The XML files

Extensible Markup Language doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, but XML is rapidly becoming a familiar acronym for agencies looking to exchange information, conduct online business, publish documents to the World Wide Web and archive records.

Agencies ranging from the National Library of Medicine to the Navy to the National Archives and Records Administration are beginning XML projects in earnest. The CIO Council's XML Working Group will launch an xml.gov portal this month; the Defense Department is expected to follow suit with its own xml.mil site.

Agencies have taken a keen interest in XML because of its promise of seamless online transactions with other agencies, businesses and the public. As the federal government pushes to offer more services via the Internet, that capability has become paramount.

"XML will be integral to electronic government," said Marion Royal, an agency expert at the General Services Administration and co-chairman of the CIO Council's XML Working Group. "I don't think it will be the only thing government will [use], but I think XML will be integral to successful deployment."

XML could play a central role in agencies' Internet initiatives because it provides a standard way to tag or mark up documents so that they are easy to read and exchange. For example, the Open GIS Consortium Inc. is creating Geography Markup Language — an extension of XML — which will provide federal agencies and other groups with a common way to define high-level data maintained in geographic databases.

""X' stands for extensible, and that's what we did," said Cliff Kottman, vice president of technology development at the Open GIS Consortium. "We added a bunch of tags for types that are useful in modeling geography. The tag relates to an entry in a document that describes what that tag means."

The GML standard is a foundation document, Kottman said, "that enables interoperability between information communities by giving them guidance on how to structure fundamental building blocks in geography."

Peter Gallagher, president of Development InfoStructure (devIS), an Arlington, Va.-based solutions provider that uses XML in its government projects, said another attractive feature is that XML has no competition.

"There are variations, but XML will become the de facto format for the interchange of information on the Internet...a common language for everyone in government," Gallagher said. "HTML is to publishing on the Web as XML is to exchanging data through the Internet. It's just as revolutionary."

XML also can be a timesaver when agencies design their Web sites to be accessible for people with disabilities. Using XML style sheets — essentially templates for viewing data — agencies can present different versions of a Web site on the fly.

XML enabled the Navy to convert engineering documents for publication and distribution on the Web, said Joe Garner, head of the Technical Information Systems Department at the Naval Surface Warfare Center's Carderock Division in Maryland. The office advises the Navy on emerging technology.

For the past 15 years, the Navy has used Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML), the precursor to XML, Garner said. "The main advantage of using XML over SGML is that normal common browsers that are used for the Web can be used to view your XML data. XML gives you more flexibility in the types of things you can tag and types of presentations you can achieve."

Other Navy projects in development include using an XML-based messaging system to transmit and display messages with Web browsers, exchanging engineering change requests and replacing electronic data interchange transactions — once seen as a key to electronic commerce — with XML documents.

GSA hopes its project to use XML to deploy electronic standard and optional forms will pave the way for innovative applications, including using personal data stored on a smart card to automatically fill in common elements of an XML form, such as name and telephone number.

"By sharing common elements and agreeing on what the language would be [in] XML, then we can do innovative things like that," Royal said.

For the government, XML offers an easier way to look at "not just vertical applications, but the infrastructure or plumbing of the Internet," said Bob Sutor, program director of e-business standards strategy at IBM Corp. "There's no point in doing business on the Internet if no one can talk to you, and XML is the [connective] technology that makes that happen."

Eric Stevens, vice president of research and technology evangelism at JetForm Corp., an e-process solutions provider specializing in online document fulfillment, said the company began integrating XML as a core technology three years ago and currently has 3 million federal government users.

Stevens said federal agencies have a large amount of legacy and client/server systems. Without XML, JetForm would have to build "dedicated, unique, proprietary, programmatic interfaces...custom data code to connect a 20-year-old system to the Web. XML bridges the gap," Stevens said. "It doesn't do it all, but it gives you the flexibility to describe data and documents, and tie into legacy systems."

Stevens expects the next big steps in XML to come in establishing document standards for cellular and wireless devices, defining digital signatures and advancing electronic records and recordkeeping processes.

Despite widespread support, most agree that XML alone won't solve everything. "XML is not a silver bullet," said IBM's Sutor. "It's an enabling technology used for building bigger and better things. It just helps you with the syntax to understand the choreography and sequencing based on standards and products."

Peter Auditore, vice president of U.S. marketing for Hummingbird Ltd., called the current form of XML primitive. "It's in its infancy in development, but does hold the promise of an interoperable technology that could do a lot for enterprise application integration," he said.

By itself, "XML does nothing," JetForm's Stevens said. "It's just a meta-language. You need applications and software that do something."

For example, "if I send you [a Microsoft Corp. Word document] and you don't have Word on your computer, it does nothing for you," he said. "The beauty is that forms, data or data definitions, and even process maps can be done on XML and it's easy, open and public. Anyone can create an application."

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