XML helps standardize information for sharing

XML can simplify doing business online, but make sure it's appropriate for your situation before you start converting.

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XML is a widely accepted standard that can simplify sharing content and doing business online, but make sure it's appropriate for your situation before you start converting.

XML is fast becoming the Esperanto, or common language, of the e-commerce world. It can help trading partners exchange information, whether they're customers or suppliers. And it can help a company glean tidbits from many internal sources to share with its employees over an intranet, or help integrate several applications.

It's important to remember, though, that XML is not a "magic bullet." XML stands for "Extensible Markup Language," which means it's a language -- a tool that helps create other things. So, for example, companies can use XML to define how multiple trading partners will deal with the concept of "customer name" -- whether it's last name first, if honorifics like "Dr." or "Ms." will be included, and how many total spaces the name will be allowed to take up. Once those parameters have been agreed upon, companies can exhange those customer names in a common format for use in multiple applications.

"Folks who want to do business online think XML is wonderful," said Guy Creese, a research director at the Aberdeen Group, Inc., a consultancy in Boston. As one example, it allows someone to go to a Web site and query across several back-end systems about what types of metric wrenches are in stock, their cost and delivery date, he explained.

There are also industry-specific dictionaries that are based on XML. Two examples are PRISM for the publishing industry and RosettaNet for certain types of e-commerce applications.

"XML is a language for creating specific industry vocabularies and specific descriptions of particular processes," said Linda Burman, president and CEO of L. A. Burman Associates Inc., a metadata consultancy in Toronto. "XML by itself does absolutely nothing." XML can define an invoice, or the structure of a book -- sections, chapters, etc. -- or it can define the structure of a Web page to include text, graphics, video and so on.

But, she cautioned, XML isn't necessarily appropriate for everything. If you're trying to do something that is entirely within the purview of one application, and you don't have plans for sharing that information widely, it might be easiest to just handle it within the structure of the application instead of converting it to XML.

Virtually all current software on the market supports XML in some context, whether the package is for customer relationship management (CRM), enterprise resource planning (ERP) or for accounts payable. Because XML is a widely accepted standard, most suppliers support it to some degree.

What is less ubiquitous, however, is support for a specific vocabulary or process that someone has defined with XML. That may require a bit more searching, and places like XML.com or w3.org (the home page of the World Wide Web Consortium, creator of the XML standard) can help find specific types of applications.

Some applications have more built-in XML support than others. Software to help manage Web content, for instance, usually has a great degree of XML already in the package. Some go so far as to automatically create XML "tags" for the Web content that is managed by the package. This helps serve up more customized content for visitors that have typed some keywords into the search engine, for instance.

XML also helps to repurpose content for different uses. Christopher Klanac, content management specialist at mutual-funds provider Morningstar Inc. in Chicago, explained that his company uses XML to "make syndication a breeze." It allows the company to share content among different sites, both internally among different business units and externally at Morningstar Japan and Morningstar Canada.

Rob Perry, a senior analyst at the Yankee Group in Boston, says that XML really shines as a means of integration among different applications. To help make that even easier, a new group of XML databases are being developed, he said, which can help track the different definitions and processes used by applications at various partners or internally. Vendors working on XML databases include Software AG, NeoCore Inc., Ipedo Inc., XYZFind Corp. and IXIA Inc.

More on this topic:

SearchWebServices has an extensive collection of links to XML resources.

Read up on using XML to enable your e-business at searchEBusiness.

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This was first published in January 2002

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