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Chapter: XML and Web Services : Essentials of XML : XML in Context

Where Is XML Heading?

1. E-Business and E-Commerce 2. Content Management 3. Web Services and Distributed Computing 4. Peer-to-Peer Networking and Instant Messaging 5. Getting More Meaning out of the Web: The Semantic Web

Where Is XML Heading?


Someone once said that XML is better than sliced bread—it doesn’t mold. With all this XML hubbub, people tend to forget that XML isn’t an application. It’s not a program-ming language. It’s not the answer to world peace and starvation. It’s not even a break-fast cereal. XML is simply a document format that has characteristics that make it very well suited to sending structured information containing metadata that is easily validated.


However, with a standard language that has all the capabilities of XML, tremendous advancements can be made in areas dealing with the representation, storage, and exchange of information. In particular, XML is making it easier to conduct e-business and e-commerce, manage online content, work with distributed applications, communi-cate, and otherwise provide value.


E-Business and E-Commerce


In the past few years, the Internet and the Web have revolutionized the way we commu-nicate. As part of this revolution, the way in which we do business has likewise been rad-ically altered. We can finally be liberated from paper-based processes and be empowered to conduct business and improve our customer support. We have moved from “tradi-tional” business to “e-business,” and XML is helping every step of the way.


E-commerce is not a concept that was invented with the Web. Rather, it has been around as long as there have been electronic means for exchanging commercial transactions. EDI has been around since the late 1960s and has been in use to exchange supply, ship-ping, and purchase information. However, the technology is rather arcane, relatively expensive, and cumbersome to implement. The promise of being able to exchange vital business information using open protocols such as XML and the Internet have tickled more than one idle mind.


It is widely understood that e-business, as a term, refers to a collection of business con-cepts and processes that are enabled by a variety of electronic or online solutions. In gen-eral, e-business often  refers to the practice of using electronically-enabled processes to manage and run portions of a company’s business practices, or managing its overall busi-ness approach using an electronic or online mentality. Particular e-business practices include delivering information to customers via the Internet, implementing customer relationship management systems, and connecting branches together utilizing electroni-cally distributed methods.


Although overlapping somewhat with the definition of e-business, e-commerce generally refers to the ability to perform a particular transaction with a customer in an electronic or online format. E-commerce is usually much smaller in scope and focused than overall e-business and usually implies a direct transaction between two parties. To make the dis-tinction with e-business clear, buying a book online is considered an e-commerce transaction, whereas enabling the fulfillment and delivery of that book using electronic methods is considered e-business.


One of the main uses of XML in e-business is the representation of the various business transactions that occur on a daily basis between partners in a trading process. This includes purchase orders, invoices, shipping, bills of lading, and warehousing informa-tion. Because these transactions represent billions, if not trillions, of dollars on a daily basis, it’s no wonder that the first target of many XML standards-setting bodies is to specify these very transactions.


In addition to the actual transactions themselves, XML is helping to standardize the process by which these messages are exchanged among trading partners. One of the biggest values that EDI brought to implementing companies was that in addition to get-ting a file format, you also got a message-transport mechanism. In order for XML to truly be enabled for e-business, it also needs a means for guaranteeing that messages reach their final destination in the order and quantity necessary. As such, business-ori-ented standards groups have been creating the means for transporting, routing, and pack-aging XML messages for consumption in business processes.


One of the major steps in any e-business process is payment for services rendered or goods sold. Even in this area, XML is making a major impact. XML has been used to send payment information of all types, including credit cards, cash, vouchers, barter exchanges, and electronic funds transfers. Of course, security remains one of the biggest concerns when it comes to sending payment information, and in this area too, XML is making waves. XML has been used for security specifications of all sorts, ranging from encryption and authorization to privacy.

Content Management

The proliferation of computing power and the means to connect these machines has resulted in an explosion of data. All of a sudden, any application or document can instantly be shared with others. This has led to the concept that all information or data can be considered “content” that can be accessible and integrated with other systems. XML is being used to enable all forms of content management and application integration.


In particular, content that formerly was locked into proprietary file formats has been encoded with a variety of XML-based formats. XML is now enabling this content to be searched, located, and integrated with applications. “Legacy” systems, such as Customer Relationship Management (CRM), Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), accounting, finance, Human Resources (HR), and other systems, are now communicating with each other using XML as the “lingua franca” of exchange. In addition, documents that have been sitting in various file repositories are being marked up and made available to users, both internal and external, through the Web.


XML is not only being used to mark up and integrate with existing content but also to assist in its creation and management. A variety of new technologies based on XML are being used to help in authoring, versioning, posting, and maintenance of content of all sorts. These new XML formats allow many types of users to work with content in an open, nonproprietary manner. As well as giving users the ability to control how their con-tent is viewed, XML is enabling developers to “syndicate” content by distributing it to subscribers of all types. This means that a single source of data can be placed on multi-ple Web servers and destinations, without having to key in the data multiple times. Truly, XML has liberated data to serve its function of conveying information.


Web Services and Distributed Computing


XML even aims to solve some of the long-standing challenges in getting computer sys-tems to interact with each other on a programmatic level. Distributed computing (the ability to distribute processing responsibilities and functions among machines on a local or wide area network) has long faced challenges in the way that programming functional-ity encapsulated within “objects” is exchanged. Over the past few decades, many differ-ent approaches have been attempted at getting systems of even the same operating system type to be able to efficiently exchange programming functionality. This ability to call remote computing functionality, known as remote procedure calls (RPCs) or distrib-uted computing, has been attempted through technologies such as the Component Object Model (COM) and CORBA. However, each of these technologies has its supporters from different, proprietary implementation camps. COM is supported mainly by the Microsoft camp, whereas CORBA is supported by competing vendors. XML aims to put this divi-siveness to rest by specifying a platform-neutral approach by which objects and program-matic functionality can be operated on a global, distributed basis.

This ability to access computing functionality through XML and Web technologies is becoming known as Web Services and will no doubt play a major role in the next few years. Backed by such industry notables as IBM, Microsoft, Sun, and Oracle, Web Services are poised to change the way computing is accomplished on a distributed, open basis. XML is being used to define and transport application functionality as well as allow users a means to register and locate these Web Services for their own internal use. For example, a Web site developer who wants to create complex shipping and delivery options can locate a Web Service offered by the United Parcel Service (UPS) and instantly “plug it in” to his company’s Web site in a seamless fashion without having to make any modifications to the internal systems.

Peer-to-Peer Networking and Instant Messaging

In the past few years, another major revolution in communication and data exchange has swept the Internet. With the increasing number of machines and individuals now able to access the Internet, file sharing has moved from centralized servers to the desktop.


Individuals can quickly exchange messages, files, and other information with each other on an on-demand basis. Known as peer-to-peer networks (P2P), this “instant file shar-ing” technology was popularized by the Napster movement, which aimed to facilitate the sharing of music, albeit often copyrighted. Despite the negative publicity attached to Napster, P2P technology has shown that it can be useful in many other arenas, both within and external to the walls of an organization.


In a similar vein, the ability to quickly send messages to colleagues, friends, acquain-tances, and business partners has been greatly enhanced by the ubiquity of Internet con-nectivity. Originally popularized by AOL and ICQ, instant messaging of all sorts has become very popular. Instant messaging has spread to many different devices, ranging from desktop computers to cell phones, and has included such features as desktop appli-cation sharing, video conferencing, and voice communications.


XML is quickly making its presence felt in both of these rapidly growing technology areas. Various XML specifications and protocols are being used to allow individuals and organizations to send instant messages, locate other users, and locate, exchange, and store files on peer-to-peer networks in an open and nonproprietary manner.

Getting More Meaning out of the Web: The Semantic Web


The very nature of XML allows users to create their own tags that represent the context and meaning of data. However, there is nothing that prevents two or more organizations from calling the same data element different things or using the same name for different data elements. Furthermore, how will computers be able to understand the various ways of representing the same information? To a human, “PO,” “Purchase Order,” and “PurchOrd” all mean the same thing, but to a computer, they are all as different as “cow,” “swim,” and “Volkswagen.” Crossing language boundaries makes things even more diffi-cult. Not only do element names change dramatically, but their context and possible meanings do as well.


The Semantic Web aims to change all this by giving data elements additional ways of specifying their meaning in a semantically relevant manner. A variety of XML-enabled initiatives are on the front burner of the W3C and other major standards-setting organiza-tions. We will soon be introduced to the terms ontology and topic maps and learn how these new ways of looking at information and its meaning can help computers and humans make better decisions about how to use data.


In the words of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), “The Semantic Web is an extension of the current Web in which information is given well-defined meaning, better enabling computers and people to work in cooperation.”

The most practical of these implementations will help enable users to make better, more relevant searches. How many times have you used a search engine and found that 90 per-cent of the returned results are completely irrelevant? With a context-aware search engine, it is possible to turn that ratio on its head. Now, rather than wading through a zil-lion dead-end search engine entries, a user can zero in on the specific item of interest and make use of the information in the best means possible. The implications of the Semantic Web, made possible only through the use of XML, are tremendous.


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XML and Web Services : Essentials of XML : XML in Context : Where Is XML Heading? |

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