Waiting for XML to come of age

XML and web services are promising technologies that could revolutionise small business interactions - but approach them with...

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XML and web services are promising technologies that could revolutionise small business interactions - but approach them with caution, warns Danny Bradbury

Eric Sigurdson fires up his PC every morning with a renewed sense of vigour. That is what Extensible Markup Language does to a supply chain manager. Sigurdson works at Caperio Strategi, a provider of IT products and services to medium-sized companies in Sweden.

Caperio Strategi used the XML capabilities of Sterling Commerce's Integrator software to hook its enterprise resource planning system to its web database so that online orders are transferred automatically into the company's manufacturing system. Before the advent of the XML system employees had to create a paper copy and rekey everything.

Data integration stories like this, with XML at their core, are becoming more widespread. XML evolved from its predecessor SGML. It is a meta language - a language used to create other languages. Like HTML, which is the language used to describe web mark-up, XML works using a series of tags. The difference is that the tags are user-definable and can be used to describe everything from invoices to knitting patterns.

As different vertical market sectors have embraced XML they have created their own vocabularies of tags designed to describe industry-specific data. The initial vocabularies were called document-type definitions but these were superceded by a more sophisticated kind of vocabulary document called a schema.

What it can deliver to the business is data integration. Companies can use XML schemas to get different systems to talk to one another, creating a sort of Esperanto for computers. That is the theory, anyway, and it seems to be working well for Sigurdson.

The three biggest advocates of XML are Microsoft - which has bet its business on it - Sun Microsystems, and IBM. All three have bought into an even newer concept called web services, where XML is used both to exchange data and to carry out processes.

Until now, many business services have only been available online in human-readable form. You can search a courier's online database to find out where a package is on its journey, but you cannot get your computer to do it for you. Web services technology uses XML to expose that data in a computer-readable form, so now your shipping and logistics application can find the information for you - and use it when processing data.

Small businesses are high on IBM's agenda, says the firm's web services and XML web services evangelist, Mark Colan. He is touting an IBM service called jStart, focused on getting businesses started with new technologies cheaply. The company supplies one or two consultants instead of an entire team, and will map out a technology platform for a company to build its business on. "Web services are real and we have a lot of companies using them in production now," he says. Such cheerleading is encouraging, but IBM would not name any customers in the UK that are using the technology in anger.

Part of the problem for web services and its relatively slow take-up is that, in spite of the benefits being touted by the suppliers, it poses many challenges for small businesses, not least of which is the long-term nature of the proposition. XML and web services are useful for internal integration, but in many cases this can be carried out with the same amount of back-end SQL programming and a set of object database connectivity drivers.

"We could have done this straight from one database to the other, but since we have chosen the product we want to have all integration done via Sterling Integrator," says Sigurdson, suggesting that the decision to use XML for integration was more supplier-driven than customer-driven.

The same is true of Lupton Fawcett, a legal firm that worked with consultancy ITM Group to implement Novell's Silverstream exteND integration software. Lupton Fawcett's IT manager Sean Denham uses Silverstream to aggregate data into a central XML-driven portal, but admits he used it simply because it came with the package. "It was not the reason we went for this product. But I think it is something that could be an additional bonus," he says.

The area where XML and web services will really deliver benefits is in inter-company integration, where business partners integrate their supply chains, publishing data sources for each other as web services, and exchanging documents in XML format so computers can read them.

Kevin Hart, business development manager at Sage eServices, says the company is one of several suppliers that have integrated the eBis-XML schema set into its accounting software. The family of schemas, produced by the Business Application Software Developers Association, enables companies to exchange business documents such as purchase orders and invoices.

The problem is that even in horizontal e-commerce there are several standards for XML-based business documents. XML interoperability group Oasis, along with the United Nations e-business group UN/Cefact developed ebXML, for example, to serve a similar purpose. Confusion over XML standards, and the investment needed to modify back-end systems to support the formats, is making it difficult for companies to persuade business partners to make the switch to XML.

Sigurdson says he would like to extend XML integration beyond the firewall to connect with suppliers and customers. "We have over 1,000 customers but not all of them are ready to integrate," he says, and the three large suppliers that take 90% of his orders have the same problem. "It will be a difficult task to change them. They have a large customer base."

Other issues, such as security and reliability, face inter-company integrators. While Microsoft and IBM are addressing this with new XML-based formats such as WS-Reliability and WS-Security, it is still too soon for many companies to take a gamble on untested technologies.

XML and web services have a lot to offer, but the real cost savings will not emerge until more people adopt it. They are caught in a familiar Catch-22 situation, as we wait at the bottom of what could become a promising growth curve.


Summary

XML provides a data integration language that is readable by both machines and humans (with a little training)

Vertical markets have been working on their own XML-based data integration languages

Web services let enabled applications interact autonomously with services on the internet

XML and web services can be used both for internal data integration and to connect to your business partners' supply chains

Challenges to inter-company integration with web services include reliability and security issues, slow take-up and numerous language "standards".

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