The power of XML

Extensible Markup Language (XML) is a language like any other. It’s growing, malleable, maturing and unique. And like any real-world language, therein lies both its brilliance and its fallibility.

Just as a Frenchman can’t speak to an Englishwoman without the aid of a dictionary or a common language, so XML specifically designed for one industry can’t understand the tags, or metadata, of XML designed for another without using the equivalent of an XML dictionary.

But the great advantage of XML is that it’s not linguistically limited in the way its tags are written, as is the case with HTML. If your industry needs a tag for marital status or to indicate whether a person is a smoker or not, it can easily be done. Individual tags are used to describe the content being marked up.

“One of the greatest things about XML is that it allows you complete flexibility in how you want to define your information [and] that process is also its biggest downfall,” said Ron Schmelzer, XML senior analyst for ZapThink Inc. in Cambridge, Mass.

This means that ten companies, all in the same industry, can define the same thing in different ways, he said. One company could decide “contact” refers to address while another could decide it refers to a company’s name. Without an agreement (or translator) information from one database to the another could not be passed along.

“Right now all the little groups are going off and making their own vocabulary and frankly that is a good thing, that is the power of XML – you can make one that does just what you need it to do,” said Deborah Aleyne Lapeyre, senior XML consultant with Mulberry Technologies Inc. in Rockville, Md.

It is important since industries define certain issues very differently.

“To healthcare, a customer is a patient; to transportation, a customer is a shipping address,” Schmelzer said.

Though XML language variance is a potential problem, many industries and combinations of industries are realizing the need to get together to form some common language.

Lapeyre cites the travel industry as being an example of varied companies working toward a common goal. She said airlines, hotels, travel agents and car rental agencies all realized they were storing a great deal of information about customers and that they could describe it in the same manner.

There has been a lot of vocabulary building in automotive industry, she added.

“Now that there has been widespread adoption of XML as a basic tool…it is really incumbent upon industry groups to come together to look for ways to help in harmonization (of XML standards),” said Patrick Gannon president OASIS in Lake Tahoe, Nev.

Groups like OASIS (The Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards) can help by working in concert with various industry groups, Gannon said.

why use xml?

First , what exactly is XML? The simplest definition comes from a very informative paper written by ZapThink Research titled The Pros and Cons of XML: “The Extensible Markup Language is a recommendation by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) for how to represent structured information in a text-based document.” It is that simple, no more, no less.

Most analysts agree XML will be first adopted extensively in the world of B2B.

“It will start in the very large corporations and it will trickle down,” said Peter Sharpe, chief scientist SoftQuad Software Inc. in Vancouver.

Prior to something like XML there was a great deal of difficulty communicating between systems.

“In the old days if you had one database and I had another, we didn’t talk,” Lapeyre said.

“You have a Microsoft system and a Unix system and the twain shall never meet,” Schmelzer agreed.

“Any sort of business-to-business transaction will probably be where XML will be used the most, if anything because that is where it has the most to gain,” he said.

“The thing about e-business is that you are touching so many different systems in so many different companies [so] it has to be a flexible open-end system,” he said. XML provides the ability to jump from platform to platform.

This ability is a key point for Sharpe.

“You customize it for your needs, you do what you need to do and then you still have the ability to interchange,” he said.

For industries with different XML solutions, translation type applications can span the gap.

“Even if we can’t agree on how we use XML…I can take your XML format and, as long as you tell me what the tags mean, I can still process it,” Schmelzer said.

XML also has a great deal of potential within applications.

“[XML] allows you to do search and archival and more intelligent manipulation of the information,” Schmelzer said.

He cited the case of hundreds of PowerPoint presentations available on the Web. If you wanted to find a particular one and did not know the title, you would have to open each one individually.

If there is XML metadata linked to the presentations, they become searchable, he said.


“XML as a format, as a specification, doesn’t say anything about security,” Schmelzer said, though he added that solutions can be placed around the XML to make it secure.

“[Security] is actually a problem because when you think about it one of the stated goals of XML is that it be human and machine readable,” Lapeyre said.

Whether the solution is to do what the CIA is doing it, is another question.

“The CIA is using XML…in plain text format and they have encrypted it within an inch of its little life so that you have to get through an encryption layer to get to the plain stuff,” she said.

Prior to the introduction of XML, there was, and still is, a solution called Electronic Data Interchange. The ZapThink pro and con article did offer this. “XML offers little that can’t be immediately gained from using Internet-enabled EDI.”

This addresses those industries such as healthcare, which have been using EDI technology for some time. Schmelzer said in cases like this, a move to XML may not immediately be warranted, in part due to cost.

But for those industries that are unattached to EDI, its shortcomings are numerous.

“EDI notation is fairly arcane, inflexible, and its inability to support privately defined messages poses long-tem adoption issues,” the report said.

HTML is also not a viable solution since it describes only layout and does not allow users to create industry-specific tags, Schmelzer said.