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A Publishing Infrastructure

The Cocoon project aims at changing the way web information is created, rendered and served. This new paradigm is based on the fact that document content, style and logic are often created by different individuals or working groups. Cocoon's goal of a complete separation of the three layers, allows them to be independently designed, created and managed. This reduces management overhead, increases work reuse and reduces time to market.

The Cocoon publishing model is heavily based on the XSLT transformation capabilities. XSLT allows complete separation of content and style (something that is much harder to obtain with HTML, even using CSS2 or other styling technologies). But Cocoon goes further and defines a way of separating content and style from the programming logic that drives server side behavior.

This fact has been widely acknowledge by most major vendors: Microsoft, IBM, SUN, Oracle, etc. All of these vendors offer XML and XSL processors. Cocoon uses these technologies and incorporates them into a publishing infrastructure.

An infrastructure must have these characteristics:

  • pervasive scope
  • standardize access points
  • minimal (almost zero) user intervention
  • transparent service provision
  • applicability to existing and future applications

Cocoon has a pervasive scope as it address all aspects of the web publishing needs. Even if the most common use of Cocoon is the automatic creation of HTML (and XHTML) through the processing of statically or dynamically generated XML files, Cocoon is also able to perform more sophisticated formatting, such as XSL:FO rendering on PDF, client-depending transformations such as WML formatting for WAP-enabled devices or direct XML serving to XML and XSL aware clients. Cocoon can even apply different stylesheets to a unique XML content based on the requesting client.

Once installed on a web server such as Site Server, Apache or Netscape. Cocoon doesn't require any user intervention. It is there and usable for content publishing. Only when creating a custom XML processor does one need to touch Cocoon itself.

Cocoon offers transparent services with its API available through a simple XML syntax suitable for most of any users needs. With the more specialized needs a simple and effective Java interface provides the access needed for a more powerful manipulation of XML elements.

Finally, Cocoon is applicable to existing and future applications. This is due in part to the fact that XML is the glue used to connect most of the parts together; ensuring a long life to the content and an easy interface to current applications. The way Cocoon handles dynamic site creation also enhances Cocoon's applicability to current and future applications needs.

Publishing Static Content

Cocoon can apply different stylesheets to different clients. In the more esoteric examples, it allows one to create a WML and HTML output version of the same content file. In most cases, HTML is the desired output. The reason is that unless the XML and XSL aware client can understand the same version of the standard as the one Cocoon is using (XML 1.0 and XSLT 1.0) then only HTML can be truly be seen as a suitable output for today's web publishing needs.

This means that server side processing of the XML content files are needed. This is done by creating an XML and an appropriate XSL file. This is the standard way of generating HTML files from XML content. What Cocoon offers is a transparent way of doing this processing. There is no need to write an ASP, JSP or CGI to call an XML parser and then process the output with an XSL processor. This is automatically handled by Cocoon's infrastructure.

In that infrastructure, it is possible to chain calls to XSLT processors. This has the possibly great advantage of separating all the layers of the publishing needs: flow, layout and display. A user concentrates on writing a content file. Cocoon can then call a first transformation that deals with the flow. The flow transformation usually adds menus suitable for a directory, a whole site or any special need of the content file. The flow transformation can then call a layout transformation sheet. That sheet will add more layout information such as headers, footers, color schemes, etc. Finally the display transformation would handle the actual HTML transformation from the output of all the previous processing.

Although the previous example is overkill for most web sites needs, Cocoon's effective caching system ensures that multiple XSLT transformations do not hinder in any way the speed at which they are presented to the user. The transformation is done once and the resulting HTML output is presented many times.

Cocoon's infrastructure can also be applied to an offline scenario. This generates HTML files in the case of web sites. However a very complex processing can be performed on the XML files, a processing that might be too time consuming on runtime scenarios: automatic image generation, flow generation by directory analysis, etc. An example of an offline scenario can be seen at Cocoon's site ( On that site, the menus and headers are automatically generated by processing XML content files, this allows for a more professional look and feel, yet it doesn't require an artist each time a label changes.

Publishing Dynamic Content

In dynamic content generation technology, content and logic are combined: in every page there is a mix of static content and dynamic logic that work together to create the final result, usually using run-time or time-dependent input. XSP is no exception, since it defines a syntax to mix static content and programmatic logic in a way that is independent of both the programming language used and the binary results that the final source-rendering generated.

But it must be understood that XSP is just a piece of the framework: exactly like how formatting objects mix style and content, XSP objects mix logic and content. On the other hand, since both are XML DTDs, XSLT can be used to move from pure content to these final DTDs, placing the style and logic on the transformation layers and guaranteeing complete separation and easier maintenance.

Other ways to create dynamic content is through XSP taglib, processors and formatters. XSP taglib allows cocoon to map XML elements to processing instructions. The custom cocoon processors can go through an XML document and modify its content. Finally, the formatters are used to generate XML documents based on a user's request and its session information.

Together these elements offer the equivalent of COM and CORBA. They offer a way to solve the interoperability problem between different applications. In the Cocoon infrastructure, XML becomes the API from which other components are called. Whether COM, CORBA, Java or any other language is actually called becomes transparent to the user. The user only needs to know about the XML API which, by definition, should strive to be human readable. This makes debugging and maintenance a lot easier.

This approach to dynamic content generation is quite different from other methods. The typical method proposed by SUN and Microsoft is to generate and XML output from a servlet or ASP page, then process it with an XSLT processor. Some of the drawbacks of that method are:

  • Logic and content are mixed. Editing such a file requires more senior programmers than editing a simple XML file.
  • There is no proper multiple XSLT processing. This can be individually programmed, however it is a difficult problem and might prevent some web servers from effectively caching the output.
  • The XML output must be display friendly. This means that the output XML must be easily understandable by the final XSLT file to generate a suitable HTML file. Sometimes, an XML element must be converted to be more suitable to a given display context. This process can be automated inside Cocoon by adding XSLT transformations and adding display hints. However, inside a JSP or ASP page, programmers will tend to write more in term of the display and less of the semantic.
  • Reusability is limited. With Cocoon's approach, it is straightforward for a content writer to add a <locale:date> tag inside his document. That tag will call the proper functionality required to display the current date in the user's current locale. Without Cocoon, this becomes a lot more cumbersome since the programmer must explicitly call the proper functions and incorporate the result inside the XML output stream. In that case, locale considerations might not have been made across the site, this is difficult to check with the content mixed with the logic.

The Cocoon model allows web sites to be highly structured and well designed, reducing duplication efforts and site management costs by allowing different presentations of the same data depending on the requesting client (HTML clients, PDF clients, WML clients) and separating on different contexts different requirements, skills and capacities. Cocoon allows a better human resource management by giving to each individual its job and reducing to a minimum the cross-talks between different working contexts.

To do this, the Cocoon model divides the development of web content in three separate levels:

  • XML creation -
  • the XML file is created by the content owners. They do not require specific knowledge on how the XML content is further processed rather than the particular chosen DTD/namespace. This is done through human intervention or through dynamic generation.
  • XML processing -
  • the requested XML file is processed and the logic contained in its logicsheet is applied. Unlike other dynamic content generators, the logic is separated from the content file.
  • XSL rendering -
  • the created document is then rendered by applying an XSL stylesheet to it and formatting it to the specified resource type (HTML, PDF, XML, WML, XHTML)

    Unlike other XML projects, Cocoon concentrates on solving the publishing infrastructure problem. In that respect it is ahead of a lot of the major vendors that up to now seem to only worry about the technology needed and less about how it integrates into a publishing framework.

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