XML: YAFF, YADT, or Whole World?

If you have a bunch of XML and are looking for of a place to put it, then I think I may have come up with a simple test that might be helpful.

In talking with prospective vendors of XML repositories (definition: software that lets you store, search, analyze and deliver XML), try to establish what I’ll call “XML vision compatibility.” Quite simply, try to figure out if the vendor’s vision of XML is consistent with your own. To help with that exercise, I’ll define what I see as the three common XML vendor visions:

  • YAFF (yet another file format)
  • YADT (yet another data type)
  • Whole world

YAFF Vendors
Vendors with the YAFF vision view XML as yet another file format. ECM vendors clearly fall into this category (“oh yes, XML is one of the 137 file formats you can manage in our system”). So do enterprise search vendors (“oh yes, we have filters for XML formatted files which clear out all those nasty tags and feed our indexing engine the lovely text.”)

For example, let’s look at how EMC Documentum — one of the more XML-aggressive ECM vendors — handles XML on its website.

Hmm. There’s no XML on that page. But lots of information about records management, digital asset management, document capture, collaboration and document managent (it’s not there either). Gosh, I wonder where it is? SAP integration? Don’t think so. Hey, let’s try Documentum Platform, whatever that is.

Not there, either. Now that’s surprising because I really have no idea where else it might be. Oh, wait a minute. I didn’t scroll the page down. Let’s try that.

There we go. We finally found it. I knew they were committed to XML. What’s going on here is that EMC has a huge, largely vendor consolidation-driven (e.g., Documentum, Captiva, Document Sciences, x-Hive, Kazeon) vision of what content management is. And XML is just one tiny piece of that vision. XML is, well, yet another file format among the scores that they have manage, archive, capture, and provide workflow, compliance, and process management against. The vision isn’t about XML. It’s about content. That’s nice if you have an ECM problem (and a lot of money to solve it); t’s not so nice if you have an XML problem, or more precisely a problem that can be solved with XML.

YADT Vendors
Vendors with the YADT vision view XML as yet another data type. These are the relational database management system vendors (e.g., Oracle) who have decided that the best way to handle XML is to make it a valid datatype for a column in a table.

The roots of this approach go back to the late 1980s and Ingres 6.3 (see this semi-related blast from the past) which was the first commercial DBMS to provide support for user-defined datatypes. All the primitives for datatyping were isolated from the core server code and made extensible through standard APIs. So, for example, if you wanted to store complex numbers of the form (a, bi) all you had to do was to write some primitives so the server would know:

  • What they look like — i.e., (a, bi)
  • Any range constraints (the biggest, the smallest)
  • What operators should be available (e.g., +, -)
  • How to implement those operators — (a, bi) + (c, di) = (a+c, (b+d)i)

It was — far as I remember — yet another clever idea from the biggest visionary in database management systems after Codd himself: Michael Stonebraker then of UC Berkeley and now of MIT. After founding Ingres, Stonebraker went on found Illustra which was all about “datablades” — a sexy new name for user-defined types. Datablades, in turn, became sexy bait for Informix to buy the company with an eye towards leveraging the technology towards unseating Oracle from its leadership position. It didn’t happen.

User-defined datatypes basically didn’t work. There were two key problems:

  • You had user-written code running in the same address space as the database server. This made it nearly impossible to determine fault when the server crashed. Was it a database server bug, or did the customer cause problem in implementing a UDT? While RDBMS customers were well qualified to write applications and SQL, writing server-level was quite another affair. This was a bad idea.
  • Indexing and query processing performance. It’s fairly simple to say that, for example, a text field looks like a string of words and the + operator means concatenate. It’s basically impossible for a end customer to tell the query optimizer how to process queries involving those text fields and how to build indexes that maximize query performance. If getting stuff into UDTs was a level-5 challenge, getting stuff back out quickly was a level-100 one.

So while the notion of end users adding types to a DBMS basically failed, when XML came along the database vendors dusted off this approach, in saying effectively: let use all those hooks we put in to build support for XML types ourselves. And they did. Hence what I call the “XML column” approach to storing XML in a relational database.

After all, if your only data modeling element’s a table, then every problem looks like a column.

Now this approach isn’t necessarily bad. If, for example, you have a bunch of resumes and want to store attribute data in columns (e.g., name, address, phone, birthdate) and keep an XML copy of the resume alongside, then this might be a reasonable way to do things. That is, if you have a lot of data and a touch of XML, this may be the right way to do things.

So again, it comes down to vision alignment. If XML is just another type of data that you want to store in a column, then this might work for you. Bear in mind you’ll:

  • Probably have to setup separate text and pre-defined XML path indexes (a hassle on regular schemas, an impossibility on irregular ones),
  • Face some limitations in how those indexes can be combined and optimized in processing queries,
  • Need to construct frankenqueries that mix SQL and XQuery, whose mixed-language semantics are sometimes so obscure that I’ve seen experts argue for hours about what the “correct” answer for a given queries is,
  • And suffer from potentially crippling performance problems as you scale to large amounts of XML.

But if those aren’t problems, then this approach might work for you.

This is what it looks like when a vendor has a YADT vision. Half the fun in storing XML in an RDBMS is figure out which query language and which store options you want to use. See the table that starts on page 9, spans four pages, and considers nearly a dozen criteria to help you decide which of the three primary storage options you should use:

See this post from IBM for more Oracle-poking on the complexity of storage options available. Excerpt:

Oracle has long claimed that the fact that Oracle Database has multiple different ways to store XML data is an advantage. At last count, I think they have something like seven different options:

  • Unstructured
  • XML-Object-Relational, where you store repeating elements in CLOBs
  • XML-Object-Relational, where you store repeating elements in VARRAY as LOBs
  • XML-Object-Relational, where you store repeating elements in VARRAY as nested tables
  • XML-Object-Relational, where you store repeating elements in VARRAY as XMLType pointers to BLOBs
  • XML-Object-Relational, where you store repeating elements in VARRAY as XMLType pointers to nested tables
  • XML-Binary

Their argument is that XML has diverse use cases and you need different storage methods to handle those diverse use cases. I don’t know about you, but I find this list to be a little bewildering. How do you decide among the options? And what happens if you change your mind and want to change storage method?

Such is life in the land of putting XML in tables because your database management system has columns.

Whole World Vendors
Vendors with the whole world vision view XML as, well, their whole world.

And when I say XML, I don’t mean information that’s already in XML. I mean information that is either already in XML (e.g., documents, information in any horizontal or industry-specific XML standard) or that is best modeled in XML (e.g., sparse data, irregular information, semi-structured information, information in no, multiple, and/or time-varying schemas).

“Whole world” vendors don’t view XML as one format, but as a plethora: docbook, DITA, s1000d, xHMTL, TEI, XBRL, the HL7 standards in healthcare, the Acord standards in insurance, Microsoft’s Open Office XML format, Open Document Format, Adobe’s IDML, chemical markup lanuage, MathML, the DoD’s DDMS metadata standard, semantic web standards like RDF and OWL, and scores of others.

Whole world vendors don’t view XML tags as “something that get in the way of the text” and thus they don’t provide filters for XML files. Nor do they require schema adherence because they know that XML schema compliance, in real life, tends to be more of an aspiration than a reality. So they allow you load and index XML, as is, avoiding the first step’s a doozy problem, and enabling lazy clean-up of XML information.

Whole world vendors don’t try to model XML in tables simple because they have a legacy tabular data model. Instead, their native modeling element (NME) is the XML document. That is:

  • In a hierarchical DBMS the NME is the hierarchy
  • In a network DBMS the NME is the graph
  • In a relational DBMS the NME is the table
  • In an object DBMS the NME is the object class hierarchy
  • In an OLAP, or multi-dimensional, DBMS the NME is the hypercube
  • And in an XML server, or native XML, DBMS the NME is the XML document

Whole world vendors don’t bolt a search engine to a DBMS because they know XML is often document-centric, making search an integral function, and requiring a fundamentally hybrid search/database — as opposed to a bolted-together search/database — approach.

Here is what it looks like when you encounter a whole world vendor:

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