XML Moves Into the Mainstream

Tuesday Oct 17th 2000 by Erik Sherman
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The use of eXtensible Markup Language is spreading as an increasing number of companies realize such benefits as more efficient business processes and lower costs.

Illustration by David Haliski

"Sell the sizzle, not the steak," is advice often heard from marketing experts. Vendors offering eXtensible Markup Language (XML)-enabled applications have taken such advice to heart by touting benefits of the data standard that they say ease application integration and create more efficient communication between enterprises. And some companies are finding they can use the XML sizzle to deliver the steak--literally.

Omaha Steaks Inc., known for decades for its direct marketing of meat through magazine advertisements, almost stumbled across the technology in its quest for more effective e-commerce. IS director Jeff Carter had been looking for a new e-commerce platform and chose one that supported the standard. Now he sounds practically rhapsodic on the topic, talking about "someday being all XML."

For all the hype about XML, many have started to ask, "Where's the beef?" Most vendors seem hard pressed to name customers actually doing something real with the technology. Yet surface quiet may mask a deep interest, suggests Warren Wilson, a senior analyst at Summit Strategies Inc. in Boston.

"People are in a lot of cases using [XML] without making a big deal out of it, and not particularly touting it," says Wilson. "Whether that's reflected in the market numbers is anybody's guess. But I'd say the majority of companies I talk to are using it one way or another."

Whether gluing Web sites to a database back end or enabling smooth communications between companies or helping businesses more effectively manage their data, XML is gaining practical acceptance. And there's a good reason for it: Many of them are realizing benefits in both more efficient business processes and, sometimes, lower costs.

Hurdles from Hype

Omaha, Neb.-based Omaha Steaks has found many uses for XML, including doing real-time data updates on the Web, but only after getting past the initial vendor hype that surrounds the technology. Although descriptions found in magazines and other vendor literature may make XML sound mysterious, if not confusing, the technology is essentially nothing more than tagged text. This is a decades-old approach to data where special labels called tags explain the meaning of information in a file. When the information changes from one type to another, such as alphabetic text stopping and numeric values starting, then another tag indicates the difference.

Jeff Carter, Omaha Steaks Inc.'s IS director

"It [XML] really is the same old thing we've done for years," says Carter. "They're just calling it something else. As soon as the programmers or developers get past that, [using it becomes] much simpler." How XML differs from other tag systems, including HTML, is that users can define their own tags, and they are not limited to a predefined set. That means tags can be designed to support the types of data a business uses. Each XML-enabled application is then free to interpret the data as it needs.

Omaha Steaks first started using XML when company officials decided this year to move their e-commerce presence from static pages hosted and run by a third party to a completely database-driven dynamic site. The company chose the jCommerce product from eOneGroup LLC as its new Web platform, and also brought the site hosting in-house.

Because the jCommerce product uses XML, Carter decided Omaha Steaks might as well see how the company could use the standard. The best choice was creating live links from the site to the company's database. Previously, when the company used a hosted e-commerce service, maintenance was a nightmare. "We couldn't always change things quickly," says Carter. "We didn't know when we had mistakes on the static pages vs. the prices being pulled in by the shopping cart."

By coding Web pages with XHTML, a combination of XML and HTML, Omaha Steaks tied what was visible on a customer's browser to the actual product descriptions, prices, and availability. That meant information was made available to e-commerce customers from within the production database and was as current as the information seen by the company's inbound telephone salespeople. Current details are vital as products and prices can change daily "with the different types of promotions going on. So it has to be a very dynamic site," Carter says.

A more subtle feature of XML is that it provides portable data connectivity. It doesn't matter where applications reside, so long as they agree on the interpretation of data tags. The jCommerce product, written completely in Java, is also portable, which meant Omaha Steaks could actually test different server hardware and operating systems to find the best performance for the dollar.

At a Glance: Omaha Steaks Inc.
The company: Omaha Steaks is a privately held manufacturer, marketer, and distributor of premium meats and other gourmet foods through direct mail, e-commerce, and a chain of retail stores. The family-owned Omaha, Neb., firm claims 1.5 million customers worldwide and 1,800 employees.

The problem: As part of an overhaul of its e-commerce site, Omaha Steaks wanted to tie Web pages directly to a production database in order to provide the latest product offerings, pricing, and promotions to its customers. Additionally, the company wanted more efficient ways of working with other e-tailers that sold its products.

The solution: XML was used in conjunction with an e-commerce platform that would provide a format-neutral approach to data.

The IT infrastructure: Five Dell Corp. dual 866MHz Pentiums, Linux, Cisco Local Director for load balancing, jCommerce product from eOneGroup LLC, DB2 running on an AS/400 production machine, IBM Corp.'s HTTP Server, and XHTML (a combination of XML and HTML) for Web its pages.
"I wanted to use an AS/400 [for e-commerce hosting] because I'm an AS/400 bigot," Carter says, but that lead to a financial issue. The company would have needed to invest three quarters of a million dollars for a large enough version to handle its needs.

After testing various platforms, Omaha Steaks settled on five dual 866MHz Pentiums from Dell Computer Corp., each running Linux and jCommerce. "I found out I could scale these servers much more cost effectively than we could buying a big enough AS/400, or multiple AS/400s, to handle the workload," says Carter, adding that each server costs about $8,000. At only $40,000 for the entire Dell server farm, hardware and software included, Carter can add horsepower as he likes without breaking the budget. The production database continues to be IBM's DB2, hosted on an AS/400.

In addition to the production and monetary benefits, Omaha Steaks also built an XML order receiver application to improve the process of taking orders--whether online or via telephone--from resellers of the company's products. "A company like Cooking.com takes orders, then transmits data to us in [an] XML format. Then we pass shipping information back to them," explains Carter. "And we've built an XML validator page so a vendor can come and run their file through to see if it passes our XML test."

Common Ground Definitions

It is the ability XML gives companies to devise custom tags for more complex data forms--ranging from customer contact names and inventory on hand to publishing concepts like headlines and illustrations--that makes the standard so powerful. But for companies to effectively communicate, they must agree on the definition of the tags. Omaha Steaks has been able to set the definitions that its customers need to follow. In other cases, this simply isn't possible.

Still, communication is a cornerstone. BASF Corp., the Mt. Olive, N.J.-based North American division of the German chemical giant, has used XML to communicate among internal applications for a while, according to Joel Johnson, director of electronic commerce. Now the corporation looks to the standard to help provide cross-company cooperation. The result is supply chain cost savings. "We fully anticipate that XML will play an important role in our ERP integration plans with e-marketplaces and trading partners," Johnson says.

In such a competitive industry, though, a company like BASF cannot readily dictate standards for communicating, because vendors, suppliers, and customers alike will insist on the ability to work with its competitors as well. The worst situation is if each major industry player went its own way.

"We're starting now to see demand from data partners that want to do direct ERP integration with us," Johnson says of the integration many of BASF's business partners want between their ERP systems and its own. "If we don't adopt some sort of standard within a very short period of time, there will be a variety of data formats and transport protocols throughout the industry." While there are movements in many industries, adopting XML is not a single event that can be done for all industries at the same time.

BASF is uninterested in a proliferation of formats because of the implementation and maintenance difficulties inherent in supporting them all. That is why the company finds itself collaborating with rivals The Dow Chemical Company and E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company, taking their collective experience and developing priorities on the types of transactions, such as invoices or purchase orders, that would be most valuable if made standard.

"It's not easy," says Paul Devoy, manager of trading partner integration at BASF. "You have traditional competitors coming together over this issue. You have to get into the details [of data and transactions] and muck around until you come to a common level of agreement as [to] what a particular XML document will look like." Apparent disadvantages of trying to get competitors to cooperate have their silver linings. "If you get the right people at that table, everyone there understands what's unique about that industry and what needs to be accommodated," Devoy adds.

But the use of XML for external communications doesn't need to stop until companies iron out all their differences. Even without standards in place, BASF is piloting three programs using XML through a hosted communications platform run by ECOutlook.com, of Houston, Texas. These include automatically sending and receiving purchase orders, allowing customers to track shipments enroute to their location, and receiving current chemical inventory levels from customers for automatic ordering.

"Within those applications, there are some other XML sub-applications," Devoy says. For example, "as part of the track and trace application, ECOutlook goes out behind the scenes and reads and gets the information off the carrier's Internet Web site." A customer might come to BASF's site and request shipping information. The BASF site requests that data from ECOutlook. Then ECOutlook's system goes to the appropriate shipper's Web site browser interface, extracts the information using a BASF-written script, and returns it to BASF, which can now display it for the customer.

Because of XML, that information can be understood and appropriately formatted by whatever application receives it. This demonstrates another strength of the technology: the separation of presentation from content. "We can determine the format of the data that reaches us, and the trading partners can determine the format that reaches them," says BASF's Johnson.

Looking Good vs. Looking Relevant

Appearances may be almost everything for some businesses, but others, like Reuters Health Information Inc., of New York, are keenly dependent on the meaning of the message. The company provides health-related consumer and professional news to several hundred Web site subscribers, ranging from Yahoo! Health News to the American Medical Association.

What makes the work difficult is that the different sites typically are interested in stories that fit different profiles, such as cancer, heart disease, or neurology. Complicating the task is that any given story might fit into multiple categories; a story on breast cancer, for example, could interest those who want information on either cancer or women's health issues.
"If some sort of standard isn't adopted very soon, there will be a variety of data formats and transport protocols throughout the industry making ERP integration with business partners difficult."

Reuters Health creates story classes based on publicly available standard information categories. These can be massive in size, such as the North American industrial classification system (NAICS), a list of thousands of different types of businesses and industries, or the systematized nomenclature of medicine (SNOMED), which is a medical industry vocabulary of more than 100,000 concepts. Each story must be coded, then matched to the different news categories that Reuters uses.

Because so many terms might relate to one category, the process was painstaking and difficult. "There may be 7,000 codes for what may be deemed cardiology," says Joan Morykin, director of Internet systems development at the company. Customers might also request multiple news feeds, each representing a story class.

When such work was manual, the company could only manage half a dozen categories. Now it supports close to 100, with roughly the same sized staff as before. The critical difference has been the introduction of XML. Using a product called Metatagger from Metacode Technologies Inc. in San Francisco, Reuters Health has automated the correlation process. XML tags representing the classification terms drive automated categorizing of stories and submission of news feeds to customers.

While the concepts behind using XML tags for automating content handling were easy, the implementation was tough because it required a change in the company's business processes. "The entire editorial staff was affected by it, from copy editors to the vice president of editorial," says Morykin. But after six months of implementation, things smoothed out and the staff had an application that greatly simplified their working lives, she says.

The tension and workflow changes do affect virtually everyone. Omaha Steaks' Carter recalls his company's four-month development flurry of its new site as well as the site's integration into the rest of the company's systems: "In dog years it's a lot, because there was a lot of stress throughout."

But after 19 years in Omaha Steaks' IT department he can brush that off because XML's future looks bright. "This has far-reaching effects, because now, all of a sudden, any data transmission over the Internet could be XML," he says.

And as XML use grows even more prevalent for the ease of integrating systems within and between companies, perhaps observers who call the technology "rare" will start calling it "well done." //

Erik Sherman ( esherman@reporters.net) is a freelance writer and photographer in Marshfield, Mass. His latest book is Home Networking Visual Jumpstart, and he is also the author of Home Networking! I Didn't Know You Could Do That (Sybex, 2000).

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