XML Moves Into the Mainstream

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.
Posted October 17, 2000
By

Erik Sherman


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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.


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