Experiences with XSLTForms and Servlex

By O’Neil Delpratt on March 08, 2013 at 03:04p.m.

At Saxonica, we have for a long time now used a tailor-made java application to create and issue licenses for all commercial products we develop. There is no real database at the back-end, but just a local XML file with customer details and copies of the licenses created and issued. For a one man company this poses no real problem, but inevitably as the company has expanded over the last two years this has been a major concern.

Early last year Mike Kay presented me with the task to create a new saxon-license application with the following requirements:

From the outset we thought that for such a tool which heavily relies on XML and XSLT at its core, that requirements would be best met using XSLTForms and Servlex to develop the tool.

In this blog post I would like to share my own experiences in the development of the saxon-license webapp using Servlex and XSLTForms. In the discussion I include how we stitched on our existing back-end core Java tool and challenges faced with encoding. Specific details of the features and functions are not that important here, only the engineering process is of interest.

On the client-side we write XForms [1] documents, which are manipulated by XSLTForms [2] (created by Alain Couthures)  to render in the browsers. XSLTForms is an open source client-side implementation, not a plug-in or install, that works with all major browsers.

On the server-side we integrate the core Saxon-license tool in a Servlex webapp [3] as Saxon extension functions called from within XSL. The Servlex is an open-source implementation of the EXPath webapp framework [4] based on Saxon and Calabash as its XSLT, XQuery and XProc processors.  Servlex provides a way to write web applications directly in XSLT. It is developed as a Java EE application requiring Servlet technology, sitting on tomcat for binding to HTTP server-side.

Saxon License-tool functionality

The server-side Servlex works as a dispatching and routing mechanism to components (implementation as XSLT stylesheets), applying a configuration-based mapping between the request URI and the component used to process that URI. The container communicates with the components by means of an XML representation of the HTTP request, and receives in turn XML data with HTML at the request body with XForms content and XSLTForms references to render the page.  The representation of the HTTP response is sent back to the client. There are buttons on the forms, which if pressed trigger the action HTTP PUT request; made through the client-side XSLTForms. These requests are handled by Servlex.

There are 7=5 main XSLT functions described below, which map the URIs to generate the various XForms to tunnel the instance data between the XForms. These functions all make calls to the core Saxon-license tool written in Java, made available as a Saxon extensions calls from the XSLT:

  1. fnRunMainForm: A request to serve the main form is made with the following URI pattern:

    License requests are usually made through the main saxonica website either for evaluation or paid order (See: http://www.saxonica.com/download/download.xml and http://www.saxonica.com/purchase/purchase.xml, respectively), these orders are receives as an email, which are then copied and pasted on the main form. This data is sent in the form of a XForms instance in a web request, picked up by servlex.

  2. fnManualEntry: Manual Entry form for manual creation of the customer details to create a license. A request is made to servlex with the following URI pattern:

  3. fnFetchRecord: Existing licenses created we can retrieve and re-issue. A request is made to Servlex with the following URI pattern. We observe the parameter after the ? Is the license number to fetch:
  4. fnReport: This function generates an HTML page containing all license created or such the last 20.
  5. fnEditParseRequest: Manual Entry form: The manual form with the client data populated. The order request from the main form is parsed and returned as a Xforms instance data which is used to generate the form on the server. A request is made to Servlex with the following URI pattern:

Securing access to the saxon-license webapp is achieved through apache2 configuration.

Encoding problem

A long-standing problem we faced in this application was the handling of non-ASCII characters. We raised this issue with Alain and Florent the creators of XSLTForms and Servlex, respectively, to get to the bottom of this problem.

Basically, if the user enters data on a form, we're sending it back to the server in a url-encoded POST message, and it's emerging from Servlex in the form of XML presented as a string, and if there are non-ASCII characters then they are miscoded. In the form we set the submission method attribute to 'xml-urlencoded-post' to guarantee that the next page will fully replace the current one: XMLHttpRequest is not used in this case.

We were seeing the typical pattern that you get when the input characters are encoded as a UTF-8 byte sequence and the byte sequence is then decoded to characters by someone who believes it to be 8859-1. We were not able to work out where the incorrect decoding was happening. We originally circumvented the problem by reversing the error: we converted the string back to bytes treating each char as a byte, and then decoded the bytes as UTF-8.

A feature of XSLTForms is the profiler (enabled by pressing F1 or setting debug='yes' in the xsltforms-options process instruction). The profiler allows the inspection of the instance data. Another mechanism is to inspect the requests sent by the browser with the network profiler of a debugger.

We established that on the client side, there is an HTML Form Element that gets built, and just before the submit() method gets called on this object, the data appears to be OK. But when we look at the Tomcat log of the POST request, it's wrong. Somewhere between the form.submit() on the client and the logging of the message on the server, it's getting corrupted. We can't actually see where the encoding and decoding is happening between these two points.

To tackle this problem Florent provided a development version of Servlex, which added logging of the octets as they are read from the binary stream (the logger org.expath.servlex must be set to trace, which should be the default in that version).  In addition to logging the raw headers, as they are read by Tomcat.

With this new version of Servlex in place I inputted the following data on the main form. We observe the euro symbol at the end of my first name 'O'Neil' is a non-ASCII character which needs to be preserved:

First Name: O'Neil€
Last Name: Delpratt
Company: Saxonica
Country: United Kingdom
Email Address: oneil@saxonica.com
Agree to Terms: checked 

After submitting this data to the URI pattern: .../app/license-tool/editParseRequest  we see below the the log data reported by tomcat. What is interesting is the line 'DEBUG [2013-03-04 18:06:34,281]: Request - header   : content-type / application/x-www-form-urlencoded'.  Also at this stage the input to the receiving form has been corrupted to 'O'Neil€' which should be 'O'Neil€' :

DEBUG [2013-03-04 18:06:34,279]: Request - servlet  : parseRequest
DEBUG [2013-03-04 18:06:34,280]: Request - path     : /parseRequest
DEBUG [2013-03-04 18:06:34,280]: Request - method   : POST
DEBUG [2013-03-04 18:06:34,280]: Request - uri      : http://localhost:8080/app/license-tool/parseRequest
DEBUG [2013-03-04 18:06:34,280]: Request - authority: http://localhost:8080
DEBUG [2013-03-04 18:06:34,280]: Request - ctxt_root: /app/license-tool
DEBUG [2013-03-04 18:06:34,280]: Request - param    : postdata / <Document><Data>First Name: O'Neil€
Last Name: Delpratt
Company: Saxonica
Country: United Kingdom
Email Address: oneil@saxonica.com
Agree to Terms: checked </Data><Options><Confirmed>false</Confirmed><Create>false</Create><Send>false</Send><Generate>false</Generate><Existing/></Options></Document>
DEBUG [2013-03-04 18:06:34,281]: Request - header   : host / localhost:8080
DEBUG [2013-03-04 18:06:34,281]: Request - header   : user-agent / Mozilla/5.0 (X11;
      Ubuntu; Linux i686; rv:18.0) Gecko/20100101 Firefox/18.0
DEBUG [2013-03-04 18:06:34,281]: Request - header   : accept / text/html,application/xhtml+xml,application/xml;q=0.9,*/*;q=0.8
DEBUG [2013-03-04 18:06:34,281]: Request - header   : accept-language / en-gb,en;q=0.5
DEBUG [2013-03-04 18:06:34,281]: Request - header   : accept-encoding / gzip, deflate
DEBUG [2013-03-04 18:06:34,281]: Request - header   : referer / http://localhost:8080/app/license-tool/main
DEBUG [2013-03-04 18:06:34,281]: Request - header   : connection / keep-alive
DEBUG [2013-03-04 18:06:34,281]: Request - header   : content-type / application/x-www-form-urlencoded
DEBUG [2013-03-04 18:06:34,281]: Request - header   : content-length / 482
DEBUG [2013-03-04 18:06:34,281]: Raw body content type: application/x-www-form-urlencoded
TRACE [2013-03-04 18:06:34,281]: TraceInputStream(org.apache.catalina.connector.CoyoteInputStream@771eeb)
TRACE [2013-03-04 18:06:34,282]: read([B@1a70476): -1

Florent made the following observations:

  1. The content-type is application/x-www-form-urlencoded, which should conform to http://www.w3.org/TR/xforms/#serialize-urlencode, but seems not to: the XML seems to be passed as is, instead of been split into individual elements and their string values. But I am not an expert on XForms so I might be wrong.¶
  2. Still about application/x-www-form-urlencoded and the same section, it says that the non-ASCII characters are replaced based on the octets of their UTF-8 representation, so the encoding should not be used here.  This content-type does not carry any charset parameter anyway, if I am right.
  3. Again about application/x-www-form-urlencoded, it is actually handled by Java EE as parameters, instead of simply giving the raw POST entity content.  I am not sure exactly how it works WRT the encoding.

Alain provided the following example to test the assumptions made by Florent.


<html xmlns="http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml" xmlns:xf="http://www.w3.org/2002/xforms">
        <title>Encoding Test</title>
            <xf:submission id="s01" method="xml-urlencoded-post" replace="all" action="http://www.agencexml.com/xsltforms/dump.php">
                <xf:message level="modeless" ev:event="xforms-submit-error">Submit error.</xf:message>
        <xf:input ref=".">


<html xmlns="http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml">
        <title>HTTP XML POST Dump</title>
        <h1>HTTP XML POST Dump</h1>
        <h2>Raw Data :</h2>
        $body = file_get_contents("php://input");
        echo strlen($body);
        echo " bytes: <br/>";
        echo "<pre>$body</pre>";
        if(substr($body,0,9) == "postdata=") {
            $body = urldecode(substr($body,strpos($body,"=")+1));
        $xml = new DOMDocument();
        $xslt = new XSLTProcessor();
        $xsl = new DOMDocument();
        $indent = "<xsl:stylesheet xmlns:xsl=\"http://www.w3.org/1999/XSL/Transform\" version=\"1.0\"><xsl:output method=\"xml\" indent=\"yes\" encoding=\"UTF-8\"/><xsl:template match=\"@*|node()\"><xsl:copy-of select=\".\"/></xsl:template></xsl:stylesheet>";
        $result = $xslt->transformToXml($xml);
        $result = substr($result, strpos($result,"?>")+3);
        echo "<h2>Indented XML :</h2><pre>".htmlspecialchars($result, ENT_QUOTES)."</pre>";

When submitting '€', I get this:

Raw Data :
41 bytes:
Indented XML :

and with Firebug, I can see following, which is correct:

saxon-license img3

Florent states:

What should be in the content of the HTTP request is %E2%82%AC to represent the Euro symbol as URL- encoded (because that represents the 3 octets of in UTF-8).
Because of the "automatic" handling of that Content-Type by Java EE, I am afraid the only way to know for sure what is on the wire is to actually look into it (using a packet sniffer, like Wireshark for instance).

At this stage it was important to check what packets are being sent. The following is a snippet of the reports from Wireshark, with the data format correct at this point.

HTTP    1207    POST /app/license-tool/parseRequest HTTP/1.1  (application/x-www-form-urlencoded)
[truncated] postdata=%3CDocument+xmlns%3D%22%22%3E%3CData%3EFirst+Name%3A+O%27Neil

Florent discovered using Alain's test case that it was actually Tomcat itself interpreting the %xx encoding as Latin-1!  More infos at:


In summary, the message is the decoding was done using 8859-1 not UTF-8 as one would expect.

To overcome the problem Florent created a new config property for Servlex, which is named org.expath.servlex.default.charset, the value of which can be set to "UTF-8" in Tomcat's conf/catalina.properties. If set, it's value is used as the charset for requests without an explicit charset in Content-Type.

Thanks to Florent, Alain and Mike the encoding problem has now been resolved. The lesson learnt in all, is that tracking down encoding problems can still be very hard work.

[1] XForms. W3C. http://www.w3.org/MarkUp/Forms/
[2] XSLTForms. Alain Couthures. http://www.agencexml.com/xsltforms
[3] Servlex. Florent George. Gihub: https://github.com/fgeorges/servlex  Google Project: http://code.google.com/p/servlex/
[4] EXPath Webapp. http://expath.org/wiki/Webapp