XML Promises to Enrich the Data Experience

Whether or not Extensible Markup Language (XML) will usher in the "second Internet revolution" as some industry observers claim, XML appears to be a dramatic step toward more seamless integration of applications into heterogeneous Web-based environments. Many vendors are either already incorporating XML as the method for data exchange in upcoming applications or laying out road maps for embedding XML. Some of the highest-profile examples are Microsoft Corp., looking to unify its scattered software empire, and SAP America Inc. (Wayne, Pa., www.sap.com), seeking to further integrate its ERP applications with existing forms of data in the enterprise.

XML provides a universal method for describing and formatting messages by placing information in context with markup tags, similar in appearance to HTML tags. Users can then access and exchange data from different applications. Data can be delivered using HTTP -- in the same way that HTML is delivered today -- without any changes to existing networks and across corporate firewalls. Like HTML, XML is a subset of Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML), but XML is more flexible and powerful than HTML.

Analyst Bob Chatham with Forrester Research (Cambridge, Mass.) sees applications for XML extending beyond Web serving. "There are two dimensions to XML: as a content-tagging method and as a data transport method," Chatham says. On the content-tagging side, XML will facilitate "more meaningful searches on the Web," he says. "Certain product attributes could be tagged with metadata tags."

From a data transport perspective, XML "turns the world on its head a little bit, from an application-centric view to data-centric view of the world," Chatham says. "It could be the primary data handoff mechanism between applications." However, he cautions that XML "is promising but untested," limited to a "few bleeding-edge companies."

Microsoft got started in XML development several years ago, and its involvement is beginning to bear fruit in several areas. In June 1996, Microsoft co-founded the XML Working Group of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C, www.w3.org), which includes Adobe Systems Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. and Sun Microsystems Computer Co. Steve Sklepowichz, product manager for platform marketing at Microsoft, confirms Microsoft’s commitment. "XML will be supported across the product lines," he says. "As products get shipped, you'll hear more about XML."

Microsoft is already involved in a number of XML initiatives. The Redmond, Wash., company recently worked with consultant Tim Bray, a prominent XML advocate, to submit the Document Content Description format for XML, which facilitates integration of data from databases, to W3C. Microsoft is also leading the effort to promote Extensible Style Language (XSL), a core technology for XML that transforms XML data structures into HTML for browser display as well as other transformations. Recently, Microsoft teamed up with DataChannel Inc. (Bellevue, Wash., www.datachannel.com) to collaborate on delivering an enhanced XML parser written in Java, and Microsoft is developing more XML functionality into the next release (5.0) of its Internet Explorer browser.

XML support for Office 2000 will enable "round-tripping," which is the ability to "go back and forth between a native Office file and HTML," Sklepowichz says. "Today, if you save a document in HTML, a lot of formatting gets lost. XML will be used to annotate that HTML file." Sklepowichz adds that XML will be used across the Office product line. Microsoft's Site Server Commerce Edition also will support XML in its Commerce Interchange Pipeline component.

On the application side, SAP announced that it will be incorporating XML across its Business Framework architecture as a format for data interchange with other systems. SAP will deliver XML interfaces in a phased approach beginning early next year.

"We're fully embracing XML and using it to open up R/3 further," says Peter Graf, product marketing manager for the SAP Business Framework. "Whenever it comes to interfacing or exchanging information between systems or components, we will be using XML. We have been able to use browsers for more than 2 years now, but XML is going to bring more dynamic visualization of business processes to users."

SAP intends to enable all its major interfaces with XML and establish XML as a widely used format within its products. SAP will also deliver solutions that exploit XML capabilities for the extended enterprise, such as the recently announced SAP Business-to-Business Procurement component. "In this product, we are using XML to actually manage the relationship between products and electronic catalogs," Graf says.

For enterprise applications, XML can serve as an enabling layer in many different areas involving the movement of data, for example, between client and server or from server to print spoolers, or between applications, even over the Internet. SAP will be employing XML as a data container for invoking its

Business APIs and other programming interfaces. XML will also serve as SAP's content format for electronic forms, such as purchase orders that are delivered over the Internet in conjunction with online catalogs.

For the most part, vertical industry groups will be determining the schemas for cross-business XML-based transactions, says Sklepowichz. "Industry groups are getting together to agree [on] those words -- the 'vocabulary' -- that are going to be used to exchange data."

Vertical solutions already are surfacing. In the financial industry, Innovision Corp. (Lenexa, Kan. www.innovision.com) recently began shipping its latest OFX-based Financial Server product, capable of exchanging XML-based protocols. Financial Server is used today by financial institutions to connect with Intuit Inc.'s Quicken 98 and Microsoft Money 98.

In health care, St. John Health System (Tulsa, Okla.) announced it is linking all future clinical applications through an XML-based back-office technology that enables access to medical records and clinical data. The system is installing Sequioa Interchange98, an XML server from Sequioa Software Corp. (Columbia, Md., www.sequoiasw.com).

In the distribution sector, DHL Worldwide Express (Redwood City, Calif.) recently incorporated XML-based technology from WebMethods Inc. (Fairfax, Va., www.webmethods.com) into its DHL Connect tracking network. DHL Connect is a part Windows-based and part Web-based application that enables DHL customers to track packages from their desktops. WebMethods' XML-based technology was used in the development of DHL Connect to simplify the tracking and reporting processes. Using a protocol-independent Web query engine, DHL Connect enables customers to pull package information from existing internal databases and Web sites.

"XML represents a key advance in Web technology," says Jon Bosak, Sun's online information technology architect and chair of the W3C XML Working Group. XML "enables secure electronic commerce on an expanded scale, thus ushering in a new generation of distributed applications."

Forrester's Chatham illustrates how XML would help two business partners with different definitions of customers to exchange customer data. "XML allows those companies to easily interchange those sorts of records in a way that it doesn't matter whether one is missing certain attributes or if the other has extra attributes," he says. "They can do a one-time exercise of looking at their definitions of customer records, and lay them up against each other with a little help from XML mapping tools. They then can interchange that data regularly and easily sitting on top of a protocol such as HTTP."