The XML Files

[From iSource Business, October 2001] For Scott Walker, a business consultant at Verizon Logistics in Irving, Texas, eXtensible Markup Language (XML) represents a tradeoff: Do you want a technology that's quick and easy, or do you want something that meets your specific needs? If you want things quick and easy, XML isn't the answer.


Like a growing number of supply chain professionals, Walker feels that XML hasn't lived up to its initial promise. And, despite assurances that XML will accelerate and simplify B2B communications, there are some nagging problems that won't go away: The lack of a universally accepted standard and massive, cumbersome files threaten to cripple the technology, just as it begins to gain momentum. XML is a new technology, and a lot of bugs remain, says Walker. 


And help can't come soon enough, says Jeff Margolese, e-commerce practice director at One Inc., a Dallas-based consulting company. Right now, things are in a state of total destandardization, he says. Over time, we will need to see some form of standardization, but no one is seeing it right now.


Jumble Grumbles


XML is a Web-based standard that's designed to help companies conduct an almost endless variety of B2B information exchanges and transactions with customers and business partners. Unlike HTML, which offers a predefined vocabulary for building Web sites, XML lets software developers define their own vocabulary to build systems that exchange data, such as price and product information. By allowing content to be described in fine detail, XML permits automated data exchanges without requiring substantial custom programming. This is in stark contrast to the decades-old electronic data interchange (EDI) technology, which is complex and expensive to use.


Despite its bright potential, a rapidly accelerating standards jumble threatens XML. Although basic XML specifications are set by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the international organization that establishes Web standards, many software suppliers and vertical industry trade organizations have taken liberties with XML vocabulary sets, specifically with the various tags that define key business terms within XML documents. The result: The very process XML was designed to help has become cluttered and complicated by good intentions. While, in theory, XML would make it easier to pass information across the disparate systems in the supply chain, in reality, without better standards, XML is no easier than any other tool, says Sharon Ward, vice president of Hurwitz Group, a Framingham, Mass.-based technology research firm. XML.org, an XML industry portal, has cataloged over 80 industries that are currently working on XML standards. However, there are also variations being generated by assorted trade groups, ranging from trading partner agreement Markup Language (tpaML), which is meant for the exchange of business contracts; to XForms, which governs how Web designers create forms that ask for your name, credit card number, clothing measurements or other personal information. XML has too many standards and sometimes more than one standard for a particular industry, says Sandra Eddy, co-author of XML in Plain English. She believes that most standards initiatives will merge into other initiatives, or they will eventually fade away from disuse. However, the short-term need to support transient standards will hit many organizations in the pocketbook. Many businesses will be forced to spend extra time and money to make major adjustments to their XML processes, says Eddy.


A Standardization OASIS


To combat the growing number of XML conflicts, several major computer-industry suppliers - including IBM, Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, SAP and Adobe Systems - have joined forces to form the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS), a nonprofit, international consortium dedicated to creating a uniform way for businesses to use XML. OASIS' flagship initiative, being developed with the United Nations Center for the Facilitation of Procedures and Practices for Administration, Commerce and Transport (UN/CEFACT), is electronic business XML (ebXML). This new standard was created to provide an open, XML-based infrastructure for the global use of electronic business information. OASIS is aiming to develop a supplier-neutral XML, explains Karl Best, OASIS' technical operations director in Billerica, Mass.


Despite OASIS' best efforts, the organization isn't likely to unravel XML's incompatibility tangle. With suppliers and customers rapidly establishing their own vertical standards, XML variants are snowballing. As a result, nearly every industry, from aviation to textiles, has its own version of XML. There is a move toward standardization, but it is only standardization that occurs within an industry, says Best.


When industry boundaries intersect, however, common XML ground must be found. If the automotive industry creates a standard and the high-tech industry creates a standard, what do suppliers who service both adopt? asks Hurwitz's Ward. For many organizations, the only remedy will be to embrace multiple XML variants, no matter the inconvenience or cost. It's going to be as painful as EDI has been, with a proliferation of standards, says Ward.


Flexibility or Chaos?


At Verizon Logistics, which provides logistical, procurement and electronic repair services to telecommunications service providers, XML is viewed as an important, albeit flawed, communications tool. Although direct EDI links are still the core of the company's operations, XML has allowed the company to expand its scope into Web-based ordering. With its rich descriptive capabilities, XML gives Web customers the opportunity to create and send orders that consolidate an array of highly specific ordering information. It's something that EDI just can't do, Walker says.


Verizon Logistics planned its XML implementation for over a year before going live last March. Walker says the long lead time was needed to ensure that the system would work cleanly. It's really tough to get everyone on the same page, he says. It takes a huge coordination effort.


Despite the lack of XML standardization, Walker is willing to live with the technology. What some people view as chaos can also be seen as flexibility, he says. If you're doing a lot of business with one company, and you need to get your communications very detailed, it makes sense to customize things, he says. However, Walker notes that when working with smaller accounts with less complex communications needs, both parties can agree to stick to a particular XML variant.


More Woes


No matter how many problems companies and industries might face regarding the standardization of XML, they seem simple when viewed in light of some of XML's other shortcomings. First of all, XML's bulky file size is particularly problematic. Due to its need to describe data in fine detail, an XML message can be anywhere from eight to 500 times larger than a typical EDI file, says Uttam Narsu, an analyst at Giga Information Group, a technology research company located in Cambridge Mass. This means a tremendous increase in traffic, which requires more bandwidth, CPU power and memory, he explains. XML also suffers from rapid changes in its support tools base, technologies that include XML Linking Language (XLink), XML Pointer Language (XPointer) and Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP). The result has been a high-pressure development atmosphere. Hasty development indicates a lack of planning and introduces errors, says Eddy.


A Future?


Given XML's assorted shortcomings, does the technology have a future in the global supply chain? Although it's far from the panacea Web-based industries and companies were searching for, most observers believe it does. What's the alternative? asks Giga's Narsu. EDI is too expensive and complex for many businesses, and going back to the telephone and fax machine isn't an alternative either.


Kate Fessenden, XML research director for Aberdeen Group, a Boston-based technology research firm, is confident that XML's troubles will diminish as the technology matures and standards become more widely accepted. It's not a silver bullet, but it's the best thing we've got right now, she says. Hurwitz's Ward, however, is more skeptical. She feels XML players must move quickly on standardization, or the technology will become another kludge.


Verizon Logistics' Walker, is simply glad that XML is available. Despite its flaws, as long as you carefully coordinate with your trading partners, XML remains a good way to communicate, he says. I can't think of a better alternative.  


SIDEBAR


What is XML?


XML is a Web-based standard that is designed  to help companies conduct an almost endless variety of B2B information exchanges and transactions with customers and business partners. Unlike HTML, which offers a predefined vocabulary for building Web sites, XML lets software developers define their own vocabulary to build systems that exchange data, such as price and product information. 

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