November 9, 1998
The nascent Internet standard is emerging as the most effective way to organize and exchange data
By Gregory Dalton
he Extensible Markup Language is still something of an unknown quantity for a large part of the IT industry. But it's increasingly showing up on the radar screens of savvy tech managers as a way to facilitate many areas of electronic business by improving how data is organized and exchanged between companies over the Internet.
"We're neck-deep in XML for the next generation of everything, from message formats to interfaces to all kinds of stuff," says Mark Lussier, senior systems architect at DHL Airways Inc. And while DHL's involvement with XML is certainly not typical, many companies are at least at the testing stage with the nascent standard.
XML is a metalanguage, which means that it describes information about information. XML describes the way data is formatted and exchanged between servers and clients over an IP network. Observers describe it as a more flexible and powerful cousin of HTML, which helps data look nice but doesn't do much for its underlying structure. XML provides more programming tags than HTML and can therefore be used to format and structure information more precisely.
"Right now, browsers work with data very stupidly," says Ben Meiry, director of Merrill Lynch & Co.'s private client architecture group. Merrill Lynch uses XML to develop applications for its private investor group that shift some data processing from the server to the desktop. With HTML, data sent to a browser is sent as simple text, Meiry says. XML provides the ability to manipulate the information without going back to the server. That means, for example, that if a user wants to sort a table of financial information by account number rather than name, that switch can be processed entirely on the browser. "What XML provides is a common data format that all browsers and Web platforms can talk with," he says. "Its like the ASCII of data for the next millennium."
The fact that XML is gaining acceptance throughout the industry is one of its selling points. "People like that we're using XML because it's a standard," says Tim Andrews, VP of enterprise products at Dow Jones Interactive Publishing. The unit of Dow Jones & Co. collects data feeds in various formats from publishers of 6,000 periodicals and converts it to XML before sending it to the intranets of about 100 business customers.
DHL has developers working on an array of XML-based applications that the company will begin deploying next year. DHL is using a tool kit from leading XML vendor webMethods Inc. to aggregate and sift through information sent by other transportation companies. That data is then sent to DHL customers who are using a DHL application to track shipments being handled by other logistics companies.
Startup Tapestry.net gathers recruiting information from companies such as Ford Motor Co. (Japan) Ltd. and Procter & Gamble Far East Inc. and forwards it to prospective employees around the world. It plans to use XML to ease some of the headaches of dealing with assorted data formats from those companies. Says Eric Jackson, Tapestry.net's director of business development, "All the early indicators are that XML is the way to go for anything that is Internet-based."
A steady stream of vendors and standards groups has been introducing support for XML since the World Wide Web Consortium released the XML 1.0 specification earlier this year. For example, the Open Financial Exchange, a format for consumer financial transactions proposed by Microsoft and other companies, is based on the Standard General Markup Language, the grandfather of XML. But OFX is moving to XML, which is simpler and easier to use.
Microsoft, a big backer of XML, supports it in the current version of its Internet browser and will enhance that support in Internet Explorer 5.0, which entered beta testing this month. Netscape will add support for XML in Communicator 5.0, its suite of client software due early next year. Vignette Corp. last month said it will include in an add-on to its StoryServer Web publishing platform a XML tool kit provided by DataChannel Inc.
Telstra, a $10.5 billion telco in Australia, is looking to XML to help its purchasing managers improve the way they find and buy products using online catalogs. The company is implementing IEC Enterprise 2.1, a procurement app from Intelysis Electronic Commerce LLC. Telstra chose IEC partly because Intelysis will incorporate XML into version 3.0 in the first quarter of next year. Telstra plans to move to 3.0 to take advantage of its XML capabilities.
"The Internet is just full of data," says Robert Petty, manager of electronic business services at Telstra. "XML is going to allow you to get at that data and sort it into more legible information." Purchasing managers, for example, often encounter problems searching vendor catalogs for specific products: Notebook computers can be called laptops or portable computers. Petty says XML could provide a common programming tag to clarify that discrepancy and make product searches more efficient and productive. "It's a tool that's going to ease the whole process of Internet procurement and purchasing."
Some companies say XML has increased business efficiency. Siemens Communications used XML in a time-keeping application it launched last month for 6,000 employees. The application automates a paper-based process that was inefficient and prone to data-entry errors. Previously, follow-up was needed to keep track of how much time employees spent on certain projects. That's obviated by the data-tracking capabilities of the XML-based application. "It enables management to focus more of their time on core issues," says Patrick Nocero, director of accounting services. Nocero estimates $1 million in annual productivity and cost savings in part because administrative staff will not have to increase as it has in the past when the company adds to its payroll.
XML is also being applied to fledgling technologies such as speech recognition. Lernout & Hauspie Speech Products NV, a maker of products that recognize speech commands, is working with Sequoia Software Corp. on a product that will allow doctors to dictate their notes and have that data transferred over the Internet into various medical information systems using Sequoia's Interchange 98 XML-based server.
One vendor that committed early to XML is webMethods, which has introduced an SAP extension for its application server called the B2B Integration Server that uses XML. The middleware lets SAP users retrieve information from a catalog hosted on a supplier's Web site, generate a purchase order using SAP, and send it back through the application server to the supplier. Customers include German-owned investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort Benson, which is using webMethods to send research and portfolio information to its trading desk.
As more products using XML hit the market and companies have a chance to become familiar with it, companies are changing their attitudes toward the language, says webMethods CEO Phillip Merrick. "Before, you would run into quite a bit of resistance," he says. Customers who heard his pitch for XML to exchange data between enterprise systems would say, "That's what EDI is for," Merrick says. Now they are coming around to share his view: "XML is EDI for the rest of us."
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