Let's talk about X, baby - XML assessment

EDI tried, and in many eyes failed, to get businesses talking electronically, so what hope for the XML revolution?Nick Langley...

EDI tried, and in many eyes failed, to get businesses talking electronically, so what hope for the XML revolution?Nick Langley explores the world of information exchange.

XML (eXtensible Markup Language ) is promoted as the universal language for e-commerce, enabling business partners' IT systems to talk to one another by exchanging documents, which can be acted upon at the process level, rather than the data level. Currently, however, business partners need to work together to agree their own version of XML.

'Whereas HTML allows programmers to define the look and feel of information presented to a user through a web browser, XML allows programmers to define data structures for information interchange between computer systems,' commented Ian Doyle, chief architect of BEA Systems. 'Information can be passed from one system type to another, regardless of hardware, operating system, database and software environment. It's implemented on top of standard internet and web communications protocols.'

Doyle said XML can be regarded as the modern equivalent of Electronic Data Interchange (EDI), but that it can be implemented much more extensively and cheaply. 'A good XML implementation, with a sound understanding of internal IT systems, allows businesses to increasingly interconnect with, and extend appropriate processes to existing and potential business partners.'

XML's acceptance is almost universal, although doubters are becoming more vocal. Mike Thompson, an analyst with Butler Group, has warned that with the need to translate thousands of different tag sets, it's debatable whether XML is even a standard.

'XML is totally useless unless companies get together and agree tags,' said Chris Harris-Jones, principal consultant at Ovum. However, he said organisations are slowly getting together to create XML business standards.

The problem is that many such initiatives have directly, or apparently, overlapping aims and memberships. BASDA (the Business and Accounting Software Developers Association) has developed eBIS-XML, which concentrates on XML based accounting. But so does XBRL.org (Extensible Business Reporting Language), which recently issued the specification for XBRL for General Ledger.

XBRL uses United Nations Ledger standards, but the UN also backs ebXML as 'a standard method for companies to exchange business messages, conduct trading relationships, communicate data and define and register business processes.'

However, Microsoft, Ariba and IBM couldn't wait for ebXML, and founded the Universal Description, Discovery and Integration initiative (UDDI). Then there's the Business Internet Consortium, with its XML based eBusiness Standard Convergence Workgroup, formed 'to bring clarity by defining the generic layers and the corresponding recommended XML standards of a complete B2B, XML based solution stack that is standardised, comprehensive, and interoperable.' The Consortium's latest member is RosettaNet, an industry body set up by IBM, Compaq, Dell, Intel and Motorola among others. RosettaNet has created a suite of XML based Partner Interface Processes (PIPS ) to link businesses in the supply web.

In its turn, the Uniform Code Council has announced a set of XML schemas which include Purchase Order, Dispatch Advice, Invoice, Charges, and Payments. These are based on Simple e-Business (Simpl-eb), a 'common definition of e-Business data and processes across the value chain.'

Business documents
Nor must we forget Microsoft's BizTalk Server 2000, which is aimed at processing business documents, such as bills of lading, invoices, and purchase orders, as secured e-mail-like messages.

Thanks to the activities of these bodies and others, there are a number of standard XML 'dialects' tailored for specific business sectors, including electronics, financial services and pharmaceuticals, which predefine much of the information interchange. One such initiative was announced in July, by North Sea oil companies.

Exchequer Software which worked with Basda on developing eBIS-XML, recently installed its Web-enabled accounting package, Enterprise, at the global engineering company Cougar Industries. Customers can upload their account details over the Web, and are offered pricing which reflects their account history. They can then place an order, which is fed directly back into Enterprise to create a sales order.

Similarly, Clover Business Systems' Wizz400 web storefront for IBM's iSeries enables users to send and receive orders in XML format. 'Wizz400 supports any of the standard XML schemas,' says Clover channels director Richard Green. 'In fact each customer or supplier can make use of any standard they wish.' Wizz400 has been implemented by Electrolux Laundry Systems, which expects a significant reduction in the cost of handling orders, which come in at a rate of one every 12 seconds.

Free download
There are plenty of XML parsers and other tools on the Web, which can be downloaded for nothing. XML is also an integral part of current releases of application development toolsets. Oracle 9i comes with built-in support for XML. Sybase's forthcoming ASE 12.5 enables developers to build and integrate XML applications. IBM has the DB2/XML Extender, which enables Web services applications to access data stored in DB2 and other databases. And among Microsoft's recent Web Services announcements is XLANG, an 'XML business process language which provides a way to orchestrate applications and XML Web Services into larger-scale, federated applications'.

As with any new solution enthusiastically adopted by its market, there is a skills issue, BEA's Doyle said. 'However, as with Java and other hot IT properties, there is no shortage of companies developing packages and tools that automate the creation of XML and its associated data structures and processes.'

XML is listed on the DfEE's occupation shortage web site, which deals with work permits for overseas nationals. But Scott Hebner, IBM's ebusiness director, has predicted that the adoption of platform-neutral technologies like Java and XML will steadily reduce the IT industry's overall skills shortage.

Major XML players
Worldwide Web Consortium: www.w3.org
IBM developerWorks: www.ibm.com/developerworks
Microsoft: www.microsoft.com/xml
Sun: www.java.sun/xml
BEA Systems: www.bea.com
Clover: www.wizz400.com

XML products

Soap (Simple Object Access Protocol) is 'an open, standards based interoperability protocol that uses XML to provide a common messaging format to link together applications and services anywhere on the internet' (Microsoft). Soap was originally a Microsoft initiative, but IBM and the ORB specialists Iona have also contributed a great deal. Both IBM and Microsoft are using Soap in their 'Web Services' strategies.

The Soap standard (Version1.2) is now in the independent hands of the Worldwide Web Consortium. Apache, the opensource Web server people, have taken over IBM's Soap for Java toolkit. IBM's WebSphere supports it. As you'd expect, it is supported by Microsoft's Windows XP and VB6. UDDI is Soap based, and ebXML has pledged to support it. eBay has signed up with Microsoft to develop Soap based services.

Version 2.0 of Microsoft's Soap Toolkit enables users to develop XML Web Services, or add such capabilities to any existing application that supports the Component Object Model (Com).

IBM Global Services has announced systems integration support to help businesses build Web services applications using IBM's infrastructure software. IBM's software for developing, publishing, hosting and deploying web services includes WebSphere Application Server Version 4, which supports UDDI and Soap. DB2 and Domino have also been Web Service-enabled

Sun has also announced its Web Services strategy, based around Java 2 Platform, Enterprise Edition (J2EE).

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