Darwin Information Typing Architecture

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The Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA) is an XML-based architecture for authoring, producing, and delivering information. Although its main applications have so far been in technical publications, DITA is also used for other types of documents such as policies and procedures.


Origin and name

The DITA architecture and a related DTD and XML Schema were originally developed by IBM. The architecture incorporates ideas in XML architecture, such as modular information architecture, various features for content reuse, and specialization, that had been developed over previous decades.[1] DITA is now an OASIS standard.

The first word in the name "Darwin Information Typing Archictecture" is a reference to the naturalist Charles Darwin. The key concept of "specialization" in DITA is in some ways analogous to Darwin's concept of evolutionary adaptation, with a specialized element inheriting the properties of the base element from which it is specialized.

Features and limitations

Topic orientation

DITA content is written as modular topics, as opposed to long "book-oriented" files. A DITA map contains links to topics, organized in the sequence (which may be hierarchical) in which they are intended to appear in finished documents. A DITA map defines the table of contents for deliverables. Relationship tables in DITA maps can also specify which topics link to each other.

Modular topics can be easily reused in different deliverables. However, the strict topic-orientation of DITA makes it an awkward fit for content that contains lengthy narratives that do not lend themselves to being broken into small, standalone chunks. Experts stress the importance of content analysis in the early stages of implementing structured authoring.[2][3][4]

Content references

Fragments of content within topics (or less commonly, the topics themselves) can be reused through the use of content references (conref), a transclusion mechanism.

Conditional text

Conditional text allows filtering or styling content based on attributes for audience, platform, product, and other properties.


DITA includes extensive metadata elements and attributes, which make topics easier to find.

Information typing

DITA specifies three basic topic types: Task, Concept and Reference. Each of the three basic topic types is a specialization of a generic Topic type, which contains a title element, a prolog element for metadata, and a body element. The body element contains paragraph, table, and list elements, similar to HTML.

  1. A Task topic is intended for a procedure that describes how to accomplish a task. A Task topic lists a series of steps that users follow to produce an intended outcome. The steps are contained in a taskbody element, which is a specialization of the generic body element. The steps element is a specialization of an ordered list element.
  2. Concept information is more objective, containing definitions, rules, and guidelines.
  3. A Reference topic is for topics that describe command syntax, programming instructions, and other reference material, and usually contains detailed, factual material.


DITA allows adding new elements and attributes through specialization of base DITA elements and attributes. Through specialization, DITA can accommodate new topic types, element types, and attributes as needed for specific industries or companies. Specializations of DITA for specific industries, such as the semiconductor industry, are standardized through OASIS technical committees or subcommittees. A significant percentage of organizations using DITA also develop their own specializations.

The extensibility of DITA permits organizations to specialize DITA by defining specific information structures and still use standard tools to work with them. The ability to define company-specific information architectures enables companies to use DITA to enrich content with metadata that is meaningful to them, and to enforce company-specific rules on document structure.

Compatibility with non-DITA content

The element types and structures in DITA topics are similar to popular languages such as HTML. For example, a bulleted or numbered list can be copied and pasted directly from HTML to DITA.

DITA maps can include both DITA topics and non-DITA documents (such as HTML files and Microsoft Word documents) in document hierarchies. However, processors are generally limited in their ability to merge DITA and non-DITA content into consolidated printed documents.

Creating content in DITA

DITA map and topic documents are XML files. As with HTML, any images, video files, or other files which need to appear in output are inserted via reference. Any XML editor can therefore be used to write DITA content, with the exception of editors that support only a limited set of XML schemas (such as XHTML editors). Various editing tools have been developed that provide specific features to support DITA, such as visualization of conrefs.

Publishing content written in DITA

DITA is conceived as an end-to-end architecture. In addition to indicating what elements, attributes, and rules are part of the DITA language, the DITA specification includes rules for publishing DITA content in print, HTML, online Help, and other formats.

For example, the DITA specification indicates that if the conref attribute of element A contains a path to element B, the contents of element B will be displayed in the location of element A. DITA-compliant publishing solutions, known as DITA processors, must handle the conref attribute according to the specified behaviour. Rules also exist for processing other rich features such as conditional text, index markers, and topic-to-topic links. Applications that transform DITA content into other formats, and meet the DITA specification's requirements for interpreting DITA markup, are known as DITA processors.

DITA Open Toolkit

When DITA was released as a public XML standard in 2001, IBM contributed the DITA Open Toolkit (DITA OT) to the wider community. The DITA OT was therefore the first DITA processor, and continues to be the foundation of most publishing of DITA content. It is currently an active open-source project, with contributions from several companies.

Out of the box, the DITA OT handles all valid DITA specializations and produces several output formats, including:

The DITA OT can also be extended to produce other (arbitrary) output formats. The raw DITA OT can be run from the command line. Some DITA authoring tools and content management systems now integrate the DITA OT, or parts of it, into their own publishing workflows. Standalone tools have also been developed to run the DITA OT via a graphical user interface instead of the command line.

The DITA OT includes customizable stylesheets that control the formatting and layout of human-readable deliverables.

Brief history

  • March 2001 Introduction by IBM
  • May 2002 Domain specialization added to topic specialization
  • April 2004 OASIS Technical Committee for DITA formed
  • February 2005 SourceForge begins DITA Open Toolkit support
  • June 2005 DITA v1.0 approved as an OASIS standard
  • August 2005 DITA Open Toolkit v1.1 is released
  • March 2006 OASIS launches DITA.XML.org
  • August 2007 DITA V1.1 is approved by OASIS, including Bookmap specialization

See also



  1. Doyle, Bob. "History of DITA". http://dita.xml.org/book/history-of-dita. Retrieved 2009-07-31. 
  2. "Implementing DITA versus implementing custom XML architecture". Scriptorium Publishing Services, Inc. 2008. http://www.scriptorium.com/whitepapers/dita_assessment/dita_assessment4.html. Retrieved 2009-07-29. 
  3. "Structure, DITA, and content other than technical documentation …". The Rockley Group. October 16, 2007. http://rockley.com/blog/?p=22. Retrieved 2009-07-29. 
  4. "Survey on DITA Chellenges". WritePoint Ltd.. January 18, 2010. http://writepoint.com/blog/?p=1011. Retrieved 2010-01-21. 

Further reading

External links

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