar. The terms will assist you both in following the rest of this article and in sorting out the features of the tools and libraries mentioned as you explore them in greater depth on your own.


Once you have a DTD or schema and the XML document to go with it, you'll need a parser to read and interpret the XML document. Table 2 outlines parser libraries for C/C++ developers. Before you start poring over the grid in the table, though, you'll need a little bit of background.


XML parsers come in two forms: validating and nonvalidating. Which one do you need? If you are working without a formal DTD or schema, validation features won't be important to you. If you have or are planning to use a DTD or schema, you will probably prefer a validating parser. (In that case, I suggest that you also learn how to read and write a DTD/schema by hand so that when validation issues arise you will be able to deal with the errors. Sometimes the error is in the DTD/schema, so you may be debugging the DTD/schema files as well as your XML data.)

Parser API models

Two common API models exist for interfacing software with an XML parser: the document model and the event model. The document API model parses XML data to produce an object. The object abstracts the document's contents into a tree structure. The application operates on this tree-structure object. The event API model uses a callback mechanism to notify the application of the structure of the XML data. The events/callbacks usually occur at the time of parsing.

API standards: DOM and SAX

The generic parser API models have been further refined into specific API standards. The W3C has recommended DOM (levels 1 and 2, with level 3 in draft) as a standardized document API model. While not a W3C project, SAX has taken its place as the de facto standard event API model.

W3C standards

As you compare features in parsers and other XML tools, look for support for W3C recommendations and emerging specifications, such as namespaces, XPath, XLink, XInclude, and XInfoset. Keep in mind that XML technologies are maturing rapidly and that support for the first level of a specification, such as the DOM, may lack important functionality introduced in level two of that specification. If functionality in the most current form of a specification is important to your project, choose your tools accordingly.

Reading the table

In Table 2, the Event column specifies parsers that support a push or event model API, like SAX. The Doc column specifies parsers that support a pull or document model API, like DOM. As before, the table lists both commercial and noncommercial tools (see the sidebar Licensing for details about the software licenses.)

Table 2. Parsers for C/C++ developers

expatJames Clark/expat teamnative & SAX-Very fast push model parser with a native API and SAX wrappers.LGPL (free)
libxmlGnomeSAXDOMVery robust; SAX & DOM wrappers; does DTD validationLGPL (free)
XercesApache Software FoundationSAXDOMDoes SAX plus DOM levels 1 and 2; DTD validation; incremental XML SchemaApache (free)
XTLVivid CreationsSAXDOMSTL-based XML toolkit with SAX and DOMcommercial
RXPUniversity of Edinburgh-nativeValidating namespace-aware XML parser in CGPL (free)
XML4CIBM alphaWorksSAXDOMIBM-sponsored variant of XercesApache (free)
XML BoosterPhiDaNi Software-nativeParser generator, generates C-source parsercommercial

Open-source top three
The three most popular of the open-source XML libraries are expat, libxml, and Xerces. All three are cross-platform, and each serves as a basis for an XSLT library implementation, which give you a growth path once you've satisfied your basic XML needs.

  • Expat is an open-source event-oriented XML parsing library originated by James Clark. He has transferred the project to a small team on SourceForge. A SAX wrapper is available. The expat parser can found in a number of projects, such as the open-source browser Mozilla, the XSLT processor Transformiix, and the RDF tool repat.
  • Libxml offers a dual-mode API for both SAX and DOM-like operations. It supports validating against a DTD and is used in Gnome's XSLT processor, libxslt. Libxml was rewritten and released as libxml(2) but may also be referred to as libxml2. Users of this library should make sure they have the current version.
  • Xerces is a very solid, well-documented library that serves as the basis for the IBM alphaWorks XML4C library. Xerces is also used in the Apache XSLT processor, Xalan. Xerces supports DOM, SAX, and validating against a DTD. The latest versions reads and interprets parts of the W3C XML Schema Recommendation (with complete XML Schema support targeted for the end of 2001).

Compiling and linking one of the top three libraries into your project is painless. Most packages include thorough instructions for each platform. Here some sample installation instructions.

Building an open-source library on Windows

Building libxml on Windows from scratch is an easy four steps:

  1. Download the source tarball.
  2. Use a program like Winzip to unzip the contents to a directory. Be sure you instruct your unzipping utility to preserve path names for any subdirectories that libxml may need.
  3. Locate the libxml2.dsw file in the ./win32/dsp subfolder and open it from MS Developer Studio.
  4. Select Build All from the top menu in DevStudio. This builds all the sample and test programs along with the libxml DLLs needed to run them.

You can use the above steps to build Xerces on Windows. The only difference is to look for the samples.dsw workspace file in the ./c/samples/Projects/Win32/VC6 subfolder.

Expat has started including DSP project makefiles. Look in the lib and xmlwf subfolders.

Building an open-source library on Unix

For projects running on Linux or Unix, in most cases you can untar the source code to an empty directory, set some options, and type "make" to build a shared library. Solaris users: Don't forget to use the GNU untar utility. The following code worked for me from the bash shell under Slackware Linux:

tar -x <xerces-c-src1_5_1.tar
cd xerces-c-src1_5_1
export XERCESCROOT=/home/mine/xerces-c-src1_5_1
cd src
chmod 377 runConfigure
./runConfigure -p linux
cd ../samples
chmod 377 runConfigure
./runConfigure -p linux


MSXML, Microsoft's proprietary XML offering for the Windows family of operating systems, is implemented as a collection of scriptable COM objects, so it plays well in other language environments and is well documented. The library supports DOM along with a native document-oriented interface. SAX events are also supported.

As an alternative to MSXML, the Apache XML Project's Xerces library comes with a COM wrapper that will make it act as a drop-in replacement for MSXML in many cases. Vivid Creations offers COM wrappers for the SAX and DOM APIs to its XTL library that also serve as substitutes for MSXML.

XML transforms: XSLT and XQuery

The transform is the next step up the XML evolutionary ladder from merely processing XML data at the element and attribute level. An XML transform operates on incoming XML data to produce XML output. A transform can reorganize tag structure, add/remove tags and attributes, and filter to zoom in on select fragments of XML data.

The XQuery documentation refers to the transform process as a query but the meaning is the same.

XSLT and XQuery are XML dialects for specifying how to perform such actions on random XML data. You can write a script file with the changes expressed in XML as XSTL or XQuery instead of loading some XML data into a DOM and having to programmatically manipulate the DOM version to produce a desired result. This more generalized approach leads to greater flexibility and reduced development time. Now your Web developers who are not C/C++ programmers can write their own transforms as XML, which may free a C++ programmer for more complex work.

Table 3. C/C++ Transform/Query libraries

libxsltGnomebuilt on top of libxmlLGPL or X11-like (free)
XalanApacheBuilt on top of the Xerces parserApache (free)
TransformiixMITREXSLT processor built on expatnoncommercial

Messaging: XML-RPC and SOAP tools

For the purpose of this article, messaging refers to having two software agents communicate with one another. Such messaging is sometimes called message-oriented middleware. (This is not messaging like AOL, MSN, or ICQ, okay? There is an XML-based instant-messaging protocol effort underway called Jabber. I've included a link in Related topics for your curiosity, but, again, that's not what I'm talking about here.)

Using XML for messaging has become popular enough to have produced these two alternatives: XML-RPC and SOAP. The most appealing feature of these protocols is that clients, servers, and peers can differ dramatically in terms of the developer's choice of tools for implementation. It's as though all developers get to use their favorite language, development kit, or software library and still work together.

(As a side note, Gregor Purdy has written an excellent critique of XML-RPC in the form of a proposed alternative (see Related topics).

Table 4 includes a few libraries for use in the message-oriented middleware category. This is not an exhaustive list of the resources in this category, and there are new tools evolving quickly, but it's a good start.

Table 4. C/C++ Messaging libraries

4S4C SOAP servicesSimon FellOpen Source SOAP effortnoncommercialLinux, Unix, Win32
SOAP componentmozilla.orgScriptable XPCOM componentnoncommercialnumerous
XML-RPC for C/C++First PeerXML-RPC library in CnoncommercialLinux, Unix, Win32
XML-RPC componentmozilla.orgScriptable XPCOM componentnoncommercialnumerous
XML-RPC for C/C++EpinionsXML-RPC library in CnoncommercialLinux, Unix, Win32

In parting

These tools ought to give you a good start on your XML toolbox. If you want to suggest other C/C++ tools for XML that you have tried or to make any other comment, join the discussion attached to this article (use the link in Resources or click the Discuss icon at the top or bottom of the article page).

XML terminology

These XML terms may come in handy as you read about the libraries discussed in this article:

  • Document model: Technique for parsing and manipulating XML data as a treelike object; this is also called a "pull" model. See the DOM API standard as an example.
  • DOM: The Document Object Model is a specific tree-structured programming model of an XML document described as a standard by the W3C. The DOM standard is currently divided into three levels. DOM 1.0 refers to DOM Level 1.0 conformance; DOM Level two is the most current spec that has been approved by the W3C as a Recommendation; DOM Level 3 is in draft at the time of this writing.
  • DTD: Document Type Definition. An XML file that defines XML elements and XML attributes for those elements and that specifies rules for how XML tags may be nested and what data an element may contain.
  • Event model: Technique for parsing XML data using callbacks or handlers; this is also called a "push" model. See the SAX API standard as an example.
  • Namespaces: Means of unambiguously identifying XML tags from different DTDs or schemas so they can be mixed in the same XML document. RDF is highly dependent upon this feature; the XML 1.0 token "xmlns" can be used to define a namespace within an XML document.
  • RDF: Resource Description Framework, a compact XML dialect for associating XML attribute data with information that usually resides elsewhere. Your driver's license would be analogous to an RDF XML file that describes you.
  • SAX: Simple API for XML is a standard programming interface for XML parser implementations; SAX uses an event-oriented programming model. SAX is a de facto standard first developed by David Megginson and now maintained by the XML-dev mailing list.
  • SOAP: Simple Object Access Protocol is a network protocol similar to XML-RPC (see XML-RPC). Using SOAP, an application can create a remote object, invoke methods on that object, and retrieve results.
  • Validation: Verifying that a well formed XML document is correct with respect to a DTD or schema.
  • Well formed: An XML document whose tags and data are consistent with XML 1.0 syntax.
  • W3C: The Worldwide Web Consortium, which has become the key standards body for most of the XML-related technologies. The W3C calls a finally approved specification a Recommendation (rather than a standard).
  • XML 1.0: The first standard for XML syntax blessed by the W3C; establishes basic rules for XML data, such as all tags must be closed with a slash (/) like this: <example/> or followed by a closing tag like this: <example>close the tag on your way out</example>.
  • XML-RPC: XML Remote Procedure Call. XML-RPC is a standard XML dialect for invoking methods and services across a network; as you can guess, XML-RPC uses XML for the messaging between client and server.
  • XML Schema: XML Schema, a W3C Recommendation, works much like a DTD to define the structure of an XML document but with more flexibility. XML Schema uses XML 1.0 syntax to specify the schema, in contrast to the older SGML syntax used for DTDs.
  • XQuery: Similar in some of its functionality to XSLT but designed more toward acting as a query language for XML data -- analogous to using SQL in a relational database. Less mature than XSLT as a specification, XQuery may become the SQL of the next decade.
  • XSLT: Extensible Style Language Transforms, an XML dialect for transforming XML content. You apply an XSLT file to some XML input data to produce the desired XML output data.

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