New Development Platforms Bring XML into the Spotlight

In recent months there has been a slew of announcements involving XML. Software vendors are scrambling to support or incorporate XML into tools and applications. But is this hype or hope? Analysts say many of these vendors are treating the technology as the latest flavor in Web-centric software rather than fully exploiting its cross-application flexibility. But, they add, the new breed of XML application server that is emerging may finally help facilitate the growth of XML beyond the Web.

The industry analyst firm GartnerGroup ( projects that XML (eXtensible Markup Language) will represent a $1 billion market within the year. Based on Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML), XML provides a universal method for describing and formatting messages by placing information in context with simple, but customized, markup tags, similar in appearance to HTML tags. As a result, users will be able to access and exchange data from differing applications. Data can be delivered using HTTP -- in the same way that HTML can today -- without any changes to existing networks and across corporate firewalls.

Because XML tags resemble HTML tags it’s easy to imagine how the technology could be used to enhance Web pages. Several vendors, however, are going one step beyond. They are combining XML with Java to create cross-platform, Web-deliverable applications that can access XML-based data from multiple data sources.

Netaway ( claims to have delivered the first XML-based application server in 1996. Formerly called SQL-Surfer and first marketed in Europe, XMLways includes application building tools written in C++ for both Windows NT and Unix environments.

More recently, Bluestone Software Inc. ( announced Bluestone XML Server, a Java-based Web application server that provides a platform for the distribution and deployment of XML-based applications. Bluestone XMLServer supports Enterprise JavaBeans, and includes an XML content translator, generator, and transport scripting vehicle. It helps users create and read XML pages for communication between Web and non-Web applications and data objects. The server, a scaled-down version of Bluestone's Sapphire/Web product, is intended to speed the retrieval and integration of data from multiple sources, as well as modify or generate XML code on the fly.

In December, Object Design Inc. ( announced eXcelon, an XML application server that enables companies to build enterprise Web applications using XML. EXcelon is designed for applications that require access to multiple, dissimilar data sources, such as Web-based e-commerce, customer service, or a data hub. EXcelon is expected to ship this quarter.

XML will enable developers to use these application servers to build and deploy a variety of applications quickly. "What makes XML interesting is the new vertical applications and industries it will spawn, and the chaos it will create in the computer industry," says Rita Knox, research director at GartnerGroup. "While its initial use will be most relevant on the Web, XML will spread into many applications."

Knox predicts XML's impact will match that of the Web itself within the next three years. She advocates that companies get involved in industry-specific XML initiatives and identify what applications are becoming XML-enabled. "Avoid the simplistic XML 'quick fixes' that treat XML as an isolated, Web document technology," she says.

Expect a wave of XML creation and content management tools over the coming year, Knox predicts. "Many of these will be purely opportunistic -- hanging off the XML hype's coattails -- or limited by not providing end users with the broad capabilities that XML can enable. Worse yet, some products will mislead users into thinking that XML is simply the latest version of HTML and have users completely miss the full implications of what XML and associated standards are about and how they can be used."