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May 18, 1998

XML Site Publishing Proves its Worth.

URL: Paul Howson of The Design Group Qld.
describes the project: is a community owned and run Internet Service Provider in rural Queensland, Australia. A recent government grant funded re-equipping the service and establishing an Internet Cafe for public internet access. We were commissioned to create a new web site for the ISP and Cafe.

We had used tools like Fusion, Cyberstudio and PageMill for previous web sites. These tools have slick interfaces and clever table generation for wysiwyg layout.

However, we found them to be poor at content management, requiring you to manually "layout" all your pages (with a clumsiness reminiscent of early dtp packages). Support for automatic text formatting of the kind available through the "styles" mechanism of word processors and dtp software is almost non-existent or very limited. In addition, importing of formatted text from elsewhere rarely preserves existing formatting, and can even corrupt it in strange ways.

And once you've set up a site, you're locked into using that tool as the repository for editing and updating.

So we decided to try a different tack.

This new site is authored entirely in a couple of text files with xml markup (apart from a page template and the home page created in Cyberstudio).

As pure text, the xml source is easy to edit in a word processor or text editor (even on an old PowerBook with limited speed and memory).

Authoring in xml, as opposed to html, allows working with high level abstractions --- for example, "pages", "sections", various kinds of headings and special purpose paragraphs or tables.

The xml source is then parsed (using the blox parser in Frontier) and translated via a set of rules (which match patterns of tags in the source document) into html, in the process separating the source into "pages" in the Frontier ODB. Consistent yet highly flexible formatting can be achieved in this way. And of course, if you want to translate into another kind of markup (such as Quark or PageMaker for a print version) that's easy too from the same source.

The system has proven very effective, with the following benefits:

  • Authors and editors can work in ordinary text editing tools without the overhead of tools like Fusion or Cyberstudio (or even Frontier).
  • Document markup deals in high level abstractions (i.e. structural markup rather than formatting markup).
  • Rule-based translation to html offers great flexibility in mapping high level abstractions into hard-wired html for web publishing.
  • The Frontier site-management machinery handles rendering the site, including fixing up cross references (via the glossary) and generating navigation controls (via scripts).
Our next step is to further automate the whole xml-Frontier workflow process so that a site can be automatically brought up to date on, say, a nightly basis.

Paul Howson,

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