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Perspective: XML's ticking time bomb

Swingtide founders Jack Serfass and David Wroe write that although XML is becoming a lingua franca in IT shops around the world, the price of its expedience is complexity and inefficiency.

XML is a promising and far-reaching development in computing. Yet the mere fact we're all speaking the same language doesn't mean we're making beautiful music.

Just because an XML message is "valid" (meets standards for the Extensible Markup Language) does not mean it can work with other valid XML messages, or that it will behave as expected. As a result, we're losing control of the hundreds of disparate XML vocabularies we've developed, the mountains of XML-ized data we've generated and the millions of XML-enabled software components we've created.

They're all incredibly valuable in their own right, but a huge challenge to manage--particularly at the point they connect to execute business processes. If we don't harness XML properly, billions of dollars will be spent fixing mistakes.

Even though XML is a lingua franca, the price of its expedience has become complexity and inefficiency. Chief information officers are encountering layers upon layers of XML data generated by multiple platforms through myriad applications. Companies may be sitting on a goldmine of XML services and be unaware of it. They may also be sitting on potential problems.

For instance, XML standards themselves are creating heterogeneity. A simple XML message might contain three to five "namespaces" from three to five different standards. (A namespace is like a digital snapshot--a picture of an XML standard taken at a single point in time and displaying unique context.) The message alone may be complex enough, but competing standards, versioning and styling choices further complicate it.

And because XML messages emanate from application code, the cost of retrofitting poorly designed XML usually includes a rewrite of a significant portion of an application. It's much more cost-effective to get it right the first time.

Now is the time to begin controlling XML, because it is on a serious roll. Spending on XML-related technologies and Web services by financial services companies is projected to reach $985 million in 2002 and grow to $8.3 billion by 2005, according to ZapThink, an XML and Web services research and analysis firm.

Chief information officers are encountering layers upon layers of XML data generated by multiple platforms through myriad applications.
But as more XML-enabled services touch more customers and partners in more far-flung places--call it "XML service creep"--companies will confront enormous new service-quality management challenges that dwarf those we've faced in other times, such as when the mainframe gave way to distributed computing.

One challenge is in the familiar terrain of system performance and speed. The other is the more daunting task of getting XML to interoperate at a business level, so that it contributes to revenue growth, a better online customer experience and a return on assets or individual business processes.

Traditional management approaches cannot easily assess the quality of online business. Companies need to know how their brands are being represented, how their value propositions are being communicated and how (or even whether) their business policies are being enforced.

Amid a proliferation of XML services that will need to be managed, how then will the information technology industry protect, measure and maximize companies' quality of business?

As groundbreaking as they are, XML services and XML service networks are merely another new technology.
The first thing companies should to do is increase their XML competency levels and collaboration between application teams. They also should automate control of how services interact with one another and begin providing relevant feedback to both business and IT professionals.

What's more, companies must get their arms around XML namespaces and how they interact across internal and external systems. Lastly, they need firm guidelines for extending XML to additional applications, customers, partners and channels so that when they're able to rein it all in, they can do so in a systematic way.

As groundbreaking as they are, XML services and XML service networks are merely another new technology development requiring management, just like client/server, SQL (Structured Query Language), storage and directory services before them. That's why CIOs should take a catalytic role in helping their businesses get ahead of the XML proliferation problem--before it catches up to them.