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Subject: [ubl-ndrsc] Eve's writeup on list containers

In Wednesday's meeting, I agreed to provide a writeup on the issues with 
list containers.  Here it is.  I'm hoping that some of this might be 
useful in the eventual creation/modification of a position paper on the 
wider topic of containers in general.

*List Containers in UBL

   Executive summary
   Introduction and definitions
   Motivating the presence of containers in the physical model
   The particular value of list containers in the physical model
   The value of list-container ABIEs in the logical model

*Executive summary

This writeup considers whether list containers should appear in our 
physical model and, separately, in our logical model.  I conclude by 
recommending that it should appear in both, but I take far too many 
words and steps to get there. :-)

*Introduction and definitions

When we say "container" in this discussion, we mean an XML element, 
plain and simple.  XML is a hierarchical technology, leading to the 
possibility -- indeed the likelihood -- of significantly nested element 
structures in nearly all XML instance documents.

A BIE is a model for a piece of business information to which has been 
applied a semantically unique and useful definition (and of course also 
an identified business context, because it's a BIE and not a CC, but 
that's not important right now).  The containership discussion revolves 
pretty much entirely around ABIEs, which are collections of other BIEs 
and thus have a kind of hierarchy themselves.

Note that our process of turning our logical model (spreadsheet) into a 
physical model (XSD) takes ABIEs and turns them into complex datatypes, 
which each govern one or more XML elements.  So there is more than just 
a vague similarity here -- ABIE hierarchy pretty much turns into XML 
hierarchy, to a first approximation.

One question we've been considering is whether to allow for any kinds of 
containers that are *not* properly ABIEs.  Do we ever need XML elements 
in UBL that are not connected to a semantically unique and useful 
definition but are rather some kind of artificial construct?  Is it 
useful to have a construct adds nothing of value to the logical model, 
but does add value to the physical model?  We'll consider the logical 
and the physical value propositions separately for list containers.

This writeup focuses on a specific kind of container, a "list 
container".  This is a container whose contents consist solely of a 
series of like elements.  An example is the series of line items that 
appears in an order.  Currently all multiple-cardinality constructs in 
our logical model are of the form 0..n or 1..n; we don't (yet) have any 
cardinalities like 3..35.  But this discussion applies to them as well.

*Motivating the presence of containers in the physical model

It's pretty easy to see the value added when containers are present in 
(appropriate) abundance in the physical model.  All XML tools adapt to 
XML's hierarchical nature and tend to hook up nearly all processing to 
the presence of elements (or element boundaries, for streaming processors).

Thus, containers allow processing to "factor out" into the right place. 
  In OO-speak, if you turn containers into objects to which you attach 
methods, it's desirable to hide certain data "lower down" from methods 
operating on other data "higher up".  (There's no doubt an analogy here 
to relational processing of functional dependencies as well, but as my 
grip on OO technology is somewhat tenuous and my grip on relational 
technology is more so, I'll stop while I'm behind.)  You wouldn't want 
your Address information associated directly with a Party; it's useful 
to have the intervening Address ABIE/container because you do things 
with Party data that you don't do with Address data, and vice versa.

The benefit of factoring-out is true for XSD customization as well.  If 
the data is appropriately grouped, then each trading community needing 
to add more data will be able to find the conceptually right place to 
add those pieces.  It would be weird to have to add new address-related 
fields to PartyType, particularly since XSD would require that they get 
stuck at the end of the content model, possibly far away from the other 
address stuff.

As an aside, note that it's typically easier to flatten a deeply nested 
XML document (removing information) than to "tree-ify" a relatively flat 
XML document (adding new information, which may require human invention).

*The particular value of list containers in the physical model

I have been arguing that XML processing benefits from list containers as 
much as from other kinds of containers.  However, intellectual honesty 
(darn it :-) compels me to report some new findings that make this 
position slightly harder to hold.

Our current modeling formalism allows for only relatively simple content 
models.  For example, the content model of an order is (in DTDspeak):

   (Header, LineItem+, Summary?)

I don't believe it's possible to encode something more like the 
following in our spreadsheet without inventing another layer of ABIE; 
the nested parenthesized group can't be done and would probably 
*deserve* its own ABIE and definition if we really wanted this structure:

   (Header, (LineItem+, Summary?)+)

We do have some cases of multiple series of like elements within a 
single parent element, but each set has a different element name.  For 
example, an order header looks like this:

   (IssueDateTime, Identifier*, BuyerIdentifier?, SellerIdentifier?,
   BuyerAccountId?, Quote*, ...)

Here, both Identifier and Quote are series of like elements, but they 
have different names so the series are easily distinguishable in processing.

Because of this situation, it turns out that XSLT processing (for 
example) is not all that hard when there is no list container present. 
All processing that needs to be done on the list as a whole could simply 
be done in the XSLT template for the parent element.  For example, a 
skeleton template for handling the Order element could look like this:

   <xsl:template match="ubl-procurement:Order">
     ...order setup stuff goes here...

     <xsl:apply-templates select="Header"/>
     (...shunt off to Header template...)

     ...line item setup stuff goes here...
     <xsl:apply-templates select="LineItem"/>
     (...shunt off to one LineItem template that works for all
         of them equally...)
     ...line item wrapup stuff goes here...

     <xsl:apply-templates select="Summary"/>
     (...shunt off to Summary template...)

     ...order wrapup stuff goes here...

I have been arguing that it would be more appropriate to put the line 
item setup and wrapup processing in its own dedicated LineItemList 
template, because these things are specific to the line items, not the 
order.  I asked Norm Walsh about this (he supplied an XSLT stylesheet 
from which I derived the above example); while he agreed that my 
position is conceptually sound, he felt that it may not be all that 
compelling in practical terms for XSLT designers.  Those of you who are 
planning to compile the UBL schemas into an object representation, or 
use procedural code to operate on UBL, might want to weigh in on this as 

Of course, the argument made above for easier customization still holds 
true for list containers just as much as for other containers.  If a 
trading community ever wanted to add some *un*like elements to a 
collection of like elements (such as metadata that applies across a 
whole line item list), the only honest way to do this in XSD is to hang 
the additions off a LineItemList structure.  (It would be extremely 
difficult and ugly to add a list container in the customization that 
wasn't present in the original.)

The only reason I can think of *not* to have list container elements is 
that it creates a bunch of new elements.  The question then becomes on 
of whether it's a true economy or a false economy not to have them, at 
which point the above arguments need to be referred to.

On balance, I maintain that the presence of list containers in the 
physical model is a good thing.  My general policy is to be generous 
with containers because they are the common currency of XML; I hope I've 
shown that the presence of list containers makes processing more natural 
and object-oriented, and allows for customization where the lack of a 
container would effectively disallow it.

*The value of list-container ABIEs in the logical model

If you accept my reasoning on why list containers are good in the 
physical model, it's time to consider whether we also need them in the 
logical model.

List containers have an interesting characteristic not shared by other 
kinds of containers: You can inspect the logical model and know exactly 
where all the list containers would go -- and therefore it would be easy 
to have our perl script generate them in the physical model while having 
no annoying traces of them appear in the logical model.  They would 
never have to be ABIEs, and never incurring the expense of having to 
write and maintain spreadsheet rows for them.  So why might it be 
desirable for a list container to be a true first-class ABIE?

One reason is that there is overhead in having to manage an obvious 
mismatch like this between the logical and physical models.  Right now, 
every XSD complex type has a connection to a BIE.  If we generate 
complex types with no connection back to a BIE, we have to explain a new 
kind of "thing" in the UBL universe.  (However, note that the advance 
word on CCTS V1.85 is that they are inventing a non-BIE structure for 
cases like this, so perhaps the mismatch would go away.  Then again, 
that means that a non-BIE list container would *still* appear in the 
logical model, just as a new kind of second-class thing.)

Another reason is that even if the list container doesn't start out as 
an ABIE logically, the moment that a trading community wants to use the 
power of XSD customization to contextualize a UBL list, they'll need to 
turn it into an ABIE to do so.  If it can be an ABIE as a result of that 
process, why not in its original state?  It's not so hard to define a 
list ABIE initially as "A collection of information about <insert name 
of repeatable things here>", and I don't really see any impurity in it 
when the first little contextualization could also use the same 
definition for a real BIE.  Also, I have no idea how a customizer would 
go about turning a non-BIE structure into a true BIE, particularly if 
the non-BIE really didn't appear anywhere in the logical model.

In fact, what this boils down to is that there's not so much difference, 
after all, between an ABIE and a complex datatype in XSD.  The reason 
that complex datatypes exist in XSD is *not* to manage constraints on 
the physical expression of the XML (DTDs did that just fine without the 
notion of a type hierarchy); it's to encapsulate a particular chunk of 
data that is likely to be associated with its own special functionality. 
  In this sense it's truly object-oriented, exactly as the BIE system is.

So if we agree that list containers are desirable in the physical model, 
it seems like more trouble than it's worth to *avoid* them in the 
logical model.


List containers good as logical things!
List containers good as physical things!

Eve Maler                                        +1 781 442 3190
Sun Microsystems                            cell +1 781 883 5917
XML Web Services / Industry Initiatives      eve.maler @ sun.com

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