The XML Files

The absence of standards is the biggest, but not the only, flaw wracking XML, causing many to wonder if it's hardly the nostrum Web-based languages need.


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.

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