XML and Your Business

The future of Business to Business transactions may finally remove some of the paper from "paperless" systems.




XML is certain to be an important, if not the most important, business to business transaction protocol. It will, however, have to pass through a shakedown period to get everyone on the same wavelength. While far from problem free, XML promises to be much less expensive to implement than EDI, allowing smaller businesses to fully participate.

What is XML?

Like HTML (HyperText Markup Language - the language of Web pages), XML (eXtensible Markup Language) is a derivative of SGML (Standard Generalized Markup Language), an ISO (International Organization for Standards) standard for defining document structure so documents can be exchanged among dissimilar computer systems. XML standard (currently version 1.0) is controlled by the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium).

HTML is a text descriptive markup which tells a Web browser how to display a page on the screen or through a printer. XML is a data descriptive markup which describes data records so a system dissimilar from the one that created the data will be able to convert it into its own data format.

Thus HTML would describe to a Web browser how to display a news article on the screen, while XML would describe the contents of a purchase order to an accounting system so that accounting system would be able to enter the order into it's own order entry system.

The key component of XML is the DTD (Document Type Definition) section which holds the schema, or document definition.

Why is XML so Important?

Businesses have an urgent need to communicate with each other by means other than mailing and faxing paper, or sending e-mail, all of which require human interpretation and/or data entry, with consequent delays and errors.

The previous attempt to solve this problem, EDI as described by the ANSI X12 standard, has not served business particularly well, and is fully implemented only between a few very large companies. EDI depends on proprietary networks and X12 document descriptions large companies feel quite free to modify any way they please.

An XML document can carry the description of its contents in the header before the data section. This way the receiving system reads the header to find out how to handle the data and is not dependent on a third party definition which may not be accurate.

XML and Microsoft

Microsoft is very late getting into the Internet B2B (Business to Business) game and is years behind companies like IBM and Hewlett Packard, Sun and a host of Internet based companies. Their own Windows specific DCOM / DNA based "standards" just aren't going to be accepted this late in the game, as the world moves away from Windows.

To overcome their lateness, Microsoft has been trying to catch a ride by joining in the standards setting activities surrounding XML. With their sudden shift of emphasis from Windows 2000 to the .NET initiative, Microsoft will be depending on XML to tie all their own systems together.

So important is XML to Microsoft's .NET initiative they are now claiming to have invented it. This is, of course, absurdly untrue (they proposed some improvements to the XML Schema which the W3C XML Work Group has accepted into the XML Schema Candidate Recommendation). Nontheless, many corporate "decision makers" believe anything Microsoft says, because Microsoft is "so successful", and many now believe they must go with Microsoft to use XML.

Another thing that makes XML so attractive to Microsoft is that nothing prevents them from defining proprietary data types in the schema. This makes it easy to have XML documents usable only if all participants are using Microsoft products. Taking other people's standards and making them proprietary to Microsoft has served the company well in the past, but is now meeting strong resistance.

XML Initiatives and Frameworks

There are many groups working on "frameworks" or "vocabularies" for XML business transactions. There will have to be a shakedown period during which the number of frameworks is reduced and they are made more compatible. We will probably end up with several frameworks each of which dominates in a particular industry or field of commerce.

Translation services, similar to those provided for EDI are already springing up to translate between the different frameworks, but this may be a temporary condition. Translation capabilities could be added to the frameworks themselves.

UDDI - White, Yellow & Green Pages

IBM and Ariba have been joined by Microsoft in creating an XML based UDDI (Universal Description, Discovery and Integration) registry. So powerful is Microsoft's hold on the press, articles about UDDI now list Microsoft as the leader and write as though IBM and Ariba were the late.

UDDI is written using an extension of XML called WSDL (Web Services Description Language) which standardizes the way a company's e-commerce capabilities are described.

The UDDI registry is intended to be an index of companies and their electronic commerce capabilities. Companies will register themselves with a UDDI database and list their commerce capabilities. That database will propagate the information to all other UDDI databases. Prospective trading partners then have an easy reference. The UDDI consists of:

  • White Pages - DUNS number, Thomas Registry, and a text description of the company, including contact information.
  • Yellow Pages - US NAICS code, UN/SPSC product codes and SIC code to identify type of business.
  • Green Pages - Information on EDI capabilities and data APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) used, to define the company's e-commerce capabilities and compatibility with prospective trading partners. XML, HTML, Java, CORBA, Windows DNA, EJB (Enterprise Java Beans) and other formats will be listed.

OASIS - Standards Organization

OASIS (Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards) is a non-profit membership organization that provides guidelines as to how XML should be extended to maintain interoperability among frameworks. OASIS works in coordination with the W3C.

OASIS operates XML.org, an industry XML portal and schema index where businesses can look to find schemas and vocabularies already set up for their specific industry.

Most XML players are members of OASIS and claim to adhere (more or less) to OASIS guidelines. Microsoft is a member, but obviously only for information gathering since they have set up a captive organization to compete directly with OASIS.

BizTalk - Microsoft's XML Push

BizTalk is a "framework" for XML business interchange, not a "standard". In other words it is a set of templates to help businesses implement XML the Microsoft way. While BizTalk was started by Microsoft, they got a bunch of other companies to sign up to it.

Microsoft has set up a quasi-independent organization to promote BizTalk, BizTalk.org. This organization encourages participants to submit schemas to their index.

BizTalk is patterned closely after OASIS, and is obviously an attempt by Microsoft to undermine the industry standardization process in favor of Microsoft controlled Windows specific implementations. Microsoft, as always, denies the obvious, but several other organizations have speeded up their efforts to keep Microsoft from grabbing the market.

BizTalk now trails well behind other e-commerce initiatives, especially RosettaNet, and may end up used primarily to interface Windows systems to other XML initiatives.

The key to BizTalk is BizTalk 2000 Server, a server process that runs only on a Windows 2000 server. Microsoft's press release, is pretty vague, but is the kind of stuff bosses like to believe. BizTalk 2000 Server is finally released (Apr 2001) so we'll soon be able to see what it realy does.

BizTalk Server includes an "Editor" and a "Mapper", which indicates one of it's functions is to translate back and forth between BizTalk templates and data formats of existing business applications.

SOAP - Microsoft / IBM - remote procedure calls

SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) is designed to allow one computer using XML to ask another (perhaps very different) computer to run an XML process. An example would be an XML program asking another computer to send a stock ticker stream to it for display on its own screen.

SOAP is designed to work with various object oriented integration environments such as The OMG's (Object Management Group) CORBA (Common Object Request Broker Architecture), Java, and Microsoft's DCOM (Distributed Component Object Model).

SOAP was defined by Microsoft and is a key piece of the .NET initiative, but is also backed by several other large companies. Microsoft, IBM and Lotus hammered out SOAP specification version 1.1 and submitted it to the W3C for consideration as an Internet standard. The W3C, however, did not simply rubber stamp SOAP as some had hoped, and could still come up with a standard quite different.

Current problems with SOAP are typical Microsoft. Security is severely lacking, and Microsoft's SOAP tool kit for Visual Basic produces code that is not compliant with the v1.1 specification and which runs only on Windows.

IBM's SOAP for Java is much more compliant with the v1.1 specification and is designed to be multi-platform. IBM has "Open Sourced" it's SOAP and donated it to the Apache Software Foundation for incorporation into their unified XVL environment for Unix, Linux and Windows.

PIP - RosettaNet - Electronics Industry

RosettaNet's PIP (Partner Interface Protocol) framework has the backing of the computer and electronics industries and is already in fairly wide deployment. Companies report some paperwork processes have been reduced from days to minutes.

Typical backers of PIP are Hewlett Packard, Arrow Electronics, Intel and Lucent.

tpaML - IBM / OASIS - Contract Exchange

IBM has created tpaML to define contracts and agreements between all types of industries.

ebXML - OASIS / UN - Business Processes

OASIS and the United Nations have created ebXML to define business and process information primarily for small and medium businesses as well as businesses in developing nations.

UCC - XMLSolutions - Retail Supply Chain

UCC is being promoted by the big retail companies for use in their own supply chain operations. One of the leading providers of UCC compliant software is XMLSolutions. Not surprisingly, since big retail is a heavy user of EDI, XMLSolution's Business Integration Platform does translation to and from various EDI documents.

Ariba - General e-Commerce

Ariba is allied with IBM, which gives them a strong start. They claim to be the first Internet B2B businesses to be profitable.

Commerce One - General e-Commerce

Commerce One is allied with Sun Microsoft and is one of the largest e-commerce implementers.

PIPE / ETSG - Utilities Industry

XML developer Excelerty has placed its PIPE framework in the public domain, and it will probably be the foundation for efforts by the recently formed ETSG (Energy Trading Standards Group).

Utilities currently use EDI, but may be forced (however reluctantly) by deregulation to move to XML based standards. Regulators interested in developing competitive markets will probably be the main influence in forcing this change.

©:Andrew Grygus - Automation Access - www.aaxnet.com - aax@aaxnet.com
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