Retailers hope for data standard

Will XML finally provide a language that can integrate legacy systems painlessly? Justin Wastnagereports

Will XML finally provide a language that can integrate legacy systems painlessly? Justin Wastnagereports

Any computer language that promises seamless integration between legacy and future systems is likely to have to live up to its hype. The latest is Internet data language XML, which several industries hope may work for them.

This week retailers in Europe were asked to put their weight behind a new XML standard being developed by a major US retail industry body.

Businesses hope XML will enable them to slash integration costs and development times by agreeing a common language to describe data. They hope that XML will give them the ability to upgrade individual systems without regard for legacy and, ultimately, integrate partners and outside contractors. But first users must agree a vocabulary for each sector.

Organisations currently using XML define their own tags. Talking to other companies involves agreeing a common set of definitions. For example, while some brewers talk about "proof", other discuss "alcohol by volume". For the past couple of years, different industry bodies and private organisations have been working on dictionaries and data models, each hoping that its choice of words will become the standard.

The retail industry always was an obvious arena in which to prove the usefulness of XML. Sales ledgers and stock control form the basic functions of every store, real or virtual, and the need to link up with suppliers and customers has driven technology faster than in other sectors.

Geoff Ward, a business manager from services company ICL's British retail practice division, sees great benefit to his customers in the advent of an XML standard. "At the moment there is not a total handshake between Epos and the cash till," he said. "A standardised XML will eliminate the need for us to write bits of code to translate between interfaces."

So the goal of owning the language of retail transactions has attracted heavyweight interest.

The American National Retail Federation has spent millions of dollars funding the Association for Retail Technology Standards (Arts), recognising that it - rather than any profit making organisation - should own any new standard. With a pedigree including the standardisation of bar codes, the body's public aim is to avoid a split within the sector.

Arts is working with leading retailers to draw up a framework for transactional data and set about creating a dictionary defining application-to-application links. Its achievements so far have been to establish naming guidelines and create an XML dictionary.

Big US names like fashion chain The Limited and department store Nordstrom have been involved in testing the standard IX Retail. Alice Cain-Nelson, an information architect at Nordstrom, bases her company's interest on statistics indicating that "35% of the cost of all application implementation projects is spent on interfaces". A standardised XML would effectively eliminate these.

Arts' European consortium held its first meeting in Amsterdam this week, acknowledging that for any standard to be truly international it must include European and Asian retailers. Richard Mader, the organisation's executive director, said 40% of interested retailers were from outside the US.

Ian Nayler, a member of the think tank Retail Systems Consultancy and a leading player in bringing Arts to Europe, said, "For IX Retail to work, it needs to get critical mass behind it. That is why Europe and Asia-Pacific are so important."

Retailers in Europe already working with Arts include B&Q, Shell and Marks & Spencer, whose systems architect Phil Osprey told the conference that he believes industry standards like IX Retail will provide a rich choice of off-the-shelf components. But there is a threat to IX Retail's adoption from many other groups interested in owning the way retailers talk to each other, not least from Microsoft's Active Store protocol. Although IX Retail includes substantial input from Microsoft, many in retail believe the standard should not be owned by a supplier.

Nayler said retailers should be wary of Microsoft's charging policy. "Arts and Microsoft are working towards a common goal, but approaching it from opposite directions. Microsoft represents the suppliers, IX Retail represents the users."

As a usable version of IX Retail is probably more than a year away, the challenge for members is not only to convince IT professionals that IX Retail is the best standard, but that it will quickly offer full functionality.

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