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Commentary: The ABCs of XML

The prospect of creating common data formats so federal agencies can share data is promising. The problem is, in XML as in life, things change.

By Rita Knox, Gartner Analyst

The U.S. government should avoid getting lost in a Daedalian XML effort.

See news story:
Government seeks accord on XML
Some of you may not know what that means. But you recognize the grammar of the sentence, and you can easily look up any unfamiliar word in the dictionary. Once you know the basics of English, you can figure out any new sentence. That's the flexibility the U.S. government should create for itself with XML. It should develop a common XML vocabulary and grammar rather than codifying ahead of time the "sentences" that can be used.

XML offers the prospect of creating common data and transaction formats so that the vast number of federal agencies and the enterprises they work with--private companies, nonprofit organizations, state and local governments, and so on--can share information, work together and deliver services more effectively.

Since Sept. 11, achieving this goal has become vitally important to national security. For example, the 50 or so agencies involved in homeland security--including the Customs Service, CIA, FBI and National Security Agency--collect vast amounts of intelligence but often can't share it with each other very easily because of incompatible data representations (as well as processing systems).

In response, the General Accounting Office has proposed that the Office of Management and Budget take responsibility to create a repository of XML schemas and document-type definitions. These constitute the sentences with which particular fields, such as financial services, health care, manufacturing, education and government, communicate. By building a repository, the government hopes to standardize the XML transactions for dealing with the government. All standardization efforts Gartner has seen take the same type of approach.

The problem is, in XML as in life, things change constantly. You can't limit yourself to sentences you created ahead of time and expect to carry on a good conversation with your mother. Likewise, governments and businesses constantly invent new ways to interact, and they need to create new transactions that their systems can process to support the new types of work.

Accordingly, XML standards efforts should minimize the amount of "hard coding" they incorporate and should maximize flexibility. Gartner recommends the following linguistic model for XML standardization:

• Devise a method for defining, classifying and validating XML vocabulary items. Items would include elements (with their "part of speech") and management attributes (such as ownership, where used and last revision).

• Create a grammar to construct transactions. A legal XML transaction would be one constructed according to a publicly defined grammar from publicly accessible vocabulary items (such as public repositories).

• Don't allow applications to release XML transactions that aren't valid according to this linguistic model. Applications receiving such XML transactions would "parse" transactions for such grammatical correctness before accepting the transactions as legitimate.

(For a related commentary on XML standards, see

Entire contents, Copyright © 2002 Gartner, Inc. All rights reserved. The information contained herein represents Gartner's initial commentary and analysis and has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable. Positions taken are subject to change as more information becomes available and further analysis is undertaken. Gartner disclaims all warranties as to the accuracy, completeness or adequacy of the information. Gartner shall have no liability for errors, omissions or inadequacies in the information contained herein or for interpretations thereof.