XML Moves Into the Mainstream: Page 3

Posted October 17, 2000
By

Erik Sherman


(Page 3 of 3)

"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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