XML Enters B2B Phase, Issues Persist

Extensible Markup Language (XML) is gaining momentum faster than expected. The language has become a ubiquitous component of most new business-to-business server products. However, industry analysts say roadblocks still hamper its effective deployment -- including messaging and metadata issues.

In recent months, the technology has rapidly evolved from its use as a tool leveraged by software developers for personal projects to a full-scale business-to-business panacea, says Kevin Dick, head of Kevin Dick Associates (www.kevin-dick-associates.com ) and chairman of the recent SIGS/101 XML One conference.

The major stumbling block to XML acceptance -- the need for industry-by-industry glossaries with specific data definitions -- is melting away. The development of such glossaries is proceeding at a very rapid pace, says Ron Exler, senior research analyst at Robert Frances Group Inc. (www.rfgonline.com). "It appears XML is emerging as a key component of many business-to-business e-commerce undertakings."

Exler is bullish on XML acceptance because the standard is being driven by end-users, not vendors. "Such efforts are more likely to succeed in defining appropriate industry definitions in a timely manner than vendor-driven groups."

XML is now entering phase two of its existence -- that of business-to-business (B2B) interoperability glue. "The first application for XML was probably among software developers who were using it as an internal file format," Dick says. "Right now, with the importance of B2B, it's hard to even imagine that there was an earlier phase because B2B is really the first thing that XML is being targeted at for commercial applications."

The vendor community as a whole has been quick to recognize the importance of XML as a powerful technology for e-business, Dick says. Representation at the XML One conference included heavyweights such as IBM Corp. (www.ibm.com), Oracle Corp. (www.oracle.com), and Microsoft Corp. (www.microsoft.com). "Vendor commitment to XML has always been high, and for the most part vendors have been very quick to recognize the usefulness of XML, and in fact are driving a lot of its uses," he says. "And as this conference demonstrates, they're doing so in a fairly 'good citizen' fashion, because there's a lot of free software available from various vendors for doing XML."

There are, however, issues that still need to be resolved. "XML addresses data exchange but does not adequately address messaging issues," RFG's Exler warns. "Exhibit caution when examining vendor claims about XML." For example, XML-based systems lack a mechanism for senders to determine if messages were received. Security of XML messages also needs to be addressed.

A proposal submitted to the Internet Engineering Task Force (www.ietf.org) seeks to address these messaging issues. The generic messaging approach provides specifications for document wrapping, identification, processing, and error reporting. In addition, security is addressed through digital signature authentication.

Metadata is another issue XML designers are grappling with. One solution being put forth is more widespread use of Atomic, a line-based meta language that was explored at the conference, held in Austin, Texas. Proponents for Atomic say the format compensates for some of XML's more serious drawbacks -- the high ratio of markup to data, inflexibility of some document structures, and the debugging of document sources -- and is suited for many of the same applications as is XML. Adding Atomic headers helps tracks assignments of XML documents. The addition of Atomic headers, however, can be cumbersome, proponents caution.

[Infobox] Selected XML Efforts

Commerce XML (cXML) - www.cxml.org

Directory Services Markup Language (DSML) - www.dsml.org

Electronic Business XML (ebXML) - www.ebxml.org

Financial Products Markup Language (FpML) - www.fpml.org

The SyncML Initiative - www.syncml.org

Trading Partner Agreement Markup Language (tpaML) - www.xml.org

W3C XML - www.w3.org/xml

Source: Robert Frances Group

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