An example of nested downloads using RCurl.


This example uses RCurl to download an HTML document and then collect the name of each link within that document. The purpose of the example is to illustrate how we can combine the RCurl package to download a document and use this directly within the XML (or HTML) parser without having the entire content of the document in memory. We start the download and pass a function to the xmlEventParse() function for processing. As that XML parser needs more input, it fetches more data from the HTTP response stream. This is useful for handling very large data that is returned from Web queries.

To do this, we need to use the multi interface for libcurl in order to have asynchronous or non-blocking downloading of the document. The idea is quite simple. We initiate the download and associate a "writer" to slurp up the body of the HTTP response. This is registered with libcurl and is invoked whenever libcurl is in control and is processing the HTTP response. If there is information to be read on the HTTP stream from the server, this function reads it and appends it to a variable pending. The second part of this mechanism is that we need a function that is called by xmlEventParse() which can provide input to the XML parser. Of course, it will use the content coming from the HTTP server that is collected in the function getHTTPResponse. So we create a sibling function that shares the state of the getHTTPResponse function and so can see the contents of the variable pending. When the XML parser demands some input, our function supplyXMLContent() checks to see if pending has non-trivial content (i.e. is not the empty string). If it has some content, it returns that. Otherwise, it tells libcurl to read some more from the HTTP stream. When it hands control to libcurl in this way, libcurl will invoke our getHTTPResponse() function, populating the contents of pending. So when libcurl yields control, we will now have content to pass to the XML parser.

The only additional issue that we have to deal with in this setup is that the XML event parser asks for input up to a certain size. We cannot necessarily give it all of the content of pending. If pending has more characters than the XML parser wants, we must give it the first maxLen characters and then leave the remainder in pending for the next request from the XML parser.

The following generator function defines the two functions that do the pulling of the text from libcurl and the pushing to the XML parser.

HTTPReaderXMLParser =
function(curl, verbose = FALSE, save = FALSE)
   pending =  ""
   text = character()

   getHTTPResponse = 
   function(txt) {

      pending <<- paste(pending, txt, sep = "")

        text <<- c(text, txt)

      if(verbose) {
        cat("Getting more information from HTTP response\n")

      ""  # Give back something real.

  supplyXMLContent = 
   function(maxLen) {
        cat("Getting data for XML parser\n")

     if(pending == "") {

            cat("Need to fetch more data for XML parser from HTTP response\n")

         while(pending == "") {
            status = curlMultiPerform(curl, multiple = TRUE)
            if(status[2] == 0) 

     if(pending == "") {
         # There is no more input available from this request.

      # Now, we have the text, and we return at most maxLen - 1
      # characters
     if(nchar(pending) >= maxLen) {
        ans = substring(pending, 1, maxLen-1)
        pending <<- substring(pending, maxLen)
     } else {
        ans = pending
        pending <<- ""

        cat("Sending '", ans, "' to XML\n", sep = "")


   list(getHTTPResponse = getHTTPResponse,
        supplyXMLContent = supplyXMLContent,
        pending = function() pending,
        text = function() paste(text, collapse = "")

The remaining part is how we combine these pieces with RCurl and the XML packages to do the parsing in this asynchronous, interleaved manner. The code below performs the basic steps

uri = ""

handle = getCurlMultiHandle()
streams = HTTPReaderXMLParser(handle)

uri = ""
handle = getURLAsynchronous(uri, 
                           write = streams$getHTTPResponse,
                           multiHandle = handle, 
                           perform = FALSE)

links = getDocbookLinks() 
xmlEventParse(streams$supplyXMLContent, handlers = links, saxVersion = 2)

The steps in the code are as explained as follows. We first create a 'multi handle'. This gives us the asynchronous behavior that returns control back to us from libcurl rather than sending the request and slurping back all the data in one single atomic action. Next, we create our functions to do the pulling and pushing of text from HTTP to the XML parser. These are returned from the call to HTTPReaderXMLParser() . And we then setup the request to fetch the content of the URI with the call to getURLAsynchronous() . Note that we tell it not to actually perform the request, i.e.
perform = FALSE

. We are just setting it up to be done when the XML parser requests input. This is important as this call must return so that we can call xmlEventParse() . [1] The next step is to establish the XML event parser. We provide a collection of handlers that process the XML content in the way that we want (see below). And now we are off, and the XML parser will request input and the functions will read from the HTTP stream.

To process the links within the Docbook document, we are looking for each ulink element and fetching its url attribute. So we can provide a collection of handlers that consist of a function only for ulink. And it need only look at the attributes it is given and determine if there is a url entry. If there is, it appends the value to its internal collection of links. When we are finished the parsing, we can ask for this collection of links using the additional function links.

getDocbookLinks =
 links = character()

 ulink = function(name, attrs, ns, namespaces) {
    if("url" %in% names(attrs))
      links[length(links) + 1 ] <<- attrs["url"]

 list(ulink = ulink,
      links = function() links)

To run this code, we need to load both the RCurl and XML packages.


This is a test that the basic asynchronous mechanism works generally. In this example, we just provide a reader that displays the text from the HTTP response on the console. We create a 'multi handle' and setup the HTTP request with our specialized reader. Then, we call curlMultiPerform() to start the ball rolling. This will force one or more invocations of the function f() . We can continue to loop until there is no more data available in the 'multi handle' by comparing the number of elements in the stack.

[1] If we did perform the request, we would merely start the download and perhaps slurp up some of the response. This would still be available to the XML parser so no data would be lost. It may just marginally spoil the efficiency of the approach, but really only marginally if at all.