XML is Xtending its reach

Employees need several hundred pages’ worth of products, policies and procedures to service customers of San Francisco-based Wells Fargo & Co. But the information in those pages changes frequently, so if it can’t be updated easily, it’s virtually useless.

Enter XML.

Robert Bean, vice president at Wells Fargo’s Minneapolis-based institutional trust division, says the bank solved its updating problems by putting service information into a database of Extensible Markup Language (XML)-tagged documents on the company intranet. An employee who needs the latest policy or form simply aims a Web browser at the on-line manual. “The most current version is resident in one spot,” Bean said.

That means employees make fewer mistakes than before.

Content management is one of the things XML does best. Nearly every large company interested in messaging, component technology or the Internet is building XML applications, said Mike Gilpin, an analyst for application-development strategies at Giga Information Group Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. But early adopters are finding that today’s XML picture isn’t all rosy; the current state of XML standards and applications is about where the Internet programming language HTML was years ago, and that’s not saying much.

Unlike HTML, XML makes it easy to quickly locate and reuse data. An XML listing in a catalogue might label tags denoting the manufacturer’s name, product name, product size, composition, shipping weight and price. You not only have the actual data, but you also know what that text means.

Other applications can access that catalogue and use the same information.

That’s a marked contrast to HTML, which can describe only how to display the content. There is no difference among pieces of content.

Self describing

That’s why manipulating content in an HTML environment – to repurpose it, search it and display it in different formats – is so difficult. XML offers the self-describing capabilities that can solve that problem.

A catalogue listing can be repurposed to select all instances of a particular product, select weights and prices of each and perform a cost-per-pound comparison.

Wells Fargo’s XML application is relatively straightforward. But XML’s ability to act as a universal framework for swapping data among applications is a hot topic in information technology shops these days.

Gilpin said corporate moves to XML for application integration are “solidifying quite rapidly.” Companies that might have traded data via comma-delimited ASCII files a year ago might use XML today.

Unfortunately, the amount of HTML-to-XML conversion needed to make XML useful as a corporate data repurposing tool is staggering. There are few native XML parsers, the tools that read tags and use the data they contain intelligently, so it’s not easy putting XML on the screen. Most applications still need an extra conversion step to translate XML into HTML before use.

That extra step in HTML translation can mean slower performance. And because the object databases that store XML data and tools aren’t as well-tuned as their database and HTML cousins, performance can again be a problem.


XML standardization efforts haven’t really caught on; organizations find it easier to create custom tags and just map data to achieve interoperability.

At Chipshot.com, a custom golf equipment manufacturer in Sunnyvale, Calif., using XML tags to identify the different pieces of its Web-site content made it easy to create a second site for Japanese-speaking customers. Tagging let Chipshot choose only the items that needed translating, says Nick Mehta, vice-president of marketing. Now the company can just as easily create a site in Spanish or German, he said.

Chipshot chose the XML option because only certain information had to be in Japanese, so it was inefficient to give all the pages to a translator. “If we had to manually maintain two current versions of the site, it wouldn’t have been feasible,” Mehta said.

In Wells Fargo’s case, an XML intranet was the best way to disseminate frequently changing information to 1,200 employees in 21 states. The first attempt at supplementing the binders was to build a static HTML Web site, but information was often outdated by the time it was posted, said Ben Moore, a managing associate at New York-based Micro Modeling Associates Inc., the consulting firm that helped build Wells Fargo’s policies and procedures site. And there was yet another twist: Wells Fargo wanted to present a different view of the content based on specific roles in the organization. A branch manager might see activity report forms that go to upper management, while customer service representatives might see blank loan applications. Such dynamic capabilities are better suited to dynamic XML content stores than static HTML, Moore says.

XML Tools

Employing consultants like Micro Modeling Associates is common practice among corporations that are starting to use XML, as is the use of third-party products designed for non-developers.

Enterprises were once stuck with using basic text editors to create XML content, much like the early days of HTML. Nowadays, they can choose from several user-friendly tag editors such as Burlington, Mass.-based Arbortext Inc.’s Adept, San Jose-based Adobe Systems Inc.’s Framemaker+SGML and Toronto-based SoftQuad Software Inc.’s XMetaL.

Once the tags are added, applications that can use that data are needed, which fuels the rise of another XML product category: content repositories and integrated development environments. In this space are Burlington, Mass.-based Object Design Inc.’s eXcelon (which Wells Fargo uses), Boston-based Inso Corp.’s DynaBase, San Mateo, California-based Poet Software Corp.’s Content Management Suite and San Diego-based Chrystal Software Inc.’s Astoria, among others.

Major vendor support is critical for XML to achieve corporate acceptance, and it’s happening faster than many predicted. Microsoft Corp. and IBM, for example, are pushing hard to own the XML market. IBM has a wide range of XML-enabled products, from its WebSphere application server to the XML Productivity Kit for Java, for writing XML processing applications in Java. Microsoft is working on the BizTalk Server – an XML processor that parses the XML, maps tags and sends the data to an application – and has enabled a wide range of products such as SQL Server and Office 2000 for XML.