XML is ready - are you?

Do you have a nagging sense that your business could benefit from XML, but you just don't know where to start?

Do you have a nagging sense that your business could benefit from XML, but you just don't know where to start? The good news is that XML is easier than you think, and you're probably right about the potential benefits, especially when it comes to sharing information with business partners.

I'll get to that in a minute, but first, take some time to learn about XML. XML's strength is that it lets you define elements and their attributes that emulate your business processes.

For simple applications, you can create Document Type Definitions using XML's Declarative Syntax. DTDs name elements, attributes, and entities, and say how they fit together. There are many publicly available DTDs, but DTDs are suitable only for textual applications.

For more complex applications you need a schema, which lets you specify data types other than text and perform validations on defined elements. In other respects, a schema is like a DTD in that it's a definition of information that delineates how it's organized. XML schemas define elements and attributes in a way similar to the way DBMS schemas do for databases. If fact, if you're planning to develop XML schemas, be sure you have a database developer involved with the project, because database developers are trained to think in the proper terms.

You can write your own schema, using approved standards such as the Resource Description Framework, or you can use one of many publicly available schemas in various stages of development.

Once you've defined your data, you'll want to share it. The Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) defines how to encode XML information within HTTP traffic streams. Right now SOAP is a proposed standard in the hands of the World Wide Web Consortium. That means the W3C could make changes to the standard before accepting it.

But don't let that stop you. What matters is that your business partners agree on encoding standards. That, after all, is the definition of a protocol. And if you agree to use the standard as it's currently written, you can get the benefit of XML today. Later, if there are changes in the officially sanctioned standard, you can agree to incorporate those changes in your business.

Some large industries have already made substantial progress with their specific XML initiatives. For businesses with specialized needs, rolling your own schema or DTD makes sense. In some cases, none of the available schemas will quite suit you, yet you'll want to develop something that could become a "standard" among your business partners. For example, consider the case of a newspaper that buys newsprint from many paper mills, and paper suppliers that sell newsprint to many publishers. Such a marketplace may be too small to have evolved a workable XML schema, but clearly a schema would benefit all parties. In such cases, it pays to work with both business partners and competitors to agree on a common format.

XML is ready to use now, today. You should be thinking about how it might be useful in your business.