XML: The Key to E-Business

XML: The Key to E-Business<@VM>NIST Test Suite<@VM>Big Blue's Umbrella <@VM>The Advent and Benefits of XML <@VM>Getting a Handle on XML

Margery Reynolds

By John Makulowich

While storage giant EMC Corp. may focus on e-infostructure, software king Microsoft Corp. on BizTalk, and turnkey titleholder IBM Corp. on e-business, all of them along with major and minor electronic commerce players are turning increasing attention to XML development.

Extensible markup language, or XML, is nothing less than the skeleton key for e-business, the master that frees the data bound by the chains of HTML.

Technically, XML is a metalanguage, a language to describe other languages. It lets developers design their own markup for federal clients and specific industries. It is also a subset of the standard generalized markup language, or SGML, the international standard adopted by the International Organization for Standardization in 1986.

For Laura Walker, executive director of the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS), in Billerica, Mass., (www.oasis-open.org and xml.org) and a key figure on the SGML and XML playing fields, interest in the XML standard is unprecedented. One factor is the attention of the analyst community and the trade press, which have recognized the key role XML can play in smoothing the way for e-business.

There also is a desire for standards-based products among consumers, who seek better ways to access and retrieve information as well as to find and compare product offerings, Walker said.

"The fact is our lives are becoming Internet-based. There is a huge demand to address the needs of the consumer, both business and individual," she said. "Not this year or next, but maybe in five years, XML will be an enabling methodology for unifying products, processes and behaviors across the Internet."

How important is the development of XML to e-business (business to business) and, by extension, e-commerce (business to consumer)?

To Richard Welke, director of the Electronic Commerce Institute in Atlanta, XML offers a standard way to exchange data between business partners at the data item level rather than at the document level, one that EDI (electronic data interchange, the predecessor of XML) was unable to achieve.

"XML opens up new uses, for example, catalogs, which were never contemplated by EDI and related standards," Welke said. "XML can be done by third parties, rather than having to be done by the participants (sender and receiver) in the transaction exchange chain. This opens the doors to such things as 'vortals.' The downside, at least temporarily, is a lack of formal transaction management that the EDI VANs [value-added networks] provided, such as receipt and time stamping."

Jonathan Palmer is another observer of the e-business scene. An assistant professor of decision and information technologies in the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland in College Park, Palmer feels Microsoft's initiative, called BizTalk, could be valuable since it is a framework based on XML.

According to Palmer, BizTalk is a cross-platform, e-commerce framework that could make it easy for businesses to integrate applications and conduct business over the Internet with trading partners and customers. With key players lining up behind it, BizTalk offers the potential for an open standards approach to more firmly establish e-business across industries and within the governmental sector.

"The BizTalk-XML approach could define standards that are widely adopted. Those firms designing to these standards would be in a very strong position in terms of product adoption," Palmer said.

He noted Microsoft announced plans to incorporate BizTalk into its Commerce Platform, initiatives for the MSN network for Internet services and future versions of Office, the BackOffice family and the Windows family of operating systems.

"The economics of this approach could be quite interesting, giving away initial schema development, encouraging development in XML and then packaging products around the industry standard. It may be too early to call, but the potential is the establishment of an industry standard that could enable more fully integration across industries and between business systems, regardless of platform, operating system or underlying technology," he said.

Introduced in March, BizTalk includes a design framework for implementing an XML schema and a set of XML tags for use in messages between applications. Microsoft, as well as other software companies and industry standards groups, will use BizTalk to consistently produce XML schemas.

In fact, Microsoft and the Open Applications Group Inc. (OAGI), a non-profit industry consortium of business software component interoperability players, just announced a pilot project to review migration of the OAGI Specification XML Definitions to the BizTalk specifications. The XML working group in OAGI, which includes Compaq Computer Corp., IBM Manufacturing Systems, Microsoft, NEC Corp., PeopleSoft Inc. and PricewaterhouseCoopers, plans to update the OAGI XML documents developed under XML 1.0 specification.

The aim is to produce a compatible set of XML-schema documents and publish them in the BizTalk library (www.biztalk.org) so they can be downloaded and used by anyone for free.

The Microsoft approach is to work with industry consortia, partners and customers to define a common set of guidelines for implementing schemas based on standard XML and to make those available to a broad community.

Margery Reynolds, federal e-commerce program manager for Microsoft, takes great pains to stress that BizTalk is a public organization, that even though it is chair of the steering committee, Microsoft can still be voted out and that BizTalk is not owned by Microsoft.

The bottom line is that BizTalk for Microsoft serves as a framework or set of guidelines for mapping different schemas from a variety of industries. In simplest terms, schemas are document type definitions writ large, continually refined dictionaries that define the elements permitted in XML-coded documents and allow data to be transferred seamlessly within industries and among different industries.

Microsoft will be kicking off pilots for every industry. The goal is to get companies to agree to support specific schemas in their products. In fact, the XML component will be supported in all Microsoft development tools. Unknown to many users is that an XML parser is included in the company browser, Internet Explorer 5.

"The value of BizTalk is that we can automate the supply chain. We will finally make the chain feasible and possible," said Reynolds.

Jonathan Palmer

Regardless of the momentum behind BizTalk, one government agency certain to remain in the middle of standards and e-business issues is the National Institute of Standards and Technology, part of the Commerce Department. Its role focuses on three questions about what the United States needs to do to enable e-commerce: What are the measurements and standards needs? What are the technology development needs? How can we get the needed technology to our small businesses?

Mary Brady, a NIST staff member and project leader in XML Conformance Tests, also serves as chair of the OASIS XML technical committee. On July 30, OASIS formally announced the public availability of its XML Conformance Test Suite. This set of more than 1,000 tests determines the ability of XML parsers to handle test cases built on the W3C Recommendation. (You can download the suite from the OASIS Web site at www.oasis-open.org/committees/xmltest/testsuite.htm.)

The suite contains tests developed by the OASIS technical committee along with those from Sun Microsystems, Fuji Xerox Information Systems and James Clark. NIST staff built the test suite as it exists.

Said Brady: "We have put together the most comprehensive test suite available covering much of the XML 1.0 specification, and we have done it using XML. The OASIS XML Conformance Test Suite is completely open. OASIS invites any organization that has developed XML conformance tests to become part of our continuing work."

The OASIS XML Conformance Test Suite is a first release. Plans are for additional tests to include XML name spaces, X-Pointer/X-Link and XML schemas when the recommendations are available.

One industry not often thought of as even near the forefront of technology innovation is insurance. But that is changing fast with keen interest in the development of XML, according to Jim Donaldson, chief technology officer for Ivans Inc., Greenwich, Conn.

An industry-owned organization formed in 1983, Ivans supplies IT solutions to those in the insurance distribution system. Its mission is to help its 500 member firms and 80,000 users find e-commerce solutions to improve their competitiveness. Ivans claims most property and casualty insurance transactions and a significant percentage of life and health transactions are conducted on its network.

"XML will rocket our industry forward," said Donaldson, who has watched the popularity of XML grow rapidly over the last year. "For the first time, the insurance industry has an opportunity to lead the world into a new era of automation. The combination of the Internet, Web page usage and increased need for EDI and an understandable technology has christened XML as the new e-commerce champion."

Donaldson said fragmentation, or too many schemas around specific industry XML implementations, was an early concern of Ivans. While XML was seen as one of the leading technologies to come along, there was a threat to XML with many of the carriers developing their own schemas or DTDs. But organizations worked together to create the first part of the schema for the insurance industry.

"You have BizTalk, OASIS, Commerce.net and Rosetta.net, de facto repositories for each of the industry schemas for XML. In a way, the duplication poses a threat to the promise of XML. That promise is one schema per industry," said Donaldson. Given one schema per industry, you could seamlessly transact between them, such as banks and insurance carriers or auto body shops and insurance carriers.

Confirming the interest in XML on the ground floor, Donaldson said that during a recent insurance agency convention, there was genuine interest about the standard from retail insurance agencies.

"The excitement about XML is filtering down the distribution channel to the outlet. I was constantly asked, 'When is this going to happen?' The key here is the potential efficiencies that a universally agreed upon standard can create," said Donaldson.

One example recently carried on Ivans Web pages described a scenario in which, using XML, an insurance carrier could have a Web-based rating product accessed by a browser. As the data is keyed by an agent, the rating product would access different information providers for driving records and credit checks in real time.

On acceptance of the quote, the rating product would combine the information with the quote and pass it to the agency for real time or batch updating of the prospect's record, as well as to the carrier's own underwriting department. The department could add information or request electronically more documentation from the agency.

Other data could be combined with the original data to give the underwriter a total picture of the risk. The complete transaction would be sent to the agency in real time or batch mode.

A fresh kid on the block busy at work helping companies convert selected data to XML is HardBall Software Inc., Chantilly, Va. (www.hardballsw.com) Its newest offering is the Beta release of InfoShark 1.5. With it, users can import data from XML objects as well as Excel, dBase and text files to create or update Oracle databases.

More importantly, the product includes Viewshark 2.5, which creates XML objects from Oracle databases. You specify the rules for the actions, then choose either automatic generation or designate the elements yourself.

President and CEO Barbara Bouldin brings to the task more than 20 years experience, ranging from research and development at Bell Labs to commercial software development, marketing and consulting.

"Driving me is the belief that anything anyone does on the Internet has to do with information. It all comes down to getting data in the right size, form, shape from the giant databases. We try to bridge that gap," said Bouldin.

Jim Donaldson

Not far from the e-business action is IBM. While extremely active in the XML space, the Armonk, N.Y., turnkey operation is focused on serving its e-business clients in as many software, hardware and development areas as possible.

Craig Stoeber, IBM business unit executive for e-business in the federal government, sees e-business challenges not only in hardware and software but also in cultural issues.
"When you look at the challenges of bringing e-business into the customer set, at the top of the list is cultural. It amounts not to a technology set but to a business transformation," said Stoeber.

His point is that businesses need to understand there is a fundamental shift in how customers want to do business, whether business to business or business to consumer. And to effect change in the business requires what he calls "high sponsorship in the customer set." This amounts to sponsorship from the line-of-business executives wanting to solve a problem.

"The turning point is when the customer says, 'I have a fundamental problem with how I do business today.' Admitting that allows us to bring the whole breadth of IBM to talk," he said.

"That's our unique advantage in the marketplace: While most firms are strong in a particular pillar, IBM brings all skills to the table. And when most are trying to form alliances across areas, we bring all that under the IBM umbrella," he said.

Part of the difficulty for many companies who would like to move more quickly to e-business is that they do not understand their business processes today, often because they are spread across many systems. For IBM, that marks the start of a business opportunity.By John Makulowich

In the beginning was SGML, standard generalized markup language, created by Charles Goldfarb and anointed in 1986 as the international standard. But many thought SGML too cumbersome and too difficult to work with. (See the SGML frequently asked questions at www.infosys.utas.edu.au/info/sgmlfaq.txt).

Onto the scene came an SGML-light called HTML (hypertext markup language) when Tim Berners-Lee shaped the original documentation in 1991. But HTML was not easily extended, or easily adapted, to the changing Web scene and the requirements of business and industry.

With the demand and rush of e-business (business to business) and e-commerce (business to consumer) comes XML, a markup that is based on SGML and easily extended, letting users create their own tags, among other benefits.

Like HTML, XML is a sibling of SGML. It saw the light of day formally in July 1996 when a working group of the World Wide Web Consortium at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., started work on a version of SGML that was optimized for the World Wide Web.

The first draft of XML was presented in November 1996 at the SGML '96 Conference in Boston. In March 1997, Jon Bosak, online information technology architect for Sun Microsystems and currently the chair of the XML Working Group of the World Wide Web Consortium, wrote the article, "XML, Java, and the Future of the Web." (This article and others on XML are in the World Wide Web Journal, Vol. 2, Issue 4, Fall 1997. The title of the entire volume is "XML: Principles, Tools and Techniques.")

February 1998 saw the release of the W3C Recommendation: Extensible Markup Language (XML) 1.0. In May 1999, the W3C released four important working drafts: XML Information Set; XML Schema Part 1: Structures; XML Schema Part 2: Datatypes; and XHTML 1.0: The Extensible HyperText Markup Language, A Reformulation of HTML 4.0 in XML 1.0.

What does it take to use XML? As IBM notes on its Web page (www.software.ibm.com/developer/education/xmlintro/xmlintro-3-1.html), to build XML applications, you must undertake four tasks: select or write a document type definition, or DTD; generate XML documents; interpret XML documents; and display XML documents.

A DTD says what tags are allowed in your document, what tags can contain other tags, the number and sequence of the tags, the attributes the tags can have and the values those attributes can have.

The best way to understand XML and its benefits is to see the actual markup. Here is an example given by Goldfarb:

In HTML:

P266 Laptop

Friendly Computer Shop

$1438


In XML:

"1.0"?>

P266 Laptop>/model>
Friendly Computer Shop
$1438>/price>


As Goldfarb noted: "Both of these may look the same in your browser, but the XML data is smart data. HTML tells how the data should look, but XML tells you what it means. With XML, your browser knows there is a product, and it knows the model, dealer and price. From a group of these it can show you the cheapest product or closest dealer without going back to the server."

For e-business, the value of XML is that it lets organizations share data more easily and permits the creation of such items as catalogs, which were done inefficiently, if at all, with HTML. It also makes possible more effective and productive Web searching.
By John Makulowich

While the World Wide Web Consortium working group tasked with shaping the specification for extensible markup language (XML) started its work in July 1996, only recently has broad industry movement really become a groundswell.

For those interested in getting a handle on this simplified version of standard generalized markup language (SGML; international standard, ISO 8879, adopted in 1986) to ensure a leg up on e-business competitors in winning federal contracts, here is one set of steps to take.


?Read the article, "XML in an Instant: A Non-Geeky Introduction," by Charles Goldfarb (www.oasis-open.org/html/goldfarb.htm). Goldfarb created the term "markup language" and invented SGML, the parent of HTML and XML.


?Visit the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) page on XML in general (www.w3.org/XML/) to retrieve the most recent version of the specification, as well as review the list of upcoming events and other valuable materials. The current W3C Recommendation is XML 1.0, dated February 1998 (www.w3.org/TR/1998/REC-xml-19980210).


?Retrieve the XML frequently asked questions, maintained by Peter Flynn and colleagues for W3's XML Special Interest Group (www.ucc.ie/xml/). The most current is Version 1.5 dated June 1 and titled, "Frequently Asked Questions about the Extensible Markup Language."


?Visit the IBM Web site (www.ibm.com/developer/xml/) and walk through four straightforward tutorials on XML prepared by IBM senior programmer Doug Tidwell. Covered in the introduction to XML are four topics: What is XML? How can I use XML today? Applying XML and a case study. You also can gather valuable information on XML at another IBM web page: www.alpha
works.ibm.com/.


?Access the Microsoft Developers Network Web Workshop on XML and take their excellent 10-lesson XML Tutorial (msdn.microsoft.com/xml/c-frame.htm#/xml/default.asp). If you want to dive deeper, there is a company newsgroup named microsoft.public.xml.


?Download the Microsoft XML Notepad (msdn.microsoft.com/xml/notepad/intro.asp) and try your hand at coding in XML. The utility comes with five small, sample XML files. The most recent version is Beta 1.5 dated May 15.


?Go back to the IBM site (www.software.ibm.com/devel
oper/features/feat-domit.html) to try DOMit, a Java servlet that validates your XML document and then displays its DOM (document object model) structure in your browser. You can use one of the five sample XML files from the Microsoft XML Notepad to test it.


?Consider subscribing to the most popular XML newsgroup, comp.text.xml. If you use Microsoft Internet Explorer 5 and Outlook Express 5, put this in the address box: news:comp.text.xml


?Review the list of speakers and presentations (www.gca.org/conf/xmldev99/) set for the third annual GCA XML Developers' Conference to be held Aug. 19 and 20 in Montreal.


?Visit one of the key groups behind XML named OASIS (www.oasis-open.org/). The Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards is a non-profit consortium that seeks to speed the adoption of product-independent formats based on public standards. These include SGML, XML, HTML and others related to structured information processing. Also, make sure to look over the XML Conformance Test Suite at www.oasis-open.org/committees/xmltest/testsuite.htm. The chair of the OASIS XML Conformance Subcommittee is Mary Brady from the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The most recent working draft is dated July 12.

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