XML--Rodney, are we there yet?

The acceptance and respectability of XML seems assured, but Software AG's William Ruh warns of potential bumps in the road ahead.

4 min read
After initially creating a lot of buzz in the late days of the dot-com boom, XML seemed in danger of becoming the Rodney Dangerfield of the technology world. Now, it appears that XML might finally be getting the respect it deserves in the marketplace.

What began as merely a "better HTML," XML (Extensible Markup Language) seems to be emerging as a critical underpinning of company strategies, integration standards and important business applications.

One way to measure the success of a technology or standard is to determine whether it has reached critical mass in the number of enterprises that use it. By this measure, XML is right on the cusp.

Adoption of XML is dramatically increasing in many different product lines. Diverse software categories such as application servers, relational databases, message brokers and content management systems all have increased support for XML. Microsoft, which has shown an uncanny ability to latch on to important standards right before they reach critical mass, has made XML a center point for products such as .Net and Office 2003. In fact, the next-generation upgrades from almost all major software companies will incorporate XML into their products in some form.

Integration formats are quickly morphing into XML in their latest incarnations. The HL7 standard in the health care community and the ACORD standard in the insurance community are just two of hundreds of interchange standards that are moving in this direction.

Get Up to Speed on...
Web services
Get the latest headlines and
company-specific news in our
expanded GUTS section.

The U.S. federal government's Chief Information Officers Council is making XML one of the cornerstone technologies that can improve the productivity and efficiency of federal agencies. The U.S. Navy, a leader in the application of technology, has made XML the standard for data formatting and metadata definition. The emerging Web services standards use XML as one of the core elements

What's driving XML adoption?

After years of treating everything as an object, data is "cool" once again in IT.
After years of treating everything as an object, data is "cool" once again in IT. This is good news for XML, because XML is a data standard. Accessing, integrating and replicating data across the enterprise is now an important topic for most organizations. Productivity gains in the enterprise require an emphasis on data. Executive and management dashboards, synchronizing operations and ensuring consistency of information are becoming top-of-mind issues for both business and IT executives. Businesses are becoming more interdependent with their supply chains and require the sharing of information at ever increasing levels.

Business initiatives are propelling a renewed focus on data. The type of data increasingly impacting businesses is the "semistructured" kind, such as forms and documents, for which XML is particularly suited. XML allows this type of data--as well as traditional structured data--to be self-describing, readable by both humans and computers, and convertible to a worldwide standard.

Finally, XML adoption is being driven by some of the same characteristics that prompted acceptance of other ubiquitous technologies such as Ethernet and Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol. XML is simple, approachable and not loaded down with every possible combination of services and capabilities.

Simple, in this case, does not mean that XML can be mastered overnight. It does mean that the majority of professionals in the field--and not just the "high priests"--can apply it. It is approachable, since it is an open standard, drawing from both open and proprietary sources of information. And while XML is general-purpose, it is not over-burdened with the complexity that accompanied some previous standards, such as the OSI protocols.

The most daunting challenge is probably cultural, not technological.
Though the acceptance and respectability of XML seems assured, there are still some potential bumps in the road ahead. Implementing security and access control for XML remains a challenge, although there are now well-established XML standards for digital signatures and encryption. XML's reputedly large appetite for bandwidth remains another challenge. However XML is also very "compressable" and is often comparable in bandwidth usage to other popular formats, such as Adobe Systems' Portable Document Format.

The most daunting challenge is probably cultural, not technological. If it becomes possible to store, access, search and share so many more kinds of information, organizations will need to decide how that information is used. What problems will this information be harnessed to solve? What as-yet-unforeseen problems will its existence create? With new capabilities comes the mandate to plan, implement and manage in new ways. That is part of what makes the convergence of business and technology exciting.

Organizations that eagerly embrace change will thrive on XML in its many forms. And very soon, the nonadopters won't have Rodney's mantra to toss around as an excuse.