XML is gaining acceptance in corporate IT departments as a cross-platform vehicle for moving data, but the technology must mature before gaining a foothold within the enterprise, according to IT managers.
Extensible Markup Language "has a lot of potential, but the biggest flaw is actually taking that potential and implementing and executing on it," said Fred Kauber, vice president of technology and operations at ClickMail Inc.'s Clickmail.com. "You're seeing it in small departmental applications right now. But to have XML leverage its full potential within the enterprise, it's going to take a lot more work."
New York-based Clickmail.com lets users integrate interactive graphics into their e-mail messages. Kauber is using the XML integration engine from Bluestone Software Inc., of Mount Laurel, N.J., to repackage content for delivery and display in Microsoft Corp. Outlook and Netscape Communications Corp. Communicator messaging clients.
Kauber also uses XML to exchange information with suppliers and partners. XML, he said, lets Clickmail.com tightly integrate the systems.
XML is gaining popularity as a means to share data within enterprises. Auto motive Resources International, which leases cars and trucks to Fortune 500 companies, uses XML to share information with partners worldwide.
ARI, of Mount Laurel, uses Bluestone's XML server for parsing the data and storing it in the database. "We consider XML a robust and secure way to transfer data," said ARI Oracle Administrator Richard Hays. "We move 800 to 900 files a month to normal customers, and it'll take a lot of custom programming. Using XML is more straightforward."
Whenever possible, ARI is looking to make file transfers with XML instead of with electronic data interchange. Projects moving in that direction will begin next year. "With the majority of our customers, we're just dealing with billing files," Hays said. "We FTP them files, and they load them into their system. We see XML as a way to replace these files."
In dealing with technology vendors, XML support is an issue, but not yet a requirement. "At this point, it's not a make-or-break [for a deal], but it would be a concern," Hays said.
IT managers unable to get XML support are speeding the process by working with their vendors. At Bidcom Inc., Chief Technology Officer Larry Chen works with the XML group at Oracle to embed the vendor's proprietary language, PL/SQL.
Chen's construction industry collaboration portal, which coordinates the efforts of multiple parties working on a construction project, uses XML and XSL (Extensible Stylesheet Language) in its workflow process engine. When Bidcom began using XML in 1997, Chen had to translate his Oracle database for it to work with XML.
Today, the San Francisco company creates a form in XML that is mapped to the database schema. It then uses XSL to customize the form when it's presented to various users. Depending on the user's role in the project, for example, the user will see different fields, Chen said.
"Our business is built on sharing information and facilitating these communications," Chen said. "We are using XML to drive and coordinate all these efforts between different companies."
While XML's presence within corporations has grown, many IT managers say that growth will be limited until XML schemata are standardized.
At the same time, more IT managers are using XML in conjunction with object frameworks and Java. At Project.net Inc., in San Diego, CEO Roger Bly uses Java for all programming and then XML as the data transfer language. This bifurcated approach is necessary because XML does not provide control structures or looping.
"XML is a data description language, in my mind," Bly said. "It's a great way—without a lot of complexity—to transfer data between businesses and applications. But until there are some [schemata] in place, there are issues standing in the way of enterprisewide adoption."
Proceed with caution
XML-enabled enterprises won't spring fully formed from the software you buy. Instead, firms must tackle three tough tasks to transition to XML.
- Keep a level head. It will be two years before browsers and productivity applications achieve critical mass. Gain XML expertise on the server by using tools to hook the Web to legacy application data.
- Reach XML consensus. IT, business units and marketing should pick XML document types and use them.
- Help create XML standards. If there is no XML interchange effort under way in your industry, lead the charge—starting with key partners in your supply chain.
Source: Forrester Research Inc.