XML goes into orbit

The use of XML is gaining momentum in e-commerce in New Zealand, as organisations move online seeking improved business efficiencies. Justine Banfield looks at how and why this markup language is taking off.

The use of XML is gaining momentum in e-commerce in New Zealand, as organisations move online seeking improved business efficiencies. Justine Banfield looks at how and why this markup language is taking off.

Not only are companies acknowledging XML — extensible markup language — as a useful tool in e-commerce, but major vendors are now also offering commercial solutions to complement its growth. However, while XML has gained considerable ground, particularly within the past six months, and offers benefits to those who use it successfully, it has certainly been put to the test.

XML is used as the standard for automating data exchange between business systems, whether between systems in one company or between suppliers and customers. Because XML helps place the data in a similar format, it also allows different applications to share data without cumbersome conversions.

Simply put, XML, developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), is an extensible subset of the standard generalised markup language (SGML) — extensible because it is not a fixed format like HTML. It tells systems how information should be rendered and specifies the kind of information it is. It’s a metalanguage — a language for describing other languages — that lets you design your own markup. With these built-in smarts, applications can share information more easily and developers can tailor the language for their specific data interchange needs.

Pros and cons

XML’s key benefits include:

  • Flexibility: for any given collection of data, the language provides several ways to represent it.
  • Structure: programs that create and read XML can easily tell whether a document is cut off before the end or is otherwise poorly formed.
  • It can be validated: using the DTD (document type definition) or the XML Schema, developers can set rules that guide the representation of data.
  • It is standardised: it can’t be patented, its use requires no licence, and no corporation can make it incompatible with other applications.
  • Plain, readable text: it can be edited in any text editor, modified by any application that can write text files, and stored in any database.
It is these characteristics that are motivating local companies to look at how XML can e-enable their business processes, many of which were previously paper-based. A large school of thought, pre-XML, was that it was risky and costly to move data between applications; by using XML as a standardised framework for representing data in an application-independent way, it is less so.

Also, to complement acceptance there have been advances such as the drop in the cost of memory and fast CPUs.

Pete de Heer, business services manager of Auckland-based manufacturing system consultancy Mi Services (formerly Motherwell Information Systems), says a key benefit of XML is the ability to present the same data to different users, giving each a different view of that data.

However, a “downside is that it is essentially structured text, and that has performance implications”. The fact it’s represented in text files is one of its likeable qualities, but it does raise performance issues. If you want to find data in an XML document, you have to scan it line by line — an operation that can bog down enterprise applications.

Another reason for slow uptake until recently is that for the standard to work effectively, business partners must have compatible systems. However, those interviewed by Computerworld agree while XML has its downsides, it is the future communications tool between trading partners — including some of those businesses which have put XML-related projects on hold.

Multiple standards

“There has been a lot of hype and expectation that XML would ‘solve all problems’,” says De Heer. “This is clearly not the case, but if used appropriately it can deliver real benefits. As more vendors provide support for XML, for example Microsoft and Jade … the uptake will increase.

“The biggest problem is multiple standards for the same business document, making the decision on which standard you are using, and hoping your trading partners also adopt the same standard. The XML standards, like electronic document EDI standards, will be complex because they aim to be a single standard for all businesses.”

He says this means that for your particular business, a large part of the standard will be irrelevant; your business may operate differently in some areas and not be handled by the current standard.

“One of the advantages of XML is that it is easy to read and easy to define. This causes the temptation for an individual company, or group of companies, to define their own de facto standards, and any company then joining this trading group will need to adopt the same local standard.”

Mi Services, says De Heer, believes having a standard way of defining data and the ability to transmit it takes EDI into the reach of every business. “XML is part of the equation to make it cheap and reliable.”

Woolpro development manager Paul Stanley-Boden adds to this, saying he believes it will become the method of choice in situations where EDI networks are looking to the web or are faced with sizeable development. “Of course, the cynical view is that if Microsoft wants it to happen, then there is a fair chance it will.”

He says while one of the downsides of XML is the complexity, it depends on the end product. “If you can be confident that there will be minimal change in the data input or the presentation needs, it may not be worth the effort to XML it, but if you expect change and need to react quickly, it is probably worth investing more at the start.”

Putting it to use

Stanley-Boden speaks from experience, as the Wool Board subsidiary brought XML into its system to offer better communication among data formats, and hence greater flexibility. In particular, it wanted to enable farmers to file the transaction documents directly with their accountants.

The organisation now uses XML in two specific areas; mainly as a data communication standard, and as a feed to data presentation. In both cases, according to Stanley-Boden, it provides a “dynamic way of handling data, particularly if needs are changing or varied. Our use is more for speed and flexibility of existing internal processes. We receive and distribute a lot of data in an EDI format. This has tons of duplication and redundancy within it … Our purpose here is simply to clean up these processes.”

Another local adopter of the language’s capabilities is E-Loan, an e-business venture of internet accelerator company eVentures New Zealand. The company’s templating technology in its server needed upgrading, and after considering other available tools, decided XSLT (extensible stylesheet language transformations) was the better solution, according to Java programmer William Hoyle. The benefits it offers the business are shorter development times and lower maintenance costs, he says.

“The translation from XML to HTML for display was accomplished with two simple XSLT templates … XSLT makes it easy to generate different views of the same data, and as a result our site is much richer.”

Fletcher Wood Panels, part of Fletcher Building, is also putting XML through its paces. Mi Services developed a product called XML Adaptor, an “e-application” that provides a simple solution to allow FWP to exchange e-documents with its major business partners. It is a Jade-based middleware application that can translate and deliver XML and CSV documents in a business-to-business environment using a number of different internet transport mechanisms.

FWP business systems consultant Robin Watts says the company wanted to make it easier for people to do business with it, and says it has saved considerable costs as a result. “It’s been smooth running … we’ve invoiced millions of dollars of business to

our EC partners. They, in turn, have been delighted by the speed and accuracy of the electronic invoicing.”

Summing up further benefits, Watts says better time, clarity and commonality results have been achieved.

Business first, technology next

While many local organisations are successfully using XML and related technologies, there are those which have shelved projects. Two reasons are given: the business lacks the volume to justify the technology and/or the technical complexity at the onset of the project is too great. This complexity can lead projects to run over time and budget, and is exacerbated by the slow uptake of XML locally, so there aren’t many businesses to serve as examples.

Andy Burford, e-commerce marketing manager of Boise Cascade Office Products, inherited an XML-related IT project, and pulled the plug on it because he felt there wasn’t a strong enough business case to justify it.

“I came to the organisation in the middle of January and consulted with our development partners and Microsoft locally about our decision. We couldn’t readily identify a business case for a tool of that level of sophistication relative to the potential volume or requirement we had in those areas. I’ve ‘hibernated’ it.

“We think it’s a smart set of technology and a great set of tools, but we don’t have the volume to justify it.”

Warehousing company Serco’s IT project manager, Tim McMahon, is in the process of testing XML for use. He says the project has taken longer than anticipated — completion was scheduled for Christmas — due to the complexity and lack of appropriate resources.

“It’s taken us longer than we expected … not just because it was complicated but because it’s a matter of resources as well. It’s difficult trying to get the right people available at the right time to write the code for us,” he says. “We found it hard nailing down someone who understood exactly what we wanted to do. The concept is simple, but writing the code is difficult.”

Basically, Serco needed someone who could understand its business first and then apply the appropriate technology to facilitate business requirements.

“We wanted somebody to understand that we needed to communicate simply between two systems that cannot talk directly for customer security reasons; we want a secure way of getting their files into our system.”

However, McMahon feels the outcome will be worth it as it will move paper-based processes online, as well as cut costs and offer ease of use.

“I don’t see any drawbacks. It will give us what we wanted to achieve … it will be a simple process to satisfy our own requirements as well as our customer’s desire for security. Our customer wanted to know his files were not only secure and confidential but would be delivered in a timely manner.

“The work at their end is mapping the fields we want and at our end is drilling those fields into the system — in simple terms, it’s just taking a file from their system to our system via the website with a high level of security,” says McMahon.

De Heer agrees finding XML expertise can be a challenge. “One of the areas that caused us problems was with the incoming documents — when you receive an XML file, what do you do with it? There weren’t a lot of people out there who had done it before,” he says. “But, in the last six months it’s been moving ahead and Microsoft has a solution in that space now — once its embraced that then you’re really away.”

Adding value

Software AG New Zealand manager Dave Marsh adds that people often underestimate the learning curve at the start of the project. However, once it is used successfully the mark-up language makes internal processes easier.

“XML enables you to separate the content of the presentation,” he says. (The content is the data within the document and the presentation would still need HTML to be presented). “So it has added a layer of complexity in a way. However, that layer is designed to make the updating of any information separate to the technical side of things. It’s enabling the business people to get on with changing the business information on the web, without having to go and find a technical person.”

Ultimately the value XML brings to the business is significant, according to Marsh. “I see a lot of large companies have HTML people within the business department because to put up their web pages they need a technical person — XML eliminates that.”

Growth potential

E-Loan consultant Kieren Cooney adds that XML offers different industries different things. “It’s so everyone sings the same song. It also has the ability to create new avenues of business.

“It’s not a new technology as such, but complements others. The wonderful thing is it opens up a whole lot of new technologies around it, such as XSL and FO [formatting objects],” he says. “Using FO we can create information as a PDF, so information can be sent almost as a brochure. We can use the same information with several different looks and feels, as well as channels. We had some that went to our website — some went as PDFs. It was fantastic.”

Other users echo his feelings. Software AG’s Marsh says while he feels EDI has worked, XML is a better answer for communication.

“The XML standards are set in stone now — what we’re getting on top of that are the standards, the DTDs — where you get a data type definition for different industries. (To make XML succeed there has to be agreement within the user community.) XML is very extensible which allows us to start with basics and to grow that.”

The BizTalk factor

Evidence of XML’s potential for increased future uptake is Microsoft’s BizTalk Server product. “Microsoft has seen XML as a key technology — I think a lot of people wondered why we were looking at it,” says Richard Burte, .Net architect at Microsoft.

“Now people are getting more comfortable with it, and can see the power of it. When people write applications that need to talk to each other, they often use something like Java as an object language to talk between the two, which means you need the same language to talk at both ends — a tightly coupled model. What we’re really doing with products like BizTalk Server and the .Net strategy is giving people the ability to have loosely coupled applications, which is how applications talk to each other and how XML messages are passed between them.”

There are two parts of the BizTalk product: the messaging component and the BizTalk Orchestration. “The messages going from one system to another use XML internally to represent those messages, so it translates from many different file formats into XML and then translates it into any other format as well. One of [our customers] is using it to bring together text files from their trading partners and orders, turning those files into an XML document, which then gets translated into their internal application,” he says.

“My customers like XML because it’s available on any platform they have, it’s a standard that’s put together by the W3C, and it’s very flexible, which gives them the ability to make their own documents or interact with other people very easily.

“BizTalk Orchestration uses an XML representation of a workflow, so the BizTalk product has a workflow engine in it,” he says.

Those interviewed by Computerworld believe with vendors focusing on XML’s capabilities, it should drive costs down and encourage general acceptance.

“There are vendors, such as Sun and Microsoft, producing packages that will reduce the cost,” says Cooney. “The technology drives by different companies will [help] make it an acceptable standard, but [full acceptance] will be once the industry itself says yes; this is adding value, makes things easier to do. They will do that once there’s a need to — it’ll be a natural drive.”

Banfield is editor of New Zealand Reseller News.

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