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Even-handed XML brings commonality to diverse applications

Just two years after becoming a standard via a recommendation from the World Wide Web Consortium, Extensible Markup Language (XML) is well on its way to dominating virtually every function available on the Web. Equally proficient at handling structured and unstructured data, as well as messaging and Electronic Data Interchange (EDI), XML helps diverse applications find their common denominator.

XML is a subset of the Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML) and simpler to use. Unlike Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), which formats information for the Web but does not describe content, XML carries metadata that defines content.

The Extensible Style Language (XSL) standard, close to being finalized, separates the formatting from the content of XML to display the document. The Extensible Linking Language (XLL), also still in development, provides a structure for linking information. Again in contrast to HTML, which provides only one-to-one linking, XLL will allow a wider variety of link types including one-to-many.

Major players in the software industry, including Lotus, Microsoft, Netscape and Sun, are actively supporting XML. Numerous other companies have jumped in to provide tools and applications, and vertical industries are collaborating to develop common taxonomies. XML software ranges from basic editing tools through which users can develop XML documents, to integration products that allow information exchange among an impressive array of applications. Transaction software enables orders to be processed for e-procurement and e-commerce. Content or information management products offer sophisticated strategies for updating and maintaining key enterprise data. When transactions or documents are formatted in XML, it is much easier to update content, such as pricing information, than with HTML.

Web content

Management of Web content has rapidly become one of the prime applications for XML. In cases where content is new, rather than legacy, it makes sense to begin with XML rather than convert from another format.

Worldweb.net's Expressroom is designed to create, manage and deliver enterprisewide content. One of Worldweb.net's customers, Print Magazine, established an online bookstore called Designers Bookstore for graphic design professionals. The site offers books on topics ranging from Web design to typography, as well as training CDs. When data is stored in XML, making changes to the presentation is less expensive, and so is building applications that can read and process the content. Also, delivering the content to new platforms is feasible and economical.

Worldweb.net found its way to XML through its role in servicing and maintaining Web sites. Although the company still is active in that area, its Expressroom software is designed to be intuitive enough to allow users with a variety of skill sets to successfully run the site themselves.

"As an object-oriented product, Expressroom allows the user to select from a document just the pieces needed for a particular page," says Larry Henry, CTO and senior VP of R&D at Worldweb.net. "This allows a great deal of versatility in delivery."

Depending on the schema described by the user, for example, the content delivered to a mobile phone could eliminate bandwidth-challenging components such as video but leave them in for desktop delivery. Expressroom is intended for medium- to large-scale enterprises.

Portal presentation

Sequoia Software offers an XML server and indexer to deliver content through a portal. The application server extracts content from the back end, indexes and manages the repository, and publishes the information at the desktop. Data is kept in native format and converted on the fly, eliminating the need to create an XML database and allowing integration of diverse sets of data. Sequoia is now partnering with Semio to provide a smart markup through Semio's taxonomy, which allows content analysis and intelligent indexing.

Sequoia began as a solutions provider for the healthcare industry, bringing together medical records from many different applications into relational databases that made patient information available to physicians. However, over time Sequoia found the relational structure to be rigid and difficult to modify as organizational needs changed.

"When the first draft of XML came out over three years ago, we began exploring its potential for management of information, although much of the vendor focus at the time was on messaging and EDI," says Jasen Fici, marketing VP. The goal was to build an application around corporate information, and that led to the conclusion that the company's software solution should be an enterprise information portal (EIP).

PSINet, a provider of IP-based communication services for business and government, is using Sequoia's product to develop and track leads in its Canadian operation. The company had been using a traditional CRM product, but looking ahead, wanted to move from a client-server model to a fully integrated Web-based model.

"We saw XML as a way of 'futureproofing' our business," says Mark Chmielewski, sales automation specialist at PSINet. "Our vision is for the sales force (and eventually, other staff) to log on to the portal, be able to link to all the applications they need and log off at the end of the day." In the process of moving to XML, Chmielewski notes, the company also took a careful look at its databases, cleaned up and standardized the structure and functionality, and created its own taxonomy.

Another product designed to pull information from disparate sources is the XA-BizTools software suite, from xAware.com. Scheduled for official release this month, the product has been used for a number of applications so far, including integrating CRM data from multiple sites and bringing state data into a government agency database. Another customer is using XA-BizTools to develop a trading network for supplying parts. The product is bi-directional, allowing data to feed back into the repositories in native format, and is geared toward enterprise databases such as Oracle, Informix, Sybase and DB2.

"Our goal is to leverage existing databases and processes, rather than to rehost and re-engineer," says XAware President Bill Sanbeg. One of XAware's strengths is translating complex XML files, such as those with many hierarchical levels, into multiple data sources. Although it is intended for enterprise-level use, the XA-BizTools development kit is priced at about $100 for a single-user license.

Partnering for productivity

Providing access to information for business partners is another one of XML's strengths. The Business Web Factory from Bowstreet is designed to let companies automate the development of customized Web sites for their partners and customers. The product was selected by iProperty.com, which wanted to help real estate agents develop sites for their clients--sites that integrated all of the information needed for a home sale. The service, called Chorus, was announced in February and is scheduled for deployment during the second quarter. It allows home buyers to access relevant multiple listing service (MLS) data, search for mortgage information and order closing services. Realtors can easily build unique sites for each customer. Bowstreet plans to extend that capability in June by offering Business Web Exchange, an open Internet community where companies can either acquire and customize other companies' Web services or publish their own Web services.

XML is versatile. Although it was designed as a document format, once a structured reusable format for documents is established, the distinctions between documents and data become less relevant.

Bowstreet's director of XML technology, James Tauber, says, "When these distinctions blur, you can start treating documents more like data and vice versa. Then the capabilities formerly associated with documents, such as workflow and messaging, become possible for all types of data."

Bowstreet President and CEO Bob Crowley points to the importance of the user's overall experience when accessing an e-business site. "More and more," says Crowley, "what happens to users during their visit to a Web site is what will differentiate one e-business from another--not the actual product or service that is being offered." XML helps businesses manage that experience more effectively.

The versatility of XML is also reflected in the types of partnering relationships that are emerging in the field. For example, in late 1999, SoftQuad formed a strategic alliance with Reed Technology and Information Services, which provides publishing solutions. Reed used SoftQuad's XMetaL, an XML authoring tool, to develop the XML-based online version of Congressional Quarterly (see discussion of CQ in "Software Agents," KMWorld, May 2000).

SoftQuad recently partnered with Vignette, a supplier of e-business solutions for building online businesses. Thus, the partnerships span a range from content management to online transactions, mirroring XML's ability to perform in both of those arenas.

"To fully participate in the B2B market," says Roberto Drassinower, president and CEO of SoftQuad, "companies need to be able to dynamically access product, pricing and availability information from internal systems, publish it to the Web and deliver it to partners. XML underlies all three of these processes." SoftQuad's recently announced MarketAgility, scheduled for September release, complements the XMetaL authoring product with an XML server and tools to bring together data from multiple sources and deliver it in XML format.

XML approaches the bench

Partners within a wide variety of industries are beginning to converge on standards for using XML. For example, JusticeLink, which provides electronic filing solutions for courts and attorneys, and CourtLink, which provides online access to U.S. court records, are supporting the new Legal XML Court Filing Standard. That standard is intended to establish a method for capturing electronic filings and allowing them to be put into the courts' case management systems. The Council of State Court Administrators (COSCA) and the National Association of Court Management (NACM) in March worked together through a joint committee to develop the standard.

"A small but growing number of courts are allowing online filing," says JusticeLink's spokesperson Jeff Jones, "and we expect considerable expansion over the next few years." Neither JusticeLink nor CourtLink will require their customers to adopt the standard, but those who do will be able to use the data in any XML-enabled system. Meanwhile, the companies will continue their present conversions of word processing files to PDF, which can be used by the electronic filing management systems that are presently in place.

Cooperative Competition

In the highly competitive aerospace industry, the need for common information is driving the migration toward industry standards. Pratt & Whitney, General Electric and Rolls Royce manufacture jet engines but also service those of competitors at their maintenance facilities. Enigma, long a leader in electronic publishing of technical documentation in aerospace, is now using XML technology to allow such facilities to order parts over the Internet.

"These items are complex, and it is in everyone's interest to have a common set of standards for identifying them," Says Ronnen Armon, Enigma's CTO. "We are seeing the emergence of such taxonomies in other dynamic and competitive industries such as telecommunications, semiconductors and transportation." Enigma has made a major commitment to XML, and has numerous patents pending in various aspects of the technology.

The bottom line is that the potential of XML has just begun to be tapped.

"XML itself is simple, but it allows companies to solve difficult problems," says David Osborne, CTO of Plural, a strategic consulting firm specializing in developing e-business. "In the past, putting the same information on a desktop, a handheld device and a wireless phone would have required different systems. XML can render it on all of them equally well."

With both platform and application independence, XML is poised to revolutionize the Internet experience.

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