|March 26, 2001|
XML Passes From Development To Implementation
Number of businesses using or planning to use the metalanguage is soaring
By Andy Patrizio
|More on XML:|
Vendors and research firms say XML is The Next Big Thing. The percentage of businesses using or planning to use XML has increased from 20% last year to 78% this year, according to a survey sponsored by vendor XMLSolutions Corp. Zona Research predicts that the percentage of E-commerce transactions using XML will jump from 0.5% last year to 40% by the end of 2003. Sales of XML products and services will rise from $90 million last year to $2.4 billion in 2004, Upstream Consulting says.
Why so much attention to a computer language? Because XML is a metalanguage, a language for describing other languages. HTML, used for Web pages, uses tags to describe types of data. However, HTML tags are predefined and the number of available tags is limited.
XML, in contrast, is extensible and doesn't have a fixed format. You can add tags and create your own markup language. This means you can create a document using almost any format and store the data in any conceivable structure. The tags let applications understand what kind of data is being stored and what format is being used.
The XML spec, as published by the World Wide Web Consortium, is just a syntax, like the alphabet is to the English language, says Laura Walker, executive director of the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (Oasis), a nonprofit consortium that develops open standards such as XML. "From the alphabet, it's up to us to make words and paragraphs and stories," she says. Those words and paragraphs are XML schemas or frameworks, such as the ebXML specification for business transactions, as well as horizontal and vertical applications that use XML.
Much of that groundwork is complete. "XML will be implemented in 2001, not just developed but implemented," Walker says. But implementation has been slow. John Rymer, president of Upstream Consulting, says some businesses have been reluctant to use a standard that's still under development. The strongest proponents of XML have been technology companies such as Cisco Systems, Dell Computer, Intel, and Selectron, he says. "The organizations that are heavily committed to the Internet for inter-company communication are interested in XML," Rymer says.
More than 200 companies participate in the Universal Description, Discovery and Integration (UDDI) effort, a registry for companies to automatically discover and connect with each other via XML. Almost all of them are tech companies such as IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, and Sun Microsystems.
XML is also gaining ground among companies with complicated and distributed supply chains. "There's either a public or private exchange effort in pretty much every industry you can think of, and every one of those exchanges is a user of XML technology or will be," Rymer says.
That trend is getting a boost from technology companies building XML into communications applications designed for use over the Internet. Microsoft's BizTalk Server, IBM's WebSphere Web Server, Commerce One's MarketSite platform, and many others support or will soon support XML. Industry experts predict XML will eventually become ubiquitous, much the same way TCP/IP has. And if every vendor adopts it, customers will have to use it.
The XML trend is being fueled by a number of free products, such as the Apache XML Project, which provides free XML software from the developers of the popular open-source Apache Web server.
At the same time, IBM plans to build further support for XML, UDDI, the Web Services Definition Language, and Simple Object Access Protocol into the next release of WebSphere. Sun has built further XML support into the latest version of Java 2 Enterprise Edition. Future versions of Microsoft software also will support XML as part of the company's .Net initiative.
Technology vendors and industry groups are building document-type definitions, called DTDs, and schemas, which are used to define and validate data. A DTD tag, for example, could define an item price, but the data itself could be faulty and unusable. In a schema, a price tag could be defined as an integer with two decimal places, and the schema would validate the data against it.
Oasis has on its XML.org Web site a huge repository of schema and DTDs that are used by business-to-business applications and XML-based servers to perform transactions. XML-based B-to-B servers use repositories to hold hundreds or thousands of schema and DTDs, so, for example, when one partner tries to connect using WfbXML, a workflow XML schema, the server detects it and uses that schema to complete the transaction.
XML promises to be a neutral method for exchanging data between two systems or applications. Its most common uses have been in enterprise application integration, linking legacy systems to newer systems such as intranets and Web sites, and for B-to-B data exchange. Many analysts expect XML eventually will supplant electronic data interchange, an earlier method for exchanging data between applications.
The problem with EDI is that it's very difficult and expensive to implement, often requiring millions of dollars in hardware and hefty per-transaction fees. It can take months for two business partners to set up EDI exchange interfaces. EDI is used mostly by very large companies.
"Today, big companies may be using EDI, but they aren't using it with all of their suppliers because their smaller suppliers can't afford the equipment," Oasis' Walker says. "But in the future, when everyone is using XML, they'll all be able to use it, big and small. By benefiting the small companies, we also benefit the big companies."
In contrast to an EDI per-transaction charge of $25 to $50, an XML-based transaction will cost around $5, says Daryn Walters, VP of marketing for XMLSolutions, a developer of the Business Integration Platform, which has EDI integration at its core. The platform's XEDI Translator allows for bidirectional XML/EDI conversion, its Schema Central repository holds any number of schemas and DTDs, and its VocaBuilder supports a number of XML-based corporate glossaries.
Lockheed Martin Corp., an XMLSolutions customer, is using Business Integration Platform to reduce procurement transaction fees. The company wants to conduct 95% of its business electronically by year's end, which means servicing 60,000 trading partners, 80% of whom don't use EDI, says William Bryant, director of enterprise business solutions for Lockheed Martin.
Supply-chain provider CrossMark Performance Group has also adopted XML. The company acts as a conduit between 1,100 product manufacturers and more than 300 retail outlets, some giant, some small. XML is the common ground among them.
"We've found XML to be one of the most useful things we've ever played with," says John Thompson, president of the Dallas company. Linking so many suppliers and buyers can produce a large number of combinations. "We work with so many people that we find XML to be the most significant way to send transactions back and forth, and much easier than EDI," he says.
CrossMark began converting its EDI and non-EDI business systems to XML in 1998. All incoming transactions, regardless of origin, are converted into XML data, parsed, and sent back out in the format the recipient uses. The company handles 1.5 million transactions per year, all in XML.
It took 14 months to convert all of CrossMark's offices and consolidate nine EDI order-processing systems into one, Thompson says. The company can set up new customers more quickly and expects to cut transaction costs by 30%. It also expects to save hundreds of thousands of dollars a year once it stops leasing EDI hardware and dial-up lines for the EDI systems, because transactions will be done over the Internet. Another benefit: More of the system is automated, so CrossMark is able to cut its staff by one-third.
"XML really lowers the scale at which you can take part in E-commerce," Thompson says. "Due to the expenses and charges, you found no one getting involved in EDI who was really small. But with XML, very small businesses can take part in E-commerce."
The EDI/XML conversions are done with a system called the Exchange Bridge, which was jointly developed with systems integrator Perigrine Systems Inc. of San Diego, using the XML Information Server from NeoCore LLC and the Business Web Factory from Bowstreet Inc. The XML Information Server is an XML-oriented database that stores data in a format designed for fast searching; using XML on more mainstream databases requires converting XML data into a row/column format for storage.
OPDXchange Inc., another E-commerce hub company, is just now hooking up its Office Products Digital Exchange with XML services and sees an opportunity to involve smaller businesses. A lot of companies can't afford the setup and maintenance of EDI, says Don Weary, VP of operations for OPDXchange in Vienna, Va. "Now we can easily have a case where a small office is sending a request to a 3M."
OPDXchange uses Business Integration Platform and worked with XMLSolutions to create a translation engine that recognizes more than 3,000 EDI business documents. The engine can handle bidirectional translation. The pitch OPDXchange makes to smaller companies is that its approach can preserve their existing systems.
That pitch highlights XML's second major appeal--enterprise application integration. XML lets data from legacy systems be converted from the old data store and sent to a new application, such as a Web site, or transferred to a business partner.
"We don't ask you to do custom coding--you use what you run your business on today and let us worry about the routing," Weary says. "They only have to connect to us once, and we connect out to other folks.'' In both cases, he says, XML is a technology for the connection and data ex-change. "We worry about making all the routes and connections happen."
While XML itself has largely solidified, most technologists agree there's still plenty of work to be done in building on top of the XML "alphabet," as Oasis' Walker says. Many vertical industries are developing their own flavors of XML, and better coordination is needed between the developers and the industries that will actually use them. "The critical success factor for XML is coordination between these groups, because the risk of developing in a vacuum is always there," she says.
She cites the example of the HRXML schema, a human-resources version that would be used by employers and temporary employment agencies. On the same day that the HRXML working group met to work on the spec, the National Association of Purchasing Managers had a meeting elsewhere in the country where its members stated that the procurement of temporary staffing was one of its biggest challenges, so it was going to investigate ways to automate the process. "It's clear to me and should be to most people that these two groups should coordinate together, because they're talking about the same thing," Walker says.
Many industry experts also say that more XML creation tools are needed for the technology to progress. "It's so difficult to make money on tools, so a lot of vendors are reluctant to invest in tools," Rymer says.
An important open-source tool for XML parsing and generation is called Xerces, which is being written by the Apache Group, creators of the Apache open-source Web server with input from IBM and other vendors. "Xerces could be very important, because it would provide a readily available set of XML tools that could spread throughout the industry very quickly," Rymer says.
Also needed are some rules and structure for XML data, because searching a large XML document can be difficult. Searching a multimegabyte text file can become a resource nightmare. "Processing on each individual message could be immense, depending on the context you need to stuff into the message," Rymer says.
Walker thinks it will take another year before true end-to-end transactions can take place because schemas are still being designed and approved across industries. She says once the vertical schema are finalized, it will be possible to do true end-to-end automatic transaction processing in XML with no human intervention.Illustration by Bob Daly
Photo of John Thompson by Steve McAlister
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