BTL Overview

BTL, or Bean Transformation Language, is a template language that transforms JavaBean input into documents in numerous formats, such as XML, HTML, XHTML, XSL-FO, RTF or PDF (see Figure 1).

BTL can be thought of as a mix of JSTL and XSLT. It combines the XML/output-oriented features of XSLT with JavaBean-oriented tags of JSTL. In BTL, you will find most of the XSLT constructs fused with those from JSTL.

Figure 1. BTL Schema.

JavaBean and template part of the schema in Figure 1 are rather common components of any template language. What separates BTL from other languages is presence of the renderer layer. This layer is responsible for adopting BTL output to the target format, much like output methods do in XSLT.

Below is the list of problems that BTL strives to solve. Most of the solutions are borrowed from the XSLT and adopted to work in the Java environment.

Valid Output

In HTML it's normally the responsibility of developer/designer to remember which tags should be left open (<br>, <img>), which should be closed (<script></script>) and which can be optionally left open (<li>). In reality, it's pretty hard to remember all these rules, and it's also hard to validate them. As a result output is very error-prone. XSLT has a very simple solution to this problem: since the output is XML, all tags must be closed and it's the responsibility of the output method (renderer) to ensure the valid output of these tags (see XSLT spec for more info). XML standard also takes care of the special characters and other output format specifics. Just like XSLT, BTL template is an XML document, which guarantees that the output will be at least well-formed.

Special Characters

Most of the template engines support "${bean.value}"-like constructs. Unfortunately, in majority of cases when this command is used, users have to remember to escape result value for XML/HTML formats, i.e. to replace occurrences of "&", "<" and ">" with their escape sequences ("&amp;" "&lt;" and "&gt;"). Often, different languages have different ways of handling such characters. For instance, in FreeMarker this expression will look like "${bean.value?html}", in Velocity, it'll be something similar to "${escapeXml(bean.value)}", etc. The problem is that in either case, the developer/designer has to use these expressions, which can be very error-prone and hard to debug. Again, XSLT has a very elegant solution to this problem adopted by BTL; you don't have to worry about character escaping - it's the responsibility of the renderer.


Handling whitespace is often unnecessarily problematic. Whitespaces are important for proper rendering and force developers/designers to either lump instruction on the same line or use special whitespace-control instructions ("<#t>" in FreeMarker, etc). BTL borrows XSLT whitespace rules whereby all whitespaces b/w any two tags (closing or opening, instructions or output) are ignored. Following this simple rule, you won't have to worry about escapes in the majority of the cases.


Some time in the future we'll all be using XHTML instead of HTML. Currently it's a rather work-intensive and error-prone process to switch from one format to the other. This problem is resolved in XSLT by using output methods, in which switching b/w HTML and XHTML is a simple change in the configuration. BTL renderers follow the same pattern.


Customizing output of subtypes of a particular super-type is a very common development issue. Unfortunately, in traditional template languages such customization would necessitate the use of multi-story "if/switch" statements, which are hard to extend and maintain. XSLT provides the "xsl:apply-templates" instruction to address such issues by matching templates to the subtypes using expressions. BTL borrows the same idea for its "match-macro/apply" instructions.

Other Features

  • BTL uses the popular OGNL library for JavaBean access. So, all the constructs available in the OGNL are available in BTL, including lambda-expressions and others. If you're familiar with OGNL from other technologies (Tapestry, Spring Web Flow, WebWorks, etc) you won't have to learn another language.
  • Like in many other template languages, code can be organized in multiple files and imported in other templates.
  • Comprehensive instructions set, including branching, cycles, output commands, etc.
  • BTL effectively uses namespaces to remove ambiguity b/w executable template instructions and output.
  • Flexible extension mechanism
  • Easy integration. BTL is built completely based on open standards and common patterns, including XSLT, XML, SAX, OGNL, etc. This ensures easy integration with other tools and libraries.
  • Development cycle support. OGNL is built from ground-up to ensure easy integration into team's development cycle with features including JavaDoc-like template documentation and IDE-oriented model (Eclipse plugins are on the way).
  • All the output methods defined by XSLT are supported and immediately available to BTL: XML, HTML, XHTML, TEXT.
  • Support for other document formats can be easily integrated as well:
    • XSL-FO, intended for output in the numerous formats including PDF, is an XML-based specification. See FOP library - open-source implementation of XSL-FO.
    • iText library already comes with integrated SAX handler.
    • Starting from Office 2003, most of the Office documents can be encoded in the XML format - Smart Tags.
    • Plain text can be also viewed as a special case of XML.

More Information

  • See Tutorial for BTL samples
  • See Roadmap for future BTL releases and features
  • Download BTL here.