Using the SAX Interface of LibXML

James Henstridge


The libxml library provides two interfaces to the parser: a DOM style tree interface, and a SAX style event based interface. Most users of the library choose the DOM interface due to its ease of use, however it does have a few drawbacks. The big drawback is that its memory usage is proportional to the size of the document, which can be a problem for large documents.

In contrast, the SAX interface does not maintain the entire DOM tree in memory, which means that it can be quite efficient for large documents.

This article is aimed at people who understand and have used the libxml DOM style interface and want to explore the SAX interface. Some examples are aimed toward use in GTK+/GNOME programs.

Table of Contents

Introduction and Concepts
The SAX Interface
Some Examples
Implementing a SAX Based Parser
The Basics
The startDocument and endDocument Callbacks
The characters Callback
The startElement and endElement Callbacks
The getEntity Callback
Structural Errors
How to Handle an Expanding File Format

Introduction and Concepts

Most people will agree that the most intuitive representation for arbitrary XML data is a tree. Libxml provides a nice API to construct a tree from an XML file, which makes it very easy to use. But in some cases, the tree representation does not match the internal representation you wish to use in your program, so it may not be the best choice. You may end up using libxml to construct the tree, extracting the data and then throw away the tree.

In these cases libxml's SAX API may be a better choice. Note that there are a few drawbacks to the use of this API though:

  • SAX parsers generally require you to write a bit more code than the DOM interface.

  • Unless you build a DOM style tree from your application's internal representation for the data, you can't as easily write the XML file back to disk. This is not a concern if your program only reads XML files, and does not write them.

  • You may have to redesign or rethink your file loading routines.

It is not all bad however. There are benefits to the use of the SAX API:

  • The DOM tree is not constructed, so there are potentially less memory allocations.

  • If you convert the data in the DOM tree to another format, the SAX API may help remove the intermediate step.

  • If you do not need all the XML data in memory, the SAX API allows you to process the data as it is parsed.

The SAX Interface

As you know, the DOM style interface (ie. what is returned by xmlParseFile or xmlParseMemory) produces a tree of xmlNode structures that can then be walked to extract the data.

The SAX interface works quite differently on the other hand. You instead pass a number of callback routines to the parser in a xmlSAXHandler structure. The parser will then parse the document and call the appropriate callback when certain conditions occur.

Some of the more useful callbacks are startDocument, endDocument, startElement, endElement, getEntity and characters. Most of these are quite self explanatory. The characters callback is called when characters outside a tag are parsed.

As you can see, the code for a SAX style parser seems almost inside out, when compared with the DOM style tree method. For this reason, a state machine aproach is useful.

It is interesting to note that the xmlParseFile function and friends are all implemented in terms of the SAX interface, so no power is lost by using this interface.

Some Examples

To give you some idea of where SAX may be useful, some examples may help.

An Array of Numbers

Consider an XML document structured like follows:

<?xml version="1.0"?>

The file describes an array of numbers. In this case, the most appropriate data structure to represent the information as would be an array -- not a tree. By using the SAX interface, we can write the numbers directly to an array rather than using the DOM tree as an intermediate format.

As I said earlier, state machines make using the SAX interface much easier. At any one time, you are in one state. The startElement and endElement callbacks cause the state to change. You will also want to perform some other actions during state changes -- in this case, build the array.

For this example, we can use four states:


In the startDocument callback, we would initialise any variables that are required during parsing. This would include the array to hold the numbers (a glib GArray would be useful), and a buffer to hold character data (a glib GString is a good choice here). It would also set the initial state to START. the endDocument callback, we can free these variables (we would leave the array though).

The interesting code is in the startElement and endElement callbacks. What they do will depend on the current state, and the element name that is being opened or closed.

For the array example, the startElement function would act as follows:

  • If we are in the START state and the element name is array, then change to the INSIDE_ARRAY state. Any other names would be an error

  • If we are in the INSIDE_ARRAY state, and the element name is number, change to the INSIDE_NUMBER state. We would also zero the character data buffer. Any other element would be an error in this state.

  • If we are in the INSIDE_NUMBER or FINISH states, it is an error.

The characters function would append the character data to the buffer if it was in the INSIDE_NUMBER state. If it is in any other states, the data could be discarded.

The endElement function would act as follows:

  • If we are in the INSIDE_NUMBER state, the character data buffer should hold the number. We convert the string to an integer and append it to the array. We then change to the INSIDE_ARRAY state.

  • If we are in the INSIDE_ARRAY state, change to the FINNISH state.

  • If we are in the START or FINNISH states, an error has occured

Note that we know what to do in the endElement function even without looking at the element name. By using a state machine model like this, we can narrow down the number of possible element names, which reduces string comparisons as well.

Large Repetitive XML Files

Sometimes we have XML files with many subtrees of the same format describing different things. An example of this is the fullIndex.rdf.gz used by the rpmfind program. The file contains repeating sections like follows:

  <RDF:Description about="">
    <RPM:Summary>The Emacs text editor for the X Window System.</RPM:Summary>
  <RDF:Description about=&quot;">
    <RPM:Summary>The sources for elisp programs included with Emacs.</RPM:Summary>

One operation that we might want to do is to search for a package by name. For this type of operation, at any one time, we are only concerned with one subtree in the document -- the others need not be in memory. For this reason, a SAX based parser would be a good idea.

With the DOM tree aproach, the memory usage of the program will increase as the size of the index file increases. With the SAX based aproach, the memory usage should be fairly constant despite changes in the size of the index.

This benefit is particularly useful when parsing XML documents of sizes similar to the RDF dumps of the Open Directory Project. The overhead of the DOM tree can become unacceptable when parsing 35 megabyte XML files.

For a working example of this sort of situation, see the XML parser in gnorpm/find/search.c.

Simple Tree Structures

Sometimes it may make sense to use the SAX interface even if the data in the XML file is inherently tree based.

The DOM style interface of libxml is designed to be able to represent any well formed XML document. But the save format of most applications generally uses only a subset of XML. For instance, GLADE does not use attributes for any elements, so you could argue that the support for attributes in the DOM interface is bloat when used with GLADE.

Since the XML you are reading in has some known constraints, it is usually possible to store the information in more compact structures.

I am looking at implementing something like this in libglade. In this situation, the changeover looks like it will decrease the memory requirements of the internal structures by a factor of four, and has increased the speed of the parser slightly.

You can look at the source for the new libglade SAX based parser in libglade/glade/glade-parser.c. There is also a diagram that describes the transitions between the different states in the parser in libglade/doc/glade-2.0.dia.

In this particular type of situation, it is worth spending a bit more time deciding between DOM style and SAX interfaces. If you keep with the DOM interface, your program will probably use a bit more memory, but it has the advantage that you can modify the tree, and then write the XML file back to disk with a single function call. If you switch over to a different representation, you will need to either convert the information to the DOM style tree representation and then dump it to a file, or write your own output routines.

Another deciding factor is laziness. If you use the SAX interface, you will need to write some parsing code. On the other hand, the DOM interface does this for you.

In the libglade case, memory usage and speed were considered important, and the XML data did not have to be written back to a file, so choice of a SAX parser was relatively easy.

Implementing a SAX Based Parser

Now you should have a pretty good idea about what a SAX parser is, and how you might implement one using a state machine design. Now it is time to learn how to implement the parser using libxml's C translation of the SAX interface.

The Basics

As stated before, you use the SAX parser by passing a number of callback routines stored in a xmlSAXHandler structure to one of the SAX parser routines. Here is the prototype for the structure:

typedef struct xmlSAXHandler {
    internalSubsetSAXFunc internalSubset;
    isStandaloneSAXFunc isStandalone;
    hasInternalSubsetSAXFunc hasInternalSubset;
    hasExternalSubsetSAXFunc hasExternalSubset;
    resolveEntitySAXFunc resolveEntity;
    getEntitySAXFunc getEntity;
    entityDeclSAXFunc entityDecl;
    notationDeclSAXFunc notationDecl;
    attributeDeclSAXFunc attributeDecl;
    elementDeclSAXFunc elementDecl;
    unparsedEntityDeclSAXFunc unparsedEntityDecl;
    setDocumentLocatorSAXFunc setDocumentLocator;
    startDocumentSAXFunc startDocument;
    endDocumentSAXFunc endDocument;
    startElementSAXFunc startElement;
    endElementSAXFunc endElement;
    referenceSAXFunc reference;
    charactersSAXFunc characters;
    ignorableWhitespaceSAXFunc ignorableWhitespace;
    processingInstructionSAXFunc processingInstruction;
    commentSAXFunc comment;
    warningSAXFunc warning;
    errorSAXFunc error;
    fatalErrorSAXFunc fatalError;
} xmlSAXHandler;
typedef xmlSAXHandler *xmlSAXHandlerPtr;

To start off with, we can set all these functions to NULL. If we use a NULL SAX parser like this, then we will have a parser that only checks that the document is well formed. By adding a few callbacks, we can get it to do just about anything.

In order to parse a document, you will use one of the following two functions, depending on whether the XML file is in a memory buffer or a file:

#include <libxml/parser.h>
int xmlSAXUserParseFile(xmlSAXHandlerPtr  sax,
 void * user_data,
 const char * filename);
int xmlSAXUserParseMemory(xmlSAXHandlerPtr  sax,
 void * user_data,
 char * buffer,
 int  size);

The user_data argument of these functions allows you to pass in a structure to hold the state of your parser. This allows us to make the parser reentrant, which would not be possible if global variables were used to hold the parser state.

Here is an example of how to call your parser to parse a file:

#include <libxml/parser.h>

static xmlSAXHandler my_handler {

struct ParserState {
    RetVal return_val;
    StatesEnum state;

parse_xml_file(const char *filename) {
    struct ParserState my_state;

    if (xmlSAXUserParseFile(&my_handler, &my_state, filename) < 0) {
        return NULL;
    } else
        return my_state.return_val;

In this example, we expect the startDocument SAX handler to initialise the ParserState structure passed to it, and the endDocument to free its members, but leaving return_val so that it can be used later.

The startDocument and endDocument Callbacks

These callbacks are generally used to perform some initialisation and deinitialisation for your parser callbacks. Their prototypes are as follows:

void startDocument(void *user_data);

void endDocument(void *user_data);

It should be fairly self explanatory how to write these functions.

The characters Callback

The characters callback is called when there are characters that are outside of tags get parsed. Its prototype is as follows:

void characters(void * user_data,
 const xmlChar * ch,
 int  len);

The xmlChar type is used by libxml in places where it expects to receive, or provides valid UTF-8 data. In most cases, you can think of ch as a normal character string, although for correct processing you will need to use the UTF-8 functions in glib. Note that the character data is not necessarily nul terminated. This is so that libxml does not need to copy the character data out of its internal buffers before passing it to the callback.

In your callback, you will probably want to copy the characters to some other buffer so that it can be used from the endElement callback. To optimise this callback a bit, you might adjust the callback so that it only copies the characters if the parser is in a certain state. Note that the characters callback may be called more than once between calls to startElement and endElement.

The startElement and endElement Callbacks

These callbacks are where most of the state machine logic will go into these two callbacks. Their prototypes are:

void startElement(void * user_data,
 const xmlChar * name,
 const xmlChar ** attrs);
void endElement(void * user_data,
 const xmlChar * name);

In these callbacks, the name parameter is the name of the element. The attrs parameter contains the attributes for the start tag. The even indices in the array will be attribute names, the odd indices are the values, and the final index will contain a NULL.

In most parsers, as well as making state transitions in these callbacks, you will probably also collect the data in the XML file. In the startElement callback, you will often allocate structures to hold the data. In the endElement callback, you will usually interpret the character data collected by the characters callback and put the data in one of the structures allocated by startElement. The endElement callback may also free some of the intermediate structures if it is no longer needed.

The getEntity Callback

You may have been wondering how entities (eg &lt;, etc) are handled by the SAX interface. This is done by the getEntity callback:

xmlEntityPtr getEntity(void * user_data,
 const xmlChar * name);

The xmlEntity structure holds some information about the entity. This structure will not be freed by the parser, so it makes sense to create these structures once, and then pass a pointer to the appropriate one when this function is called. After calling getEntity, the expansion of the entity is passed to the characters callback. This way, you do not need to worry about decoding entities anywhere else in your callback routines.

If your XML document only contains the standard entities (&lt;, &gt;, &apos;, &quot; and &amp;), then it is possible to write a very short implementation for this callback:

static xmlEntityPtr
my_getEntity(void *user_data, const xmlChar *name) {
    return xmlGetPredefinedEntity(name);

For most parsers, this will be sufficient.

Structural Errors

If there are structural errors in the XML file, the parser will call one of three error callbacks: warning, error or fatalError.

If you want to pass these errors to the standard glib logging functions, you might want to use an implementation something like this:

static void
my_warning(void *user_data, const char *msg, ...) {
    va_list args;

    va_start(args, msg);
    g_logv("XML", G_LOG_LEVEL_WARNING, msg, args);

static void
my_error(void *user_data, const char *msg, ...) {
    va_list args;

    va_start(args, msg);
    g_logv("XML", G_LOG_LEVEL_CRITICAL, msg, args);

static void
my_fatalError(void *user_data, const char *msg, ...) {
    va_list args;

    va_start(args, msg);
    g_logv("XML", G_LOG_LEVEL_ERROR, msg, args);

Note that libxml is not a validating parser, so only structural errors will be picked up. So any validation of the format will have to be done by your parser routines.

How to Handle an Expanding File Format

With most applications, you will want to add to the XML file format as you add features to the application. For this reason, you will want to code your callbacks so that they don't barf on an unknown or unexpected tag.

With the DOM style interface, if you come to a node with an unexpected name, you will usually ignore it, and the subtree under it. It is probably a good idea to use a similar process for a SAX based parser.

To implement this sort of error recovery, we will need an extra state for the parser -- UNKNOWN. We will also need to pass two extra variables in the user_data parameter to the callbacks -- prev_state and unknown_depth.

When we hit an unknown element in the startElement callback, we can save the current state to prev_state, and then change the state to UNKNOWN, and set unknown_depth to 1. If startElement is called while in the UNKNOWN state, we increment the unknown_depth variable.

In the endElement callback, if we are in the UNKNOWN state, decrement unknown_depth. If unknown_depth is zero, change the state to prev_state. The characters callback should probably return immediately if in the UNKNOWN state as well.

Using this sort of logic, it should be possible to ignore unknown sections of the document quite easily. The UNKNOWN state is also useful when writing the parser. This way you can test out portions of the parser before it is complete.


This tutorial should have given you a good idea about how to think about writing SAX parsers, and how to implement them with libxml. If you want more information about the other callbacks, look at the libxml API documentation.

Another place for information on SAX is the Simple API for XML page. It is concerned with the original java implementation, but many of the concepts should be useful with libxml.