XML: Constructing a Business Web

In the fast-changing world of e-business, companies have to respond immediately to customer demand. Creating alliances with partners and suppliers that can round out their offerings can be a quick solution. In building such a business web, eXtensible Markup Language (XML) is an indispensable technology. XML tags enable disparate applications to identify and use a variety of information from otherwise incompatible sources.

Communication is the very essence of e-commerce and business-to-business (B2B) dealings. Organizations must integrate knowledge assets and business processes across their in-house applications and with those of partners. "The promise of XML is back-end business integration," says Josh Walker, an analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass.

Some XML-based systems can replace complex, expensive systems for electronic data interchange (EDI). Others can form a bridge for easily moving data between legacy applications and online systems.

Traditional EDI systems initiated the move from paper-based B2B communications to an electronic format. But they are costly in terms of the money, time and effort involved in their operation and their lack of flexibility in coding. "EDI requires a tremendous amount of work to make changes. XML allows you to make changes in real time," says Dennis Sinclair, CEO of VirtualSellers.com, a systems integrator and software developer in Chicago.

Making Middleware Extensible
"XML has been a content-oriented technology, but the real advances will come around XML messaging," says Nathaniel Palmer, an analyst with the Delphi Group in Boston. Content-oriented XML is used primarily for describing the different kinds of content in a document, such as author, date and text. In contrast, message-oriented XML describes data.

Line-of-business managers and users have long demanded that the numerous applications and platforms within their companies work together. With help from XML, messaging-oriented middleware (MOM), which communicates between applications and operating systems, addresses this requirement. MOM can translate data from various applications into XML, which in turn makes it easier to translate into other application formats.

Developers will create applications that take advantage of this middleware by automating communications with other applications; one example could be the validation and transfer of data in different formats from one platform to another. Complex processes between manufacturing, repair and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems also can be automated. Firewalls can be programmed to restrict sensitive content from leaving the intranet.

Enigma of Burlington, Mass., has developed an XML-based application that sits between document management and ERP systems. It helps to keep engineering information up-to-date on complex systems such as aircraft engines. "We are automating the business process so in what were 80 percent manual processes, people need to get involved only 20 percent of the time," says Randy Clark, vice president of marketing at Enigma.

Weaving the Value Web
Directory services, another form of middleware, traditionally have been used to manage e-mail addresses. Now XML-sensitive directories are becoming a means for publishing business process functions, integrating services such as package delivery tracking, credit card processing or picture framing. This kind of integration can free a business from the task of enhancing its core competency with other applications and services.

Tim Dempsey, director of marketing at Bowstreet, a provider of XML infrastructure for B2B marketplaces in Portsmouth, N.H., calls these collections business webs, and says fundamental business relationships are changing. "Many of the relationships you can create will become accessible in minutes instead of months."

iProperty.com of Bloomington, Ind., is using Bowstreet's Business Web Factory to create portals that integrate the services a consumer needs when buying a home. "We aggregate the products [like insurance, escrow, appraisal, and inspection] into a one-stop process with the vendors on the back end," says Ari Vidali, iProperty CTO. Instead of filling out the same information on "anywhere from 30 to 130 forms," XML can automate the movement of information as it progresses from form to form.

iProperty is using its multiple listing service, which reaches 55,000 real-estate desktops, to create XML profiles for consumers who access the site. Bowstreet can automatically customize information for a consumer based on the XML profile of the individual's interests.

The New Automat
XML also can serve as a receptacle for information coming in to an enterprise from disparate sources. Food.com, an Internet intermediary based in San Francisco, uses its Web site to take consumers' menu orders for more than 16,000 restaurants. At present, the site's application server receives orders, formats them and sends them to the designated restaurant in the form of a fax or an automated voice call or by direct data transfer to a point-of-sale (POS) system.

According to Rob Mayfield, chief architect, Food.com plans to use XML to automate this process further. In such a system, faxes could be created using XML style sheets, voice orders could be phoned in via VoiceXML and POS orders could be sent automatically via an XML specification. Food.com is now negotiating agreements with POS vendors. "We want to be able to... do things like place orders into the system and pick up specials, menu changes and price changes," Mayfield says.

Aquidneck Management Associates of Middletown, R.I., a systems integrator and application developer that works with government agencies, has a similar problem. For one client, the firm converts court case records from legacy systems to newer systems.

Aquidneck is using Data Junction, a visual design tool, to move data between XML documents and more than 100 different formats, including relational databases, contact managers, legacy COBOL code and accounting applications. Using Data Junction, the group takes data from one case management system, compares the results against a schema developed in-house, and outputs it to a different format. The XML schemas ensure that a given tag has the appropriate format, so if a name were placed in a phone number field, Data Junction would note the discrepancy and flag the record for human intervention. XML also can serve to bridge systems that use different taxonomies to describe the same thing, such as "BR "or "brown" for eye color.

Friendlier Skies
Another way to enable companies to open their internal business applications to partners and customers is to create "wrappers" around business functions. Tools are emerging to wrap object interface layers around business applications so other applications can access them through XML commands.

Galileo International, a travel information company in Rosemont, Ill., is using the OpenBusiness framework from ObjectSpace, a B2B integrator in Dallas, to offer a service called XML Select. Partners such as a travel agency or a corporate logistics intranet can create their own customized applications to access Galileo's system for making reservations for airlines, cars and hotels.

Previously, the number of firms that could access Galileo's information was limited because of the complexity of their system, says James Lubinski, executive vice president of operations at Galileo. "Now we can provide it to a far greater number of people that will not need the same skill set."

Galileo gets paid only for the booking fee in a transaction, so it wants to make the information as freely available as possible. "We are trying to provide as many ways as possible to access that data for as many applications as you can think of," Lubinski says.

Not So Fast
The aforementioned examples illustrate that the use of XML in e-business applications is still a new field and will require a significant integration effort.

"Right now there is a lot of hype around XML, but without the right discipline and architecture you will end up building a shantytown instead of a city," says Sridhar Iyengar, who participates in XML standards development and is chief architect at systems integrator Unisys in Mission Viejo, Calif.

The potential pitfall in rushing to use XML is the belief that XML is self-describing, which it is not. XML merely states a list of data fields. Schemas go a little further in describing what are allowable fields, but the fundamental problem is that two people may use the same term to describe different things, such as whether feet or meters were used in a measuring device.

The Object Management Group, a standards consortium in Needham, Mass. The group is developing the XML Metadata Interchange (XMI) by which businesses can exchange design information about applications. In addition, the World Wide Web Consortium and other groups are working on solutions to this snag.

The IT industry is rallying around XML, but market leaders and industry groups still spawn competing XML schema specifications. Microsoft is trying to rally support behind its BizTalk exchange, while other industry participants support XML.org.

Other major industries may bypass these efforts. For example, DaimlerChrysler, Ford and General Motors have agreed to set up their own B2B exchange for connecting automakers with suppliers (see "The Edge of Knowledge" and "Proposed Auto Exchange Hits Bumps", KM, July 2000), and Volkswagen has launched an independent initiative intended for the European market.

In many cases, the commitment to adhere to standards will depend on whether key participants desire to control a market on their own or cooperate to make a larger market available for all. According to Delphi Group's Palmer, "They have to decide if they get more by being an island or becoming a smaller piece of a continent."

IT is a stage for the acting out of various power struggles and marketing schemes, and the best technology does not always triumph. Fortunately, the overriding needs of customers--particularly the businesses that use IT as a strategic weapon--have a way of straightening out the tangled webs that don't serve their ends. XML as an enabling technology should provide another case in point.

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