Note: Quote

You're supposed (in the new order) to give everything (stylesheets, you, your fridge) an absolute URI and just use that; then the URI used to refer to your stylesheet never need to change.

--David Carlisle, on XSL List


EXPath has been launched in early 2009. Its goal is to go behind the standards for core XML technologies by specifying extensions to those technologies in a consistent and standard way across different processors, collaboratively by the relevant communities.

Most of these core XML technologies are based on XPath, hence the decision to focus principally on XPath. The whole project is divided into small parts, the modules, more or less independent on each others. A specific processor can thus chose to implement only some of those modules, regarding what is relevant to the technologies it supports or what is relevant to its users.

Even though the idea is to provide the several vendors with a set of (de-facto) standard modules to implement themselves, people may chose to implement a module as a commercial or open-source product for a specific processor (given this processor provides the appropriate extension mechanism). Actually some modules are currently directly supported by some processors while other implementations exist as third-party products. The EXPath community itself provides several open-source implementations, as well as support for such projects.

This paper focuses especially on the Packaging System defined by EXPath as a way to package and deliver XML libraries or applications [1] and to allow a user to rely on tools to automatically install (or deploy) such packages.

The problem

To introduce the packaging system, let's try to answer the initial question: what is such a system useful for? Let's try to do so by using a specific example.

You are in charge of an XQuery application which, very imaginatively, you called MyApp. As several other XQuery applications, MyApp uses the FunctX library (an XQuery and XSLT library providing general-purpose functions, like date and string manipulation functions). In order to ease the integration of FunctX into MyApp, you decided to simply copy the source file into your own code base. You then use the same rules to import the library as for the import statements for your own XQuery modules:

import module namespace f = ""
   at "../../lib/functx.xq";

So far, so good. Later on, you decide to use another library providing support for XBRL (a standard language for business reporting). It turns out that this library actually uses also FunctX. So you install the library into your code base, and you modify its source code to adapt the import statements related to FunctX to follow your own rules for import statements. Indeed, you feel guilty to modify the source code of a third-party library just to be able to use it (as in the first place you did feel guilty to copy the source code of a third-party library into your own code base). But you don't have any other choice, have you?

You then use yet another library. You follow the install instructions. Manually of course. Anyway those instructions are more or less: Copy the files "somewhere" and use whatever mechanism your processor provides you with to import the library modules. So once again, you copy the whole source code into your own code base. You don't know it, but actually that library also uses FunctX (yes, FunctX is really useful) and you end up with two FunctX implementations into your own code base (hopefully the same implementations).

We could continue this example for ever, with troubles updating FunctX or any of the libraries using it, or by describing the pain of manually installing or updating any new library. And yet, those are only the issues a library user can find on his way. Let's now pretend your are a library author. You are in a maze, struggling with dependency management and installation instructions. You feel there should be a simple solution. You are getting sleepy. Very sleepy. Your eyelids are heavy. Very heavy...

To make the long story short, dependency management is a complex problem and has always been. And there is no standard addressing this problem accross several XML technologies. Typically, each standard get rid of this problem by making it an implementation-defined, optional feature. This is a reasonable decision at the level of each independent standard. But having a specification addressing those issues accross several standards allows to address the most common use cases and to build packaging tools compatible with several processors. From the above example, we can list the following issues, that the Packaging System tries to address:

  • to solve the common problem of installing a third-party library, we always have to think about similar technical solutions;

  • the way to install a library is always slightly different, because of differences in the way the libraries themselves are packaged, whilst the concepts are always the same;

  • library packaging (i.e. the other end of the delivery cycle) has the same problems: no standards, no tools, and at the end of the day we always end up with something different whilst the concepts are the same;

  • this situation prevents writing tools to help the developer to automate the build, delivery and install cycle (for other languages, some tools provide a way to create automatically a new project, from which they can automate the build process, and at the other end systems provide the user with a way to automatically install those packages).

The Packaging System

To address this problem, EXPath defines a packaging system to help library and application authors to package and deliver their products without having to take care of specific install procedures and of every possible existing processors, now or in the future.

The basic idea is simple. A package is a set of components, and contains enough informations about those components for a processor to install them properly, and to let a user refer to them within his own applications or libraries by using always the same absolute URI, resolved by the processor at compile-time. As soon as a library is packaged using this format, it is usable in all processors supporting the packaging system, without the need for any further instructions for the users.

So a package is a set of components. A component is any piece of code of a supported XML technology, e.g. an XSLT stylesheet, an XQuery module, an XProc pipeline, or a schema (XSD, Relax NG, NVDL, Schematron, etc.) The packaging system has been designed to be extensible, and an implementation can support other kinds of component: a standard not supported yet like BPEL, or even processor-specific components like a Java implementation of extensions for Saxon (several implementations for Saxon of EXPath modules are actually delivered this way).

The several components are packaged as a single file by creating a ZIP file. In order to provide enough information to the installer, the structure of this ZIP file must follow a few simple rules, and contains in addition a package descriptor. The package descriptor is a simple XML file defined in the specification, providing informations about the components and the package.

A central concept in the packaging system is the concept of public URIs. Each component is associated with such a URI. In turn, this URI can be used to access the component. For instance, if a library contains an XSLT stylesheet, a public URI for this stylesheet is defined in the package descriptor. The user can then use this URI in an xsl:import instruction to import this stylesheet:

<!-- the user's stylesheet can import the library's stylesheet -->
<xsl:import href=""/>

The package structure (i.e. the structure of the files and directories in the ZIP file) is simple. It must contain the file descriptor at the top-level of the ZIP file (an XML file named expath-pkg.xml) and a sub-directory with the actual components. The library author is free to organize this sub-directory as he/she wants. If we take again the example of FunctX, which contains an implementation of the functions both as an XQuery module and as an XSLT stylesheet, it could have the following structure:

- expath-pkg.xml
- functx/
    - functx.xq
    - functx.xsl

The package descriptor itself (i.e. the file expath-pkg.xml) provides a few informations about the library itself (a name, a version number, etc.) and associates a public URI to each component in the package:

<package xmlns=""

   <title>FunctX library</title>
   <desc>The FunctX library, both for XQuery 1.0 and XSLT 2.0.</desc>



This is a simple package descriptor. It describes both components in the FunctX package: the XSLT stylesheet and the XQuery module. The file element points to the actual source code within the package, while the elements import-uri and namespace set the public URI of each component. There are elements to configure other kind of components like XProc, RNG, RNC, XSD, Schematron and NVDL. An implementation can also define its own elements (in its own namespace). For instance, the package for the Java implementation for Saxon of the EXPath HTTP Client contains the following:

<java xmlns="">

The Packaging System specification defines the format of the packages. That is required to ensure compatibility accross different implementations. So while everything else is implementation-defined, an implementation will typically use the following components:

The central piece is the repository, where the packages are installed. It can be dedicated to one product (or even one instance of a product, e.g. for a database), or be shared accross several products. The processors are the products you want to be able to use the packages with (that is, your usual XQuery or XSLT or XProc processors). A manager (part of the processor or provided as a separate program) is used to actually install the packages into the repository (or remove them, list them, etc.)


As for other modules, and even more for the packaging system, the goal is to have to implemented directly by the several processors. This is the case for eXist for instance. Third-party implementations have been written for Saxon and Calabash too.

Even though a processor is allowed to implement the packaging system in any way, the specification defines a standard on-disk repository layout. If such an on-disk repository makes sense for a specific processor, it can then benefit from standard tools to manage the repository (install new packages, remove existing one, install directly from the Internet, etc.) The packaging support in Saxon and Calabash for instance are open-source third-party implementations. Those implementations resolve at compile-time the URIs within the user stylesheets and pipelines to the imported components in the repository:

The repository itself is managed by a standalone application, dedicated to that purpose. Because this repository format is defined in the specification, if an implementation chose to support it, it does not have to take care at all about repository management, and the user can then use one single tool to manage repositories, even for several processors. But for some processors, such an on-disk repository just does not make sense, or is not the best design choice (e.g. for embedded systems or processors that can pre-compile packages on a distributed environment).

Let us look at a concrete example. A stylesheet uses FunctX to build a date from three integers (the year, the month and the day). Note that it uses an absolute URI to import the FunctX stylesheet, and this URI does not point to an actual location. This is just a name, and will be used to resolved the FunctX stylesheet from the repository:

<xsl:stylesheet xmlns:xsl=""

   <xsl:import href=""/>

   <xsl:output indent="yes"/>

   <xsl:template name="main">
         <xsl:sequence select="f:date(1979, 9, 1)"/>


This stylesheet is also used in an XProc pipeline:

<p:declare-step xmlns:p=""

   <p:input port="parameters" kind="parameter"/>
   <p:input port="source"/>
   <p:output port="result"/>

   <p:xslt template-name="main">
      <p:input port="stylesheet">
         <p:document href="user.xsl"/>


We have to install FunctX in the repository in order for those components to run properly. The command xrepo is the standalone repository manager. It can manage several repositories, list the content of a specific repository, install and remove packages. In a first time, FunctX is not installed yet, so the transform fails. Then we install the package, and run the transform again:

> saxon -xsl:user.xsl -it:main
Error at xsl:import on line 6 column 56 of user.xsl:
Failed to compile stylesheet. 1 error detected.

> calabash user.xproc
Apr 18, 2010 3:02:05 AM com.xmlcalabash.core.XProcRuntime error
SEVERE: Pipeline failed: [...]: Failed to compile stylesheet. 1 error detected.
Apr 18, 2010 3:02:05 AM com.xmlcalabash.core.XProcRuntime error
SEVERE: Underlying exception: [...]: Failed to compile stylesheet. 1 error detected.

> xrepo install functx.xar
Install module FunctX library? [true]: 
Install it to dir [functx]: 

> saxon -xsl:user.xsl -it:main

> calabash user.xproc

The format of the repository itself is simplistic. This is a directory on the filesystem, which contains one sub-directory per installed library. Each of those sub-directory has the same structure as the XAR file it was created with, with possibly a few informations generated during the install process in order to simplify the resolving mechanism at runtime. For instance, if the package contains extension functions written in Java for either Saxon or eXist, a simple file is generated containing the classpath needed by this module in order for an application to find it:

      [management infos, to help building efficient implementations]

Let us have a closer look at this particular repository. Three libraries have been installed: FunctX 1.0, the Google APIs 0.2 and the EXPath HTTP Client for Saxon and eXist 0.6, an implementation in Java of the EXPath HTTP Client module. The first directory, .expath-pkg, contains internal informations about what is installed, and how to use it. It is not used already, but its first usage will probably be to record for each package the longest URI prefix common to all its components. This in turn can be used by the runtime resolvers to know in which package look for a particular component, given its public URI. This is important for standalone processors like Saxon which during one execution will typically use only a few components from the repository, as this enable it to only parse the package descriptors for those packages, and not for the whole repository. In general, the directory .expath-pkg is a place to put management data about the repository as a whole.

The second directory, functx-0.1, contains the FunctX library. This directory has exactly the same structure as the XAR package. Put another way, this directory is the result of unzipping the XAR file. The package descriptor, that is expath-pkg.xml, contains all the information to resolve a public URI to an actual component at runtime. The third directory, google-apis-0.2, contains another example of a package, just a bit more complex. Especially, we can see the package directory internal structure is preserved (the subdirectories xq and xsl). This is important for relative import statements to work.

The last directory, expath-http-client-0.6, shows a library implemented in Java. It contains an implementation for both Saxon and eXist. In addition to the usual content of the package (the package descriptor and the package directory), we can see we have two subdirectories, containing additional infos about the package for different implementations (here, Saxon and eXist). The classpath.txt file, in both cases, contains a line-separated list of JAR files that must be added to the classpath in order to use the extension. Simply speaking, this contains the JAR within which the extension has been compiled, and a list of the libraries it depends on. Those files are generated at install-time by the installer, based on the package descriptor. They are used by the launchers to properly set the classpath, because this must be done at launch time, when we don't know yet which libraries we will use, and we don't want to parse every package descriptor every time we launch the application (and typically a few libraries only will define Java extensions).

One of the advantages of having such a standard layout for the repositories is to be able to share the implementation (as it is actually shared between Saxon, eXist and Calabash), which means better maintained and up-to-date software. It is also very lightweight, and it is possible to create several repositories for dedicated purposes. Typically a general repository will be created on a machine to be used by interactive tools like Saxon and Calabash, and maybe IDEs like oXygen. Then specific repositories can be created for large projects like a Java Enterprise application, for which we want to control precisely the set of dependencies.

Going further

The Packaging System specification tries to be extensible and generic enough to allow different kind of tools as well as other specification to be built on top of it. We introduce here three of those related projects: a standard structure for XML projects and its associated tools to automatically build the packages, an online directory of packages a la CPAN, and an extended version of the packaging system itself for web applications written only with XML technologies (as defined in the EXPath Webapp module).

Standard project structure

The packaging system specification is a low-level specification. It is interesting for a user to understand how this system works and how it has been designed, but ideally he/she should never need to read it in order to use it. The user should never be bothered with the low-level details of the package's ZIP file structure nor even by the package descriptor. How many Java developer do really build their JAR files using the UNIX tar command, and write the JAR Manifest file by hand? In some case that can be useful, but usually a Java developer just rely on its IDE to create a (more or less) adapted project structure, and to provide the action build to automatically build the JAR file.

Java is indeed only an example, but all mainstream languages do have such tools. And that is a good thing as this allows the developer to focus on what is really important: the business logic. The packaging is of course important as well. But usually the packaging, and more generally the build system of a project, involve always the same steps and can be handled automatically by a program.

This idea is to create a well-defined directory structure for a new project, so a packaging program can use be used to package the project as a XAR file. Different kinds of structure can be defined, or different flavors for different needs (e.g. a plain XProc library, a web application, or an extension for eXist written in Java).

This is only a research area for now, but a simple structure has been defined for plain libraries (i.e. packages of standard components), and a tool has been created that use this structure to automatically build the XAR file. This tool is called packager. The directory structure of a new project must have a build/ subdirectory for the build infos, as well as a src/ subdirectory for the actual sources of the components. Here is the structure of an hypothetical project hello-world:


The build/ dir is used by the build process, and contains a file project.xml provided by the user. This file give the packager all the infos it needs and that it cannot infer from the directory structure and from the source files themselves. Principally, those are the infos like the name and the version number of the package to build:

<package xmlns=""
   <title>Hello, world!: an example project</title>

In order to build the package, the packager needs to know which files to include as components. Those are simply the files in the src/ directory with a specific extension (like *.xql, *.xproc, *.xsl, etc.) And for each of them, it also needs to know the public URI to associate to the component. Instead of requiring the developer to maintain an external document with this information (like the package descriptor), those public URIs are directly set into each component. That makes more sense as this public URI can be seen as the name of the component, and there is no better place for this name than within the component itself.

The exact way a URI is associated to a component depends on the kind of component. For components that are also XML documents, like XProc pipelines and XSLT stylesheet, this is done by adding an element pkg:import-uri. For XQuery, the component is either a library module and thus already has a target namespace, or it is a main module and the public URI is set as the value of the global variable $pkg:import. For instance, this is an excerpt of these kind of components:

 : an XQuery main module, sets $pkg:import-uri
declare namespace pkg = "";
declare variable $pkg:import-uri := '';

 : an XQuery library module, already contains enough information
module namespace hw = "";

   an XSLT stylesheet, uses a user element pkg:import-uri
<xsl:stylesheet ...>

   an XProc pipeline, uses an element pkg:import-uri
<p:pipeline ...>

With the public URIs set directly within the component, with the well-known directory structure, and with the few infos in build/project.xml, the packager tool has all it needs to create automatically the package. The developer does not have neither to maintain the package descriptor when adding new components, he/she just has to set properly the public URI within the component.

The packager itself is an XSLT stylesheet using the EXPath Files and ZIP modules to navigate the file system and create the actual package in build/ (either for a library or a web application). This is all the packager does for now. But it will be extended to support XSpec (to automatically run unit tests), deployment of a web application on a Webapp container, documentation generation, and other tasks we usually find in project managers and IDEs.


The Packaging System defines the format and the structure of one package. So it can be built from sources by a packager tool, and be installed in a processor or a local repository by the user. It contains also meta informations like a name and a version number. This provides the needed mechanisms to create a global directory of known libraries and applications in and for XSLT, XQuery, XProc, etc.

Like CTAN for TeX and LaTeX, CPAN for Perl, or also the APT system for Linux programs, the Packaging System makes it possible to create CXAN, the Comprehensive XML Archive Network (or the Comprehensive X* Archive Network if you prefer a stronger difference between XML and the XML technologies we are discussing here).

CXAN (pronounce it c-zan) is composed of two parts. First a website which contains all the uploaded packages and provides a way to navigate through them, search for them and download them. And second a client program to retrieve a package over the Internet and install it locally. This is a good example of the benefit of using the standard repository layout for a processor implementing the Packaging System, because there is an open-source implementation of a CXAN client that supports local on-disk repositories with the standard layout. Other implementations can of course support CXAN as well, but then they have to implement this support themselves.

The client part is similar to the programs cpan or apt-get. It provides the ability to look into the package database and directly install the package on a local repository. In the example about the standard repository manager, xrepo, in the above section, we shaw how to install the FunctX package, provided it has already downloaded somehow:

xrepo install functx.xar

If this package has been uploaded to CXAN, under the name functx, we can easily adapt this example to CXAN by using the following command instead:

cxan install functx

In this case, there is nothing on the local hard drive (except the local repository of course), and the CXAN manager will automatically retrieve the FunctX package on and install it in the local repository.

CXAN is only a prototype at this stage, but the concepts are quite simple and the technical part almost trivial once we have a packaging system. The crucial work will be the amount of libraries uploaded, their quality and the quality of their meta-data. But there are plenty of talented X* developers out there with a lot of interesting ideas of libraries. Reaching a large audience with an XML library is quite difficult for now, because of the differences between the processors, and the lack of automatic install processes even for one single processor. But with the help of a proper packaging system and a system like CXAN, it is finally possible to write a general-purpose library and diffuse it over the whole community.

Webapp packaging

EXPath contains several modules for several needs. A typical EXPath module is a set of XPath functions, defined in a specification. The Packaging System is a bit different as it defines instead a whole system and a file format to package XML libraries. There is another EXPath module which defines a system rather than a library of functions: the Webapp module. Its goal is to make it possible to write web applications entirely with XML technologies. The Webapp module defines an abstract web application container, the services it provides to the deployed web applications, and the way it maps HTTP requests and responses to and from those applications (as well as a mechanism to package such applications). This is a well-known abstraction used by several major frameworks for web applications, like the Java Servlet technology.

Basically, a web application based on this module is written in plain XSLT, XQuery or XProc, with some entry points respecting an interface defined by the Webapp module. Those entry points (function, template, pipeline...) receive a representation of the HTTP request as input and return a representation of the HTTP response as output. They are configured in a web application descriptor to be mapped to some URIs or URI patterns. When the server receives a request on a URI, it looks for a matching component, calls it with the proper input and return its result as the coresponding HTTP response, as shown on the following diagram:

The packaging of those web applications is based on the Packaging System. The Webapp module specification does refer to the specification of the Packaging System, and extends it by adding the web descriptor. The web descriptor maps URI patterns to specific components in the package, or to specific functions, templates or steps within those components. But all the packaging machinery itself is already defined. Just to get an idea, here is an excerpt of such a web descriptor:

<webapp name=""

   <title>H2O Consulting website</title>

       The Freedom page.
   <servlet name="freedom">
      <xslt function="free:backup-servlet">
      <url pattern="/freedom"/>

       Serve main pages, transformed from XML files to XHTML.
   <servlet name="pages">
      <xslt function="h2o:pages-servlet">
      <url pattern="/([-a-z0-9]+)?">
         <match group="1" name="page"/>



You can see that the principal role of this web descriptor is to map URIs (or URI patterns) to entry points (functions, templates, pipelines, etc.) Note in particular that those entry points, behind their name, are identified by an import URI (and not by a file name for instance). This import URI is the one defined by the Packaging System and is set in the package descriptor. The Webapp module does not have to worry about such a mechanism to resolve stylesheets or XQuery modules. It can simply reuse the Packaging System mechanism, by extending it with entry points name in order to point to specific functions, templates or pipelines within those components.

Servlex is an open-source implementation of Webapp, using Saxon and Calabash as the processors to execute the components. It uses the same standard on-disk repository layout to deploy the web applications on the server. Thanks to this, it can reuse the existing open-source implementation of the Packaging System, and its integrations within both Saxon and Calabash, and needs just to process the webapp descriptor to initialize a map between URIs and components.

Because the Packaging System specification has been designed to be extensible, it is possible to use it in other specifications, and to reuse some existing tools for more specific needs.


The lack of a proper packaging format to publish XML libraries has prevented people to write and publish such libraries in an implementation agnostic way (implementations usually do not provide such a facility anyway). The EXPath Packaging System aims to solve this problem, by defining an implementation-independent packaging format. This format is extensible and can be reused for other needs, like the web application packaging. This system is not only a way to distribute packages, but can also be the missing piece for a lot of different applications, like CXAN and the project structures. And other ideas we have not thought about yet...

[1] By XML libraries and applications, we mean libraries and applications for (or written in) XSLT, XQuery, XProc, XML Schema, or other XML technologies.

Author's keywords for this paper:
EXPath; extension; packaging; webapp; XPath; XSLT; XQuery; XProc

Florent Georges

XML Architect

H2O Consulting

Florent Georges is a freelance IT consultant in Brussels who has been involved in the XML world for 10 years, especially within the XSLT and XQuery communities. His main interests are in the field of XSLT and XQuery extensions and libraries, packaging, unit and functional testing, and portability between several processors. Since the beginning of 2009, he has worked on EXPath, to define "standard" extension function libraries that can be used in XPath (so in XSLT, XQuery and XProc as well).