Saxon-JS: XSLT 3.0 in the Browser

Debbie Lockett


Michael Kay


Copyright © 2016 Saxonica

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Saxon-JS: XSLT 3.0 in the Browser

Balisage: The Markup Conference 2016
August 2 - 5, 2016

XSLT in the Browser: A Short History

XSLT in the browser always had promise. During the period that XSLT 1.0 was under development, many people thought of it as primarily a client-side technology, and for some people, its subsequent success as a server-side technology was a surprise. (The same thing can be said of Java.) The promise of XSLT in the browser has never been fulfilled, but the potential benefits are still there. The objectives of separating content from presentation, and of handling the presentation and user interface using declarative technologies, remain as strong as they ever were.

XSLT 1.0 in the browser failed to take off largely because it required every browser to support it. It did get to the point (around 2006) where all the main desktop browsers had usable and interoperable XSLT 1.0 support, but at just about the same time mobile browsers started their journey to stardom, and XSLT was one of the first things to be dropped in the interests of saving memory footprint. And at the same time, the web had changed. (Remember "Web 2.0" and AJAX?) The old model where a web page was something that the software rendered and the user perused had gone: everything was interactive, and XSLT had failed to ride the wave.

By the time XSLT 2.0 emerged in 2007, the browser market had fragmented. None of the browser vendors wanted to upgrade their XSLT processors to 2.0 because there were no XSLT 2.0 applications that needed it, and no-one wanted to write XSLT 2.0 applications until browser support was forthcoming - not just from one browser, but across the whole range.

Meanwhile JavaScript was maturing. Implementations were getting faster, the language was getting richer, portability across browsers was improving, and frameworks like jQuery were starting to emerge to take some of the pain out of low-level DOM programming.

Around 2011 Saxonica decided to produce a client-side XSLT 2.0 engine to break this logjam. It would compile to JavaScript so it could run in any browser with decent JS support, and it would have an event-based processing model so it could handle user interaction as well as static page rendering. The result was Saxon-CE (CE for "client edition") [Saxon-CE]. It was built by stripping down the Saxon Java product to its bare essentials, compiling it to JavaScript using Google's GWT cross-compiler, and adding extensions to the language to handle user events and other aspects peculiar to the browser environment.

Saxon-CE generated a lot of interest, but there were some serious obstacles to adoption. From a user point of view, the size of the JavaScript (nearly 1Mb) meant that loading up an application was always going to take a few seconds. From Saxonica's perspective, the fact that we had to fork the Java product to cut the size down meant that ongoing development was going to be expensive; in addition, we found that testing new releases was a nightmare, because all the testing had to be done within the browser (GWT code runs in the browser only). The total dependency on GWT left us exposed (when something worked on one browser but failed on another there was absolutely nothing we could do about it). And commercially, we hit the same problem that so many other XSLT vendors have struggled with: how do you justify continued investment in a technology that is bringing in no revenue because users expect to get it for free?

So we decided to try again, but taking a different approach. The result is Saxon-JS, which we describe in this paper.

The Architecture of Saxon-JS

Saxon-JS is an XSLT 3.0 run-time library written in pure JavaScript. We've effectively split the Saxon product into its compile-time and run-time components (see Figure 1). The compiler runs on the server, and generates an intermediate representation of the compiled and optimized stylesheet in a custom XML format. We call this the "stylesheet export file" (or "SEF" for short). It's the same compiler whether you want to execute in the browser or on the server. Saxon-JS, running on the browser, reads in the stylesheet export file and executes it.

Figure 1: Compile-time and run-time architecture

svg image ../../../vol17/graphics/Lockett01/Lockett01-001.svg

Architecture diagram showing server compile-time and browser run-time using Saxon-JS.

Because it only handles the run-time, Saxon-JS is much smaller than Saxon-CE (while the Saxon-CE JavaScript file is around 900KB, Saxon-JS is less than 650KB, and minified it is only 220KB), and so we've been able to add a lot of the useful XSLT 3.0 features like support for maps, arrays, try/catch, and JSON. Being pure JavaScript, we can target non-browser environments like Node.js as well as the browser itself. We can modularize the code so that large but not-always-used features like format-date() only get pulled in if they are actually used. And we've got vastly more options for testing: all the heavyweight testing (the 10,000 W3C test cases for XSLT 3.0, and the 20,000 test cases for XPath 3.1) can be done on a server-side engine like Nashorn or Node.js, leaving only the interactive capabilities to be tested in the browser. Finally, because our code is now human-readable JavaScript rather than machine-generated, running it under the excellent debugging tools found in modern browsers becomes feasible.

In the following sections we describe some particular features of Saxon-JS that may be of interest. First we will look at the event-handling extensions to the XSLT language. Then we will examine the way that XSLT and JavaScript can interwork. We will then describe how Saxon-JS stacks up against the W3C XSLT and XPath specifications; and finally we'll point out a few interesting aspects of the internal implementation.

Event Handling in Saxon-JS

Saxon-JS has all the same event-handling machinery as Saxon-CE, so it can be used to write fully interactive applications using XSLT's declarative programming model.

The essential insight here is that the rule-based programming paradigm [Rule-Based Programming], which was introduced into XSLT because it's such an effective way of handling semi-structured data, is essentially identical to the event-based processing model that has become universal in writing interactive user interfaces. It's based on the idea of writing a program as a set of rules each containing a condition under which the rule fires, and an action to be performed when the rule is triggered; rules are designed as far as possible to be independent of each other, and the order of execution is determined by the order in which events occur, not by anything hard-coded by the programmer.

In XSLT the "condition" part of a rule is in two parts: the match attribute is a pattern that describes which XML elements are eligible for processing by this rule, and the mode attribute names a phase of processing during which the rule is active. In the interactive XSLT processing model used by Saxon-CE and now Saxon-JS, we use these same two components: the mode attribute now describes a user-interface event that has occurred (for example, a mouse click), and the match attribute identifies the element where it occurred. So a rule defining what happens when a user clicks on a button might look like this:

<xsl:template mode="ixsl:onclick" match="button[@label='expand']">
    <xsl:result-document href="#detail-area">
        <xsl:apply-templates select="doc('details.xml')"/>

The mode names (onlick in this example) reflect the event names in the JavaScript event model, and the element names in the match attribute are the names of HTML elements where the event occurred.

In XSLT 3.0 the fallback rules for what happens when there is no explicit rule that matches an input event can vary from one mode to another. For interactive events such as onclick, the natural rule is to "bubble" the event up to containing (ancestor) elements: if no onclick event has been defined for a particular element, but an onclick event has been defined for its immediate container, then we should pass the event to the parent element. This leads effectively to a default template rule rather like:

<xsl:template mode="ixsl:onclick" match="*">
    <xsl:apply-templates select=".." mode="#current"/>

In Saxon-CE this "bubbling" behaviour was hard-coded in the product, but in Saxon-JS it has been achieved by generalizing the mode-based on-no-match behaviour defined in the XSLT 3.0 specification [XSLT 3.0].

The processing of each input event is a separate transformation. XSLT 3.0 provides a much clearer processing model here. It distinguishes an initial stage of "priming" a stylesheet (during which, for example, global variables are evaluated and stylesheet parameters are supplied) followed by multiple invocations of the stylesheet, each of which can supply a different initial node to be processed (the "initial match selection") and a different initial mode. The initial node and mode correspond directly to the information available to a JavaScript event processor when a user interaction event occurs.

The result of such a transformation is typically to rewrite a portion of the HTML page. This is achieved using the xsl:result-document instruction. The href attribute of this instruction identifies the fragment of the HTML page to be modified, typically by giving the ID attribute. If xsl:result-document is not used, the result of the transformation resets the entire body of the HTML page.

Additional instructions (in a Saxon-defined namespace) are available to allow attributes and properties of HTML elements to be modified. These make it easy to implement common use cases where the effect of clicking a button is to change the CSS style of an HTML element.

XSLT interoperability with JavaScript

In an ideal world, applications would be written entirely in XSLT, with no need ever to write any JavaScript code. In practice, however, there will be functionality that the browser only offers via JavaScript interfaces. In addition, it is no longer possible to pretend that JavaScript is a second-rate programming language. Although it has its weaknesses, it can be incredibly powerful, and for an interpreted language, its speed is astounding. There are an increasing number of JavaScript libraries offering capability that is hard to resist.

While the type system of XSLT 1.0 was closely aligned with JavaScript, this ceased to be true in XSLT 2.0. Some XDM types such as xs:decimal have no equivalent at all in JavaScript, and others such as xs:date have subtly different semantics from the nearest JavaScript equivalent. This creates challenges both for implementing an XSLT processor in JavaScript, and for designing interfaces that allow XSLT code to call JavaScript and vice-versa.

Because it is impossible to obtain information about the expectations of a JavaScript function with respect to the arguments it accepts (even the question of how many arguments are expected has no answer), there can be no conversion of supplied arguments to an expected type as occurs in XPath function calling. If you supply a node, the caller will see a node, even if it was expecting a string. Compounding this problem, the XSLT compiler running on the server has no advance knowledge of what functions exist in the target execution environment. One approach would be to require users to provide function signatures in some kind of stylesheet declaration, but this would be very constricting in the flexible world of the browser, where it is commonplace to test dynamically whether a function exists before deciding whether to call it. (The function-available() function in XSLT 1.0 reflects this tradition, but has been undermined by the move in XSLT 2.0 towards a more statically typed language, where the set of available functions is expected to be fixed in the static context.)

Saxon-JS (like Saxon-CE before it) responds to these challenges by making the interaction with JavaScript as dynamic as possible. For example, there is a namespace for calling global JavaScript functions: a call of the form js:foo(x,y,z) is always accepted by Saxon at compile-time, and results in a run-time call of the global JavaScript function foo, or a dynamic error if no such function is defined. A call on function-available('js:foo') is never evaluated statically, but returns true at run-time if the global function foo actually exists.

Saxon-JS uses a third-party library, Big [Big.js], to implement xs:decimal and large xs:integer values (smaller xs:integer values are handled using the native JavaScript Number type). XDM strings map to JavaScript strings, xs:double to Number, date/time types to the JavaScript Date type (with additional timezone information). Other types such as durations and xs:QName are implemented entirely within Saxon-JS. In a few cases conformance has been sacrificed: for example xs:float is implemented as a JavaScript Number, which is technically non-conformant because the precision of the result of numeric calculations is too high.

When atomic values of any data type are passed to a JavaScript function, the XDM value is converted to the nearest JavaScript equivalent. For example xs:decimal values are converted to JavaScript Number objects. This means of course that there may be a loss of precision; but it's probably a better choice in most cases than passing the Big object directly.

Saxon-JS has an advantage over Saxon-CE in that the XDM data model now includes maps. JavaScript objects returned by an extension function, rather than being treated as alien objects that can only be accessed using further extension functions, can now be accessed directly as maps. For example, it becomes possible to add an interactive extension function ixsl:style() which returns all the style properties of an HTML element, as a map. Then, for example, ixsl:style($node)?hidden could be used to obtain the value of the 'hidden' style property.

Mapping XDM sequences and arrays to JavaScript arrays is not straightforward. Most XPath constructs work on sequences rather than arrays, but the mapping of XDM sequences to JavaScript arrays is imperfect, because of the equivalence in XDM of a singleton (for example the single xs:integer value 17) to a sequence of length 1. This inevitably creates an asymmetry whereby a sequence of two, three, or four integers is passed to a JavaScript function as an array of integers, but a sequence of a single integer is passed not as an array, but as a single number. The mapping of XDM arrays to JavaScript arrays is much closer, but this then creates a problem in deciding whether an array returned by a JavaScript function should be mapped to an XDM array or to an XDM sequence.

Conformance with W3C Specifications

At the time of writing, XSLT 3.0 [XSLT 3.0] and XPath 3.1 [XPath 3.1] are very close to being finalized, and they offer a great deal of functionality that is particularly attractive in the browser environment: notably support for maps, arrays, and JSON. Support for these specifications has therefore been one of the project's objectives.

At the same time, a critical success factor is to keep the Saxon-JS executable as small as possible, to minimize the time taken to download and parse the code when an HTML page is loaded. This means we have to be selective about some of the features in the specification that appear to have a high overhead in relation to their usefulness.

The browser environment is not static, so it makes sense to defer implementation of features that can exploit imminent advances in the browser platform. To take an example, implementing the normalize-unicode() function within Saxon-JS would require a quite disproportionate amount of code, which becomes completely unnecessary once the browsers uniformly implement the JavaScript 6 function String.normalize() which does the same job.

A particular area where these design constraints come to a head is in the area of regular expression support. XPath regular expressions and JavaScript regular expressions have significant differences. Implementing a new regular expression engine to provide the XPath syntax and semantics would require a lot of code, and would probably be rather slow. In any case, some users would probably prefer to use JS regular expressions in their XPath expressions and regard the question of W3C conformance as somewhat arcane. But the lack of proper support for Unicode in traditional JavaScript regular expressions is increasingly an embarassment. JavaScript 6 promises a way forward on this [ECMAScript 6, Unicode-aware regex], but it's not yet available on all browsers. So what we do is a compromise. We have a flag that users can set to request pure JavaScript regular expressions. In the absence of this flag, we try to translate the XPath regular expression into a JavaScript equivalent. For many cases this isn't difficult; for example the character classes such as \p{Lu} or \p{IsGreek} can be translated into long lists of individual characters. A tougher challenge is that on browsers without support for the new "u" flag (which enables Unicode support in regular expressions), non-BMP characters (those with codepoints above 65535) are treated as two characters by the JavaScript engine, so they match ".." but not ".". For this we're simply going to wait for the new JavaScript 6 facilities to appear, at which point the problem goes away.

With a few exceptions like those noted, Saxon-JS at its first release implements almost all of XPath 3.1 (notably including support for maps, arrays, and JSON). Support for XSLT 3.0 is more patchy: we've implemented the really useful features like try/catch, and compile-time features like text value templates and shadow attributes, but we have yet to tackle xsl:iterate or accumulators.

The optional xsl:evaluate instruction cannot be implemented in the core Saxon-JS product because it is a run-time engine only; it does not include an XPath parser. However, as a separate add-on, we are working on a solution to this: the REx parser generator from Gunther Rademacher [REx] allows us to generate an XPath parser written in XSLT or JavaScript, and with some post-processing of the resulting parse tree we can generate the same XML data structure that the Saxon export on the server produces (for the stylesheet export file), which of course we already know how to evaluate.

Support for optional features has been a low priority. In our first implementation there is no schema-awareness, no streaming, no serializer, no support for higher-order functions. Many of these restrictions will probably remain, in the interests of keeping the product small. (Higher-order functions, however, are very tempting: they have a very good fit with the JavaScript world. We will keep this under review.)

Saxon-JS Implementation Notes

In this section we highlight a few points that we hope will be of interest concerning the internal implementation of Saxon-JS.

First, it's useful to understand something about the stylesheet export file (SEF) produced on the server by the XSLT compiler. This is essentially a decorated expression tree. Its format is XML, though we have been considering JSON as an alternative since this might be faster to load and navigate. The nature of this tree is probably best illustrated by an example.

Here's a stylesheet function in source XSLT:

<xsl:function name="tour:place-knight" as="xs:integer*">

    <!-- This function places a knight on the board at a given square. The returned value is
    the supplied board, modified to indicate that the knight reached a given square at a given
    move -->

    <xsl:param name="move" as="xs:integer"/>
    <xsl:param name="board" as="xs:integer*"/>
    <xsl:param name="square" as="xs:integer"/>
    <!-- integer in range 0..63 -->
            for $i in 1 to 64 return
            if ($i = $square + 1) then $move else $board[$i]"/>


And here's the corresponding part of the SEF, slightly redacted for brevity:

<function name="Q{}place-knight" line="74" module=".../tour.xsl" 
        eval="3" flags="pU" as="xs:integer*" slots="5">
  <arg name="move" as="xs:integer"/>
  <arg name="board" as="xs:integer*"/>
  <arg name="square" as="xs:integer"/>
  <let role="body" vn="20" baseUri="file:/Users/example/tour.xsl" 
    ns="** list of namespaces **" line="87" var="vv:loc325333723" as="xs:integer" slot="3" eval="7">
    <arith op="+" calc="i+i">
      <varRef name="square" slot="2"/>
      <int val="1"/>
    <for var="i" as="xs:integer" slot="4">
      <range role="in" from="1" to="64"/>
      <choose role="return">
        <vc op="eq" onEmpty="0" comp="CAVC">
          <varRef name="i" slot="4"/>
          <varRef name="vv:loc325333723" slot="3"/>
        <varRef name="move" slot="0"/>
          <varRef name="board" slot="1"/>
          <varRef name="i" slot="4"/>

Hopefully much of this is self-explanatory. The element names (let, arith, for, range, vc [= value comparison]) represent different types of expression, in most cases fairly directly related to expressions in the source. There is no distinction between XPath expressions and XSLT instructions. The children of an expression in the tree are the operands of the expression, distinguished either positionally, or by a role attribute.

The additional attributes on the tree represent information determined by the compiler and available to the run-time. This includes information for diagnostics when dynamic errors occur (module, line), slot numbers allocated on the run-time stack to hold local variables, evaluation strategies (eval=7 represents eager evaluation of an expression that returns a single item; but the run-time is free to ignore this), and type information (calc="i+i" indicates addition of two integers).

In a more complex example, the expression tree will not always have such a close relationship to the source. The compiler goes through two processes to generate the tree: type-checking and optimization. Type-checking typically adds nodes to the tree representing operations such as atomization, checking of items types and cardinalities, and conversion of untyped atomic values to some target type.

To demonstate type-checking in an expression tree, here's an example of the beginnings of a template rule from an XSLT stylesheet (with most of the content removed):

<xsl:template match="section" mode="check-text">
    <xsl:param name="search"/>
    <xsl:param name="path" as="xs:string" select="''"/>

And here's the corresponding part of the SEF (again redacted):

<templateRule prec="1" prio="0.0" seq="3" rank="1" minImp="1" slots="3" flags="os" 
            line="145" module=".../findtext.xsl">
  <p.nodeTest role="match" test="element(Q{}section)"
    jsTest="var q=SaxonJS.U.nameOfNode(item); return SaxonJS.U.isNode(item) &amp;&amp; 
    item.nodeType==1 &amp;&amp; q.uri==''&amp;&amp;q.local=='section';"/>
    <sequence role="action" vn="31" baseUri="file:/Users/example/findtext.xsl" ns="** list of namespaces **" line="145">
      <param name="search" slot="0">
        <str role="select" val=""/>
        <supplied role="conversion" line="146" slot="0"/>
      <param name="path" slot="1" as="xs:string">
        <str role="select" val=""/>
        <check role="conversion" line="147" card="1">
          <treat as="xs:string" jsTest="return SaxonJS.U.Atomic.string.matches(item);">
            <cvUntyped to="xs:string">
                <supplied slot="1"/>

Notice the content of the param element with attribute name="path" halfway down the above sample. This shows an example of the type-checking process. First the supplied value is obtained, from a slot, by the 'supplied' operation; this is then atomized by the 'data' operation. If this value is untyped, then it is converted to the target type xs:string by 'cvUntyped'. Then the value is checked against the required type in the 'treat' operation, using the type test supplied in its jsTest attribute. The content of this attribute has been generated at compile-time, to simplify the SEF when we know the run-time will be using JavaScript: "return SaxonJS.U.Atomic.string.matches(item);". It supplies the content for a function with argument 'item' used as the type test, in this case checking it is an XDM string.

Another example of a test generated at compile-time, and inserted into the SEF, can be seen in the jsTest attribute of the p.nodeTest element. This provides the content for a function to be used as a node test: "var q=SaxonJS.U.nameOfNode(item); return SaxonJS.U.isNode(item) &amp;&amp; item.nodeType==1 &amp;&amp; q.uri==''&amp;&amp;q.local=='section';". This is used for the match pattern for the template rule.

Optimization may produce much more radical re-arrangements of the tree, for example creation of new local or global variables bound to expressions that have been lifted out of loops to prevent repeated evaluation, or inlining of variables and functions.

All this work has been done before Saxon-JS springs into action; it is work that Saxon-JS does not need to do, because it has already been done. All that Saxon-JS needs to do is to interpret the expressions on the tree.

As one might expect, Saxon-JS therefore contains a big switch expression that does different things depending on the expression type (that is, the element name). For example, here's the branch that handles an "and" expression:

and: function (expr, context) {
    return Iter.oneBoolean(ebv(evalChild1(expr, context)) && ebv(evalChild2(expr, context)))

The code for and expressions is a function that takes as input the node in the expression tree (expr) and the dynamic context (context). It makes use of a number of internal functions:

  • ebv: computes the effective boolean value of an expression

  • evalChild1, evalChild2: evaluates the first or second operand (subexpression)

  • Iter.oneBoolean: converts the JavaScript boolean returned by ebv() to an XdmBoolean object representing an XDM atomic value, and constructs an iterator over this single item.

In every case the result of evaluating an expression is an iterator over the resulting value. This enables short-circuit evaluation of expressions such as following-sibling::x[1] where the result of the expression can be evaluated without evaluating all its subexpressions to completion.

The conciseness of the implementation of an and expression is not at all untypical. The coding style is generally terse, designed to keep the overall size of the product as small as possible. Some more complex expressions (such as xsl:apply-templates) inevitably involve rather more code than this, but anyone familiar with the source code of the Java Saxon product will be surprised how much can be achieved in very few lines of code.


Saxon-JS is the latest attempt to meet the challenge of implementing XSLT in the browser.

The first wave of processors, which were native implementations in the browser, suffered from the "critical mass" problem whereby browser vendors were reluctant to invest in the technology in the absence of applications, and web developers were reluctant to use the technology until it was available (in interoperable form) in all browsers; this effect was particularly damaging when it came to investing in XSLT 2.0 support, and the lack of investment in turn meant that XSLT in the browser remained entrenched in the "Web 1.0" era of static content.

The next attempt was Saxon-CE. This demonstrated the feasibility of creating a cross-browser XSLT processor relying only on the browsers' support for JavaScript, and it also showed how XSLT could be extended into a "Web 2.0" environment with support for fully interactive applications. But it suffered because of the limitations of the GWT technology used to build it.

Saxon-JS can be seen as a re-implementation of Saxon-CE using more appropriate technology. Many of its concepts have been pioneered by Saxon-CE and are much liked by the small but enthusiastic band of Saxon-CE users. The main innovation in Saxon-JS is the fact that the heavy work of stylesheet compilation is done in advance, on the server, allowing the client-side code to be much more lightweight, and giving room for implementation of attractive new features in the W3C specifications such as maps and arrays. The re-architecting has numerous spin-off benefits such as easier testing and debugging of the XSLT engine; in addition it is a much more integral part of the Saxon product line, which will hopefully have commercial benefits and create a revenue stream to provide for ongoing development, without which so many otherwise-excellent XSLT implementations have foundered.


[Saxon-CE] Delpratt, O'Neil and Kay, Michael. Multi-user interaction using client-side XSLT. [online] XML Prague 2013 proceedings, pp1–22.

[XPath 3.1] Robie, Jonathan, Dyck, Michael and Spiegel, Josh, Editors. XML Path Language (XPath) 3.1. World Wide Web Consortium, 17 December 2015. [online]

[XSLT 3.0] Kay, Michael, Editor. XSL Transformations (XSLT) Version 3.0. World Wide Web Consortium, 19 November 2015. [online]

[ECMAScript 6] Ecma International. ECMAScript 2015 Language Specification. June 2015. [online]

[REx] Rademacher, Gunther. REx Parser Generator. [online]

[Big.js] Mclaughlin, Michael. Big.js library. 2014. [online]

[Rule-Based Programming] UC Berkeley. Rule-Based Programming. [online]

[Unicode-aware regex] Bynens, Mathias. Unicode-aware regular expressions in ECMAScript 6. 26 August 2014. [online]