This paper gives a high-level overview of how
to use XML with databases. It describes how the differences between
data-centric and document-centric documents affect their usage with
databases, how XML is commonly used with relational databases, and what
native XML databases are and when to use them.
Although the information discussed in this paper is (mostly)
up-to-date, the idea that the world of XML and databases can be seen
through the data-centric/document-centric divide is somewhat dated. At
the time this paper was originally written (1999), it was a convenient
metaphor for introducing native XML databases, which were then not
widely understood, even in the database community. However, it was
always somewhat unrealistic, as many XML documents are not strictly
data-centric or document-centric, but somewhere in between. So while
the data-centric/document-centric divide is a convenient starting
point, it is better to understand the differences between XML-enabled
databases and native XML databases and to choose the appropriate
database based on your processing needs. For a more modern look at the
difference between XML-enabled and native XML databases, see chapter 1
of XML for DB2 Information Integration.
Before we start talking about XML and databases, we need to answer a question that occurs to many people: "Is XML a database?"
XML document is a database only in the strictest sense of the term.
That is, it is a collection of data. In many ways, this makes it no
different from any other file -- after all, all files contain data of
some sort. As a "database" format, XML has some advantages. For
example, it is self-describing (the markup describes the structure and
type names of the data, although not the semantics), it is portable
(Unicode), and it can describe data in tree or graph structures. It
also has some disadvantages. For example, it is verbose and access to
the data is slow due to parsing and text conversion.
useful question to ask is whether XML and its surrounding technologies
constitute a "database" in the looser sense of the term -- that is, a
database management system (DBMS). The answer to this question is,
"Sort of." On the plus side, XML provides many of the things found in
databases: storage (XML documents), schemas (DTDs, XML Schemas, RELAX
NG, and so on), query languages (XQuery, XPath, XQL, XML-QL, QUILT,
etc.), programming interfaces (SAX, DOM, JDOM), and so on. On the minus
side, it lacks many of the things found in real databases: efficient
storage, indexes, security, transactions and data integrity, multi-user
access, triggers, queries across multiple documents, and so on.
while it may be possible to use an XML document or documents as a
database in environments with small amounts of data, few users, and
modest performance requirements, this will fail in most production
environments, which have many users, strict data integrity
requirements, and the need for good performance.
A good example
of the type of "database" for which an XML document is suitable is an
.ini file -- that is, a file that contains application configuration
information. It is much easier to invent a small XML language and write
a SAX application for interpreting that language than it is to write a
parser for comma-delimited files. In addition, XML allows you to have
nested entries, something that is harder to do in comma-delimited
files. However, this is hardly a database, since it is read and written
linearly, and then only when the application is started and ended.
of more sophisticated data sets for which an XML document might be
suitable as a database are personal contact lists (names, phone
numbers, addresses, etc.), browser bookmarks, and descriptions of the
MP3s you've stolen with the help of Napster. However, given the low
price and ease of use of databases like dBASE and Access, there seems
little reason to use an XML document as a database even in these cases.
The only real advantage of XML is that the data is portable, and this
is less of an advantage than it seems due to the widespread
availability of tools for serializing databases as XML.
first question you need to ask yourself when you start thinking about
XML and databases is why you want to use a database in the first place.
Do you have legacy data you want to expose? Are you looking for a place
to store your Web pages? Is the database used by an e-commerce
application in which XML is used as a data transport? The answers to
these questions will strongly influence your choice of database and
middleware (if any), as well as how you use that database.
example, suppose you have an e-commerce application that uses XML as a
data transport. It is a good bet that your data has a highly regular
structure and is used by non-XML applications. Furthermore, things like
entities and the encodings used by XML documents probably aren't
important to you -- after all, you are interested in the data, not how
it is stored in an XML document. In this case, you'll probably need a
relational database and software to transfer the data between XML
documents and the database. If your applications are object-oriented,
you might even want a system that can store those objects in the
database or serialize them as XML.
On the other hand, suppose
you have a Web site built from a number of prose-oriented XML
documents. Not only do you want to manage the site, you would like to
provide a way for users to search its contents. Your documents are
likely to have a less regular structure and things such as entity usage
are probably important to you because they are a fundamental part of
how your documents are structured. In this case, you might want a
product like a native XML database or a content management system. This
will allow you to preserve physical document structure, support
document-level transactions, and execute queries in an XML query