Microsoft, Software AG bolster XML support

Federal agencies are increasingly relying on Extensible Markup Language to integrate applications and databases, and new offerings from vendors reflect the ever-increasing emphasis on the technology.

Microsoft Corp. recently released Microsoft Server 2003, an upgrade from its Windows NT Server that includes advanced XML Web services. The product line comes in four versions with varying levels of function, but all of them emphasize XML, said Todd Gagorik, senior technical architect at Microsoft Federal.

"What that's really all about is a nod toward the whole XML revolution. XML has become the lingua franca of data integration," he said. "All of [the servers] are going to have XML integration at a very deep level, so there isn't any need for any translation layers that would affect performance."

Microsoft's popular Office software suite will be XML-native in its next release, he added. That means the documents will be generated and stored in XML, rather than having to be converted to the language in the integration process.

XML, a relative of HTML, is used to translate programs and data formats and to allow computer systems to talk to one another. It has become the most successful integration technology around, and the federal government is adopting it rapidly.

Microsoft's commitment to XML has emboldened Reston, Va.-based Software AG Inc. to roll out an XML enablement capability specifically for federal agencies, based around a new XML-native product called the Enterprise Metadata Repository. Software AG, which has marketed an XML-native database for several years, announced the new solution offering earlier this month.

Software AG's XML package enables users to build "views" of information from various data sources. The views can create what seems to be a single document built with data from any number of separate systems. They are then stored as XML documents in the repository.

William Ruh, senior vice president of professional services at Software AG, believes the approach will succeed where the Enterprise Application Integration (EAI) paradigm failed, because EAI focused on bridging systems rather than on the data stored in those systems.

"Data is cool again," he said. "It's OK to integrate at the data level."

Software AG released Tamino, an XML-native database, several years ago when the market was just taking shape. What has really helped since then is Microsoft's focus on XML, Ruh said.

Microsoft's embrace of the standard gives it even greater currency, because Microsoft products are almost omnipresent in both government and commercial settings, other experts agreed.

Designing a product to be XML- native speeds up the data transmission, said Owen Ambur, co-chairman of the CIO Council's XML Working Group. "If you want to talk about process improvement, eliminating needless steps is essential," he said.

Many vendors are likely to be reluctant to make the switch, though. By letting go of a proprietary format and embracing an open standard, they risk losing users to other vendors, Ambur said.

"It's less of a risk for [Microsoft] than smaller vendors because of their dominance in the market place," he said.

Vendors that balk will face pressure from another direction, however, Ambur said. Agencies are increasingly likely to demand XML's open standard and reject proprietary formats that lock them into a single vendor's product line.

"They're at grave risk of being shut completely out of the market if Microsoft succeeds in delivering a nonproprietary file format and eliminates the reason that some of us have for criticizing" Microsoft, he said. "There may be justifications [for use of a proprietary format] in some cases, but the bar is going to be very high."

The Server 2003 family includes the four stratified servers for applications ranging from small businesses to massive data centers. It also includes a 64-bit version of SQL Server 2000.

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XML's selling point: flexibility

Marion Royal, an expert at the General Services Administration, said that despite Extensible Markup Language's growing profile, its key strength is what it has always been: flexibility.

"It is user-definable, very extensible," he said. "People can look at XML and come up with ideas of how it can be used. We're seeing it used in a wide variety of applications."

Not all applications need to be "native," said Brand Niemann, chairman of the CIO Council's XML Web Services Working Group. XML is useful in enabling data exchange from relational databases such as Oracle Corp.'s and for serving as middleware to translate data among systems, Niemann said. Agencies can't afford to tear out all their systems at once, so XML will be needed for such integration for a long while yet. Software Ag Inc.'s "Tamino is positioned not as a replacement for relational technology. It's positioned as a complement to it," he said. "You clearly need native XML storage for some applications. You need a hybrid for others."

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