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ETL for Free-Form Data

By Michael DeYoung, 2008/03/20

Would you like to learn a handy little process for extracting, transforming and loading data fields from a free-form source like a web page or word processing document into something structured like a staging table? Maybe you have a public database of some sort that you need information from but can only get it by way of a web page. You could always just have an assistant type it in a spreadsheet but then you have to worry about consistent formatting and all kinds of other evils. A lot of us have been asked from time to time by the company top dog to find a way to gather information on the Internet into a database for some kind of reporting purpose. I want to show you (3) steps for getting information from a free-form source like a web page into a SQL staging table. I will demonstrate the tools needed and the sequence in which it must be done.

Step #1: The Data Source

The data source can be any free-form document like a web page, word processing document or whatever. The key here is that the anatomy of the document needs to be consistent and not change. The only thing that should change is the data field value itself. For example, I created this procedure to get GPS data from web-based truck fleet reports into a Data Warehouse staging table. The reports were generated in HTML and were consistent (for the most part) in terms of margins, font sizes, orientation, field placement and the only thing that changed from report to report was the data field values that I needed.

Step #2: The XML Virtual Printer

You need to get the data into a format that is readable by SQL Server Integration Services (SSIS) and the technique I'm explaining uses XML. Unless the data source will export to XML the easiest way to get your data into XML format is to print it to an XML virtual printer which creates a physical file on your drive. I purchased the XML Printer software created by Archae (www.xmlprinter.com) for a very small fee and found it to be easy to configure. The printer is installed, configured and shared on a print server (your SQL Server will do unless the DBA gives you a hassle) and then you add a new printer from the share on a client computer designated to someone who will be pulling up the data source reports and doing the printing.

One cool thing about the Archae XML printer is that you can tell it to parse the print job and extract only the data fields you need. This saves you from processing a ton of unnecessary data. The parsing is based on a "definition" file that you create using a small application that comes with the paid license of XML Printer called XML Printer Composer. The definition file defines the data fields in the data source print job that the XML Printer parser must find and extract out. This is what my definition file looks like...

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="utf-8"?>
<!-- do not edit this file manualy, use Composer -->
<field type="text" id="ArbitraryFieldName1" pos="absolute" anchor="461;605/35" align="left|top" elemsize="0;0" page="1" font-face="Verdana" font-size="7.5" />
<field type="text" id="ArbitraryFieldName2" pos="absolute" anchor="389;939/5" align="left|top" elemsize="0;0" page="1" font-face="Verdana" font-style="bold" font-size="7.5" />
<field type="text" id="ArbitraryFieldName3" pos="absolute" anchor="1475;712/34" align="left|top" elemsize="0;0" page="1" font-face="Verdana" font-size="7.5" />
<field type="text" id="ArbitraryFieldName4" pos="absolute" anchor="1011;611/57" align="left|top" elemsize="0;0" page="1" font-face="Verdana" font-size="7.5" />

This is what my parsed print job looks like...

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="utf-8"?>
<ArbitraryFieldName1> ArbitraryFieldName1Value </ArbitraryFieldName1> <ArbitraryFieldName2>ArbitraryFieldName2Value</Arbitrary <ArbitraryFieldName3>ArbitraryFieldName3Value</Arbitrary
<ArbitraryFieldName4> ArbitraryFieldName4Value </ArbitraryFieldName4>

Finally for this step you might want to consider manually inspecting a number of parsed print jobs before you go on to step (3) for quality control and definition file tweaking purposes.

Step #3: The SSIS Package

Now we're getting to the fun part. You will need to create an SSIS package that will pick up the files with an XML Control Flow Task in a Foreach Loop Container and for each file transform it and load it into your staging table. Here's the process...

For each Loop Container: Nothing fancy here. Use the For each File Enumerator and define the Enumerator configuration properties. You also need to create a user variable of type string and configure under Variable Mappings. This variable will store the full path to the parsed XML print job.

XML Control Flow Task: A couple tricky things here. In order for the XML Data Flow Source (used next) to read the XML file correctly you must first transform the parsed XML file and convert each data element into attributes of the <data> element and at the same time add a <table> parent element . This is done using Extensible Stylesheet Language Transformations (XSLT). In the interest of efficient processing, you should create and store the transformed XML in a user variable of type string to be read by the XML Data Flow Source instead of a physical file. This is what my XSLT file looks like...