I also blog frequently on the Yesod Web Framework blog, as well as the FP Complete blog.

XSLT Rant Explained

April 9, 2012

My previous blog post got a bit more attention than I'd anticipated. I hadn't really intended it as more than a place to link to and let the XSLT people I work with know that the language isn't representative of functional languages. However, a number of people have asked for more details. That's the purpose of this post.

Before getting into the claims of my post itself, let me address some of the counter-claims I saw in some of the discussions:

  • XSLT isn't *functional*, it's *declarative*. I can agree with this distinction, and think the XSLT world needs to accept it.
  • XSLT is actually very concise. No, it's not. XPath- the query language used by XSLT- is incredibly concise, and I have no issue with it. In fact, when designing xml-conduit, Aristid and I designed the combinators after XPath.
  • XSLT 2.0 fixes a lot of this stuff. XSLT 2.0 is just lipstick on a hog. It changes none of the underlying problems.

One last bit of explanation: I don't think most people realize the level to which XSLT is used in some projects. When used as a client-side technology to convert some simple XML into simple HTML, XSLT can work just fine. I still think it's a horrible language, but it's passable. The real problem is that XSLT doesn't scale. Here's the issue I was alluding to in my previous blog post. The DITA-OT has some code that looks like:

<!-- Copy @id attributes verbatim -->
<xsl:template match="@id">
    <xsl:attribute name="id" select="."/>

<xsl:template match="some-element">
    <xsl:apply-templates select="@id"/> <!-- Applies the default template to the ID attribute -->
    <!-- A bunch more ugly code -->

Then, one of my coworkers unwittingly added:

<!-- Some special case requires printing out the attributes verbatim. -->
<xsl:template match="@*">
    <xsl:if test="$some-special-case">
        <xsl:value-of select="."/>

That second block says to print out the raw value of the attribute in question. The problem is, it overrides the definition of the @id template in the first block, and now all the ids for some-element are being printed out verbatim, which is not what we wanted!

So which of those code blocks is wrong? Both of them. You shouldn't be polluting the global namespace with these kinds of specific templates, they each should have been put in their own mode. But I have two points here:

  • XSLT is encouraging people to write bad code by using a global namespace by default.
  • It's horribly difficult to find a bug like this. This project is well over 8000 lines of XSLT code, spread across some 40 files. It took me an hour to debug this. Sure, the people writing the original code wrote it badly, but a language shouldn't punish maintainers like this!

The issue here is one that many XSLT proponents contend is a strength: you can go ahead and modify the behavior of existing templates in a later file. This can actually be very convenient. Imagine you're converting DocBook to HTML, and you have:

<xsl:template match="para">

And now you decide that you would like to change this so that a para tag is always given a class of paragraph in the HTML. You can go ahead and write a customization:

<xsl:template match="para">
    <p class="paragraph">

And all of the existing code will automatically use this new template. I won't argue that this isn't convenient. It certainly is. But it flies in the face of all good engineering practice. Suddenly, I have no idea what an apply-templates will do. I describe this as:

You have no idea what a single line of code will do without analyzing every other line of code in your program.

There are plenty of ways to do this properly in real programming languages. In my Haskell-based DITA processing code, for example, there is a setting allowing you to specify specific handling for individual elements. Then in the calling code, you are explicitly calling into a function for which you don't know what the output will necessarily be. Everything is properly namespaced and segregated, and you can know by looking at the code in front of you just how it's going to be dispatched.

I'm out of time for now, but if anyone wants to see examples of XML processing done right, let me know. I will say that for some of my company's newer products, I've completely reimplemented DITA-to-HTML transforms, and it's likely a tenth of the size of the DITA-OT's HTML transforms.