The XML factor

A new World Wide Web tool has emerged that promises to revolutionize the way federal agencies do electronic commerce while protecting investments in such technologies as electronic data interchange (EDI).

Extensible Markup Language is a way of defining the content of a document, similar to the way Hypertext Markup Language defines a document's appearance on the Web. XML may enable agencies to rescue data trapped in legacy systems, speed application development and actively configure graphics presentations to suit client hardware.

"XML is probably the culmination of 20 to 30 years of computer theory," said Rita Knox, vice president and research director at Gartner Group. "Within the next year, XML will be everywhere. It will be stabilized, and everyone will be able to use it."

While its proponents are wildly enthusiastic, agencies have been approaching XML with trepidation. There is some legitimacy to their concerns: The standard is less than a year old, and its developer - the World Wide Web Consortium - still is adding associated protocols.

Also, XML development tools have been scarce, and applications providers are only now including XML capabilities in their products. And Web browser providers only began featuring real support for XML in the past few weeks.

XML Explained

One reason for the hesitation on the part of federal agencies may be explained by confusion about just what XML is.

"It's a metadata language," said Charles Allen, vice president of product marketing for webMethods Inc., a business-to-business integrator in Fairfax, Va., that uses XML in its solutions. Allen said XML will make it as easy to exchange data as it is to exchange HTML presentations.

David Manning, chief technical officer for UWI Unisoft Ware Inc., an Internet forms company in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, suggested that XML is "a syntax for describing data structures.

"It is a grammar with no vocabulary," Manning said. "It describes how you put things together, but it doesn't give you any words. You make those up yourself."

Like HTML, XML is a derivative of the Standard Generalized Markup Language, an international standard that emerged in the 1970s for defining the structure and content of an electronic document.

HTML took that concept and extended it to the World Wide Web, defining how a page would look regardless of what computer it was on. XML, finalized last year, does not deal with a document's appearance but rather with its contents.

"In layman's terms, XML is a way of marking up plain textual data with tags that give meaning to that information," said Tom Kyte, technologist with database vendor Oracle Service Industries. "If you send someone an e-mail with a

purchase number in it, you would have no idea what it meant. XML makes it easy. It lets the computer parse it and understand it."

XML can help users with dynamic content generation, enterprise integration and application development. And at a time when supporting legacy systems is becoming increasingly difficult and agencies are trying to consolidate data and personnel, XML may hold great promise in the area of legacy systems management. Officials at the Defense Logistics Agency believe XML might be used to mark up legacy data so that it can be read by any other XML-compliant system.

"I am exploring the idea of using XML for connections into legacy systems," said Don O'Brien, project manager for research and development at DLA. "It's a clean and powerful way to do that."

Extensible E-Commerce

But those possibilities remain in the future. Today, most XML projects are in the pilot phase, and most of them involve electronic commerce.

Nancy Lee, senior product manager for XML in the Java Software Division of Sun Microsystems Inc., said XML can help the government exchange data on price, product and quantity with vendors. "Because XML is platform-independent, it simplifies the process of reading that data," Lee said.

The General Services Administration's GSA Advantage online ordering system is running a pilot project with XML. Al Iagnemmo, Advantage's production manager, said the system provides prices for products and gives customers the ability to order any products with a government credit card or account.

"Right now, we have two ways to get product information online," Iagnemmo said. "Vendors can send it via EDI, or they can send it to us. We send them a floppy disk tool that tells them how to code their data."

That means that every day, during off hours, Advantage personnel are busy getting information into the database. The pilot project, which includes Dell Computer Corp., Lexmark International Inc. and other vendors, aims to rectify that process. "We say to the vendor who has a Web page, 'You just keep your data out on the Web site, and we will harvest it using XML,' " Iagnemmo said.

Indeed, the pilot project has proved that Advantage can follow this new approach by running applications on a business-to-business server from webMethods. "We harvest the information at night," Iagnemmo said. "If there have been changes, we bring the changes back."

The pilot project is slated to run for three months. "We'll call it a success if we can go out, get the [data], bring it down to our database and prove we can harvest it with the vendors having no knowledge of it," Iagnemmo said.

A similar project, the Defense Department's Emall, allows vendors to maintain their catalogs at their own locations. Emall uses XML to query vendors' databases to get new information. The process uses an off-the-shelf package called Eport from PartNet Inc., Salt Lake City.

"We wanted to be able to access catalogs that have XML tags," O'Brien said. "Last July, we developed and demonstrated a capability to bring these XML-tagged catalogs into Emall."

DOD, GSA, NASA and the National Institute of Standards and Technology are participating in a larger pilot handled by CommerceNet, an industry consortium that began a project last year to demonstrate how online government electronic catalogs can interoperate.

"We don't want to derail great projects like the DOD Emall," said Ron Parsons, director of Eastern region business development at CommerceNet. "We want to make sure they all play together. That's what the pilot project is all about."

Phase One of the pilot, which ran in the summer of 1998, demonstrated that a customer could send an XML-based query and do a parameterized search on the Web. Phase Two of the project will implement more complex transactions, including registration, authorization and certification.

Parsons said the second phase, running from the end of March to the end of September, will be more than just a dry run. "Though limited, there will be funds put aside for real purchases," he said.

Time to Jump?

Despite the promise of these pilots, some factors may still deter potential users.

While the XML standard is complete, associated standards and protocols are under development. It may take a while for all those protocols to become available to end users. "There aren't the wide number of development tools [for XML] that there are for HTML," O'Brien said.

And with the basic XML standard only about a year old, there hasn't been much software available - either in the way of development tools or in applications that take advantage of XML's capabilities.

That's beginning to change, though. Sun, for example, announced in March that it will be supporting XML on its Java platform. "We'll provide some basic functionality such as an XML parser," Lee said. "And our goal is to make it easy for Java developers to use XML and easy for XML to use Java."

Oracle is incorporating XML into its products as well. "If we put XML into the database, we can make it available to anyone who builds in that database," Kyte said. "XML becomes almost a new database language."

Users have been even more concerned about Web browser support for XML. Although many XML applications do not require browsers, the Internet and browsers have been so tightly coupled in the public's mind that the lack of official XML support has made people nervous.

Netscape Communications Corp. is incorporating XML into several products, including the latest version of Communicator. Its competitor, Microsoft Corp., already supports XML in its Internet Explorer 5.0, which shipped earlier this year. "We had some pre-standard XML support in Internet Explorer 4, but we were able to do a significant amount of work to support the standards that came out in the last year," said Dave Wascha, product manager for XML technologies and platforms marketing at Microsoft.

"The next barrier to adoption is schemas - agreeing on how to describe the data," Wascha said. "You have the grammar; now you have to agree on words and sentences."

DLA's O'Brien said he wants industry to address the schemas issue on its own. "We want to adopt what the industry uses, rather than develop unique government vocabularies," he said.

Industry groups are working on this issue, and the range of proposed solutions may only muddy the waters for potential users. UWI's Manning said the problem will be resolved, but not without a few headaches.

"My personal belief is that business semantics are going to evolve in a fairly Darwinian fashion," he said. "Bridges will evolve between different vocabu-laries...and the problem will get worse before it gets better."

-- Lazar is a free-lance writer based in Tenafly, N.J.

* * * * *


STATUS: A few federal agencies are experimenting with XML in pilot projects associated with electronic commerce. Other potential applications, such as using XML to mark up data in legacy systems, also are appearing on the horizon.

ISSUES: The XML standard is complete, but associated standards and protocols remain unresolved. XML development have been slow coming onto the market, and Web browsers have only recently begun incorporating support for the standard.

OUTLOOK: Good. The technology already has been proven to be a boon to federal e-commerce systems. Observers expect the technology to reach a widespread audience within a year.


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