Making XML a shared experience

Extensible mark-up language (XML) promised to be the universal language that would make interoperability across companies...

Extensible mark-up language (XML) promised to be the universal language that would make interoperability across companies possible. However the reality of its implementation has failed, so far, to live up to the dream.

Suppliers and users of software systems have rushed to embrace XML. Yet this support, which has resulted in 5,000-plus versions of XML catering for different specialist requirements, has helped ensure that XML remains a long way from being a universal language.

Thankfully this situation is set to change in 2002. The emergence of supersets, or schemas, of XML such as RosettaNet, EBXML and Universal Business Language, mark a move towards universally recognised standards. Meanwhile, various industry sector users are banding together to fashion XML for their particular requirements.

The financial services industry
"XML is for companies with three problem areas," says Ron Schmelzer, senior analyst at XML research outfit ZapThink. "Companies with big integration issues, companies that have a lot of information and a ton of systems, and companies that make their money from information."

XML and financial services companies, it would seem, are made for each other. In the retail banking sector the International Financial Exchange (IFX) standard is leading the drive to enable better integration so that front-end data can be swapped into back-end systems without too much disruption.

"Integration for banks is a major cost saving. You are not redesigning data structures or transport, just plugging systems in and out," says Steve Lane, group development director of Financial Objects.

Lane cites the example of the Internet bank arm of Swedish supermarket Ica. The bank consists of a Web site and call centre. IFX has published standards for making payments and account transfers and Ica has built these into voice and Web interfaces. "Ica can offer more features and delivery channels to their customers," Lane says.

As in other sectors the biggest potential problem is the number of competing standards. In wholesale banking there are different standards for derivatives and foreign exchange, for example. However, once companies have standardised on XML, it is relatively easy to transfer data between systems - names and tags are easy to change, says Lane.

Meanwhile, XML is being embraced as the medium of choice for financial reporting in other sectors too, reports ZapThink's Schmelzer. Financial products mark-up language (FPML) is being authorised by government regulators and its cousin, extensible business reporting language (XBRL), has been mandated by governments in Singapore and Australia.

The pharmaceutical industry
The proliferation of data streams that are generated during the lifecycle of research and marketing of a drug has dogged the pharmaceutical industry. In extreme cases, it can take 20 years to bring a drug to market and during this time documentation will have been stored in multiple formats and versions within an organisation.

"The key thing is to be able to share data and not have to worry about the format," explains Mauricha Marcussen, an account manager at content assembly and publishing solutions specialist Liquent. The trend towards mergers and acquisitions in recent years makes the goal of easy data access all the more urgent for the sector. As well as marriages between companies which have resulted in giants such as GlaxoSmithKilne, the pharmaceutical industry is witnessing many more collaborations on projects, which makes partial data sharing important.

"We had a client that wanted to share some, but not all of its data with a partner," says Andrew Stuart, director of market technology and Mauricha at Liquent. Using Liquent's XML engine, the customer identified the relevant PDFs and transformed these into XML, first removing private pieces of information. The data was then converted back to a PDF in order to look like the original. "The client was able to hold back data without being obvious about it," says Stuart.

Improvements in data exchange are not only happening within and between individual drug companies: international regulatory bodies are also making significant headway on agreeing a universal standard, Common Technical Document (CTD), according to Marcussen. Using the CTD format, a company can submit a proposal in XML, independently of the tools used to create it.

Traditionally, authorities in the USA, Canada, Europe and Japan have had different processes for licensing drugs. "Now, multinationals do not have to submit four different versions but can just parse the one. This speeds up the ease of review and helps companies streamline their products," says Marcussen.

The petroleum industry
In the US, various parties across the petroleum industry have united behind an initiative intent on designing an XML standard to complement existing offerings.

"Petroleum Industry Data Xchange (PIDX) is trying to create one open standard that oilfield companies can use to transact elements of a complex service from the design of a job all the way to the invoice," explains Michael Turnstall, standards vice chair of the American Petroleum Institute.

Existing e-procurement applications in the industry address the needs of materials and catalogue services and auctions where items are requested with a corresponding, fixed price. However a notable deficiency was recognised by PIDX where products and services could not be catalogued because the price was either negotiable or complex, based on variables such as conditions or availability.

Rather that reinvent other industry groups' efforts, PIDX reviewed other XML schemas and discovered that RosettaNet and Chemical Industry Data Exchange (CIDX) focused on using XML to create data type definitions.

PIDX and CIDX have therefore agreed to review each other's work and adopt standards where appropriate. Lisa Seaburg, senior data architect with CommerceOne, confirms that the company's XML Common Business Library (XCBL) has formed one of the basic components that PIDX is working from: "It's a Tower of Babel right now with all different industry initiatives working at different goals. PIDX didn't want to start from scratch and has used XCBL as a starting point," she says.

Tunstall meanwhile is confident that PIDX has produced reusable components that can be offered to the EBXML initiative and that its work will shortly be making a big impact on how petroleum companies do business: "Six different pilots have now been executed and all the major Enterprise Application Integration vendors, including BizTalk and and Vitria, have indicated they will be shipping compliant products within the first quarter of this year.

"Procuring and administering complex services should be as easy as knocking at your door," he says.

Read more on Business applications