XML One: a new language for government

New standards, skills shortages and unrealistic government targets. Danny Bradbury reports from the XML One conference

New standards, skills shortages and unrealistic government targets. Danny Bradbury reports from the XML One conference

Government communications strategies, the skills shortage, XML-based security and XML data storage were the key topics buzzing around the halls of the XML One Europe conference.

While a number of companies made some low-key product launches, the richest pickings for technology-hungry IT professionals were to be found in the many back-room technical workshops, and the industry gossip in the corridors of the QEII Conference Centre.

One of the most intriguing statements came from Martin Pike, managing director of Stilo Technology, an integrator of XML-based applications. With the Government pledging to have all of its services online by 2005, he said the creation of a definitive XML-based language for internal data integration is long overdue.

Stilo is on the advisory board for the development of the Govtalk XML-based language, which is part of the e-Government Interoperability Framework designed to integrate different parts of the Government's information architecture.

Pike said, "The director of IT in the Cabinet Office is saying that he wants a turnaround in schema development in 40 days," adding that this is a challenge even for small operations. "The sheer scale of the problem is something that will take quite a while."

It appears some departments are still eager to learn how to make XML work for them. Not surprisingly, the Inland Revenue is one of these and has been making enquiries about Stilo's XML training courses. Given its track record on data integration - the department has had problems getting applications to talk to each other this year - its interest in the language hopefully represents a step towards normalising its internal data exchange architecture.

Data exchange using XML is all well and good but, as companies begin to realise the possibilities of universal data integration, security will become a key concern. Mark O'Neill, chief technical officer at XML data integration company Vordel, spoke of the need for XML security mechanisms. He highlighted the development of an XML signature where the document will contain its own encrypted hash, information on algorithms used, and an optional public key with information on any Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) directories needed.

The XML-enablement of the well-established PKI standard is a final stage in the development of comprehensive secure trading mechanisms, claims O'Neill. XML signatures combine the ease-of-use of XML data integration with the indelible proof that an XML document has been sent and approved by a certain party. The XML Signature standard is being put together by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). More information about it can be found at www.w3.org.

Also at the conference, Misha Schmierer, senior systems engineer at eXcelon, was busily promoting its XML database products.

The company, which like many object-oriented database firms, has reinvented itself in the past year to drive its sales forward, has gone further than merely storing data in native XML format. It has also produced a range of additional software products designed to sit next to the original object database, producing more business-focused solutions including a portal server. In short, eXcelon has realised that the world does not buy object databases - it buys applications.

Poet, another former object database player, is similarly reinventing itself and was downplaying the object database side of its business at the show. Now Poet is touting itself as an e-catalogue company, wrapping XML-based translation software around its object database to produce systems that suppliers, buyers and service providers in the online trading marketplace can use to collate product information and engineer sales.

But then, this was the overriding theme at the show - the movement away from core technologies towards applications, which is a key indicator that a technology is at least being understood, is not necessarily used in anger.

A year ago, people were talking about XML as a hot new technology that would bring some business benefits - but the discussion was still largely around what the technology itself could do. Now, companies are emerging with out-of-the-box development tools and applications that are geared towards specific e-commerce operations.

The digital signature security project at the W3C is one such example of an application focus. Similarly, the Government's commitment towards the language as a means of tying its internal data exchange procedures together shows that people are beginning to apply it at the highest level.

It is now likely that XML's days are numbered as a discrete technology to be pushed by suppliers. Instead, it will eventually become just a part of the scenery, as companies learn to use it properly, rather than just babbling about it aimlessly.

XML show pieces

Stilo Technology took advantage of the growing interest in XML to launch a selection of training workshops addressing particular elements of the language. To be held in a London-based location, they start this month and are limited to 12 delegates each. The company charges £450 plus VAT for a one-day course, and double that for a two-day masterclass. Attendees will receive a free copy of the company's XMLDeveloper software.

Intersystems, a post-relational database supplier, announced Cache 4.0, the latest version of its database engine. New features include multilingual programming, a legacy database gateway and support for XML-based data interchange. The company has also introduced two new licensing models for Web applications: per request licensing costs 3p per Web request and concurrent sessions licensing, based on the number of users connected to the engine via the Web, begins at £95.

Rogue Wave Software's Bob Powell, director of engineering for the Stingray division, gave a demonstration of a platform-independent, XML-based messaging service and the Simple Object Access Protocol (Soap). The service works by transforming XML documents over the Internet and, significantly, was developed using the as-yet unreleased Microsoft .net platform, along with the recently-announced C# programming language.

What is XML?

HTML (HyperText Markup Language) and XML (Extensible Markup Language) have their roots in SGML (Standard Generalised Markup Language), a complex system for organising and tagging elements of a document, developed by the International Organisation for Standards (ISO) in 1986.

HTML was developed as an extremely simplified form of SGML and is only used for displaying data, rather than describing it. It comprises a limited, fixed range of tags primarily used for describing the layout of a Web page.

XML overcomes some of the limitations of HTML by allowing the development of customised and domain-specific tags. The tags are intended to act like a standardised set of database field descriptions so that data from any source can be exchanged, compared and correlated, regardless of the platform used.


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