Parlez-vous XML? The new Web standard data-handling language
is on the tip of the tech world's tongue, and jBASE speaks it
fluently. All of technology's major players are fully committed
to XML, and development surges. But the practical-minded naturally
want to know, what can it do for us now?
XML in a Nutshell
XML is a markup language for networked documents containing
structured information, and has quickly become acknowledged as
the emerging standard data format of the Internet. Like HTML,
it is an open standard, governed by the World Wide Web Consortium
(W3C), so that companies have the confidence to fund development
with a specification they can depend on. Like HTML, it is a subset
of SGML; unlike HTML, XML is a language that describes data,
where an HTML document controls only structure and visual presentation.
HTML can't distinguish between content and structure, making
it difficult if not impossible to automatically extract data from
a page. If the Internet is in fact going to become the international
engine of commerce that's been envisioned for it, a standard way
to recognize and exchange data is needed. A new language is required
that can express the hierarchical relationships of data,
such as with database records and object hierarchies.
The W3C, the Net's non-profit standards body, answered these
needs in 1998 with the XML 1.0 specification. XML is designed
(and is being designed, as a young, quickly evolving standard,)
to overcome HTML's limitations at data handling, providing for
more robust information exchange abilities through the Net.
Just how Extensible does a Markup Language need to be?
The "Extensible" in XML's name explains that it's more accurately
called a meta-language, because it is a language for creating
markup languages that describe data, a core set of specifications
which can be used to define other domain- or industry-specific
"vocabularies." The addition of XML capabilities to a software
product is similar to a database or tool carrying open database
connectivity drivers, and virtually all of the major business
applications being shipped today are XML-aware.
It's been widely predicted that an overwhelming percentage of
application-to-application traffic that passes over public networks
will be in XML format in just a couple of years. The publication
of the W3C standard jump-started the market, development continues
at an almost feverish pace, and now, according to the Gartner
Group, "XML has little comparison as a comprehensive portable
"Web Services" - Just a Buzz, or For Real?
Along with any mention of XML comes the reigning idea for its
prime application, "Web services." Like its illustrious forebears
in the history of super-hot buzzwords, it means many things to
many different people and companies, and has comparatively little
to show for itself yet in terms of working end-products.
Web Services refers to designing and executing Web applications
that can automatically find each other and collaborate
in business transactions, without additional programming or human
intervention. They are modular applications that access the network
through standardized XML messaging, and perform functions from
simple requests to complicated business processes. Custom tags,
the "Extensible" part, control the interpretation of data between
applications and between organizations. These capabilities are
currently being put to the test in a wide range of applications,
for databases, e-commerce, Java, Web development, searching, all
those and more by wireless, and on and on.
The concept of automated processes running on a worldwide network
has been made practical by trends like the universal adoption
of the Web and the availability of cheaper bandwidth and storage,
and now has the strong backing of most if not all of the relevant
industry giants. IBM, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems,
and a long list of others are investing heavily in both development
and marketing, as well as spending a great many hours in the working
committees and various consortia trying to guide its growth. For
example, all of those companies belong to OASIS, a non-profit,
global consortium of more than 400 corporations in 100 countries.
OASIS and the United Nations jointly sponsor ebXML, using XML
to create a global framework for e-business data exchange.
Among the innumerable stupendous claims being made for the technology's
potential, an executive from Sun called XML, "the fundamental
change of this century," comparing it to the way mass production
transformed manufacturing. But for all that, the hype is not unjustified:
most likely, it's here that the concrete is being poured for the
technical foundation of worldwide electronic business.
It may seem as if the only money anyone is making from Web services
or XML so far is from the very healthy sales of development tools,
but this is a quite proper state of affairs for such a young technology.
Much of present activity is still in the phase of laying the groundwork,
and testing experimental applications. However, XML is already
handling production jobs in a wide range of businesses around