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XML struggling for enterprise customer acceptance

Technology is still widely lauded, but vendor agendas and slow standards development hurt implementation.

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Everyone loves XML, the technology that can be used to tag electronic document content for easy searching and sharing among business partners. Microsoft, IBM and a slew of e-commerce hotshots such as Commerce One and Ariba can't stop talking about XML as the foundation for Web-based commerce.

Despite the fact that XML 1.0 debuted nearly three years ago as a World Wide Web Consortium standard, few businesses are using applications based on it, even though almost every e-commerce application vendor or network service claims to support XML.

Building a new web

Observers say vendors of e-commerce applications are largely to blame. Many vendors at the forefront of the XML revolution are working at cross-purposes in the way they implement XML, thus forcing users to convert purchase orders defined according to Ariba's XML specification, for instance, into purchase orders defined according to rival Commerce One's specifications. Users often end up paying a service provider to do this XML "dialect" conversion, which adds to the cost.

In addition, XML is an ever-evolving set of standards that has led many to believe the technology's not soup yet.

"We process over one million business-to-business transactions per day on our service," says Steve Goldstein, who is e-business development manager at Peregrine Systems, which recently bought Harbinger. His service converts assorted electronic data interchange (EDI), XML and other formats in documents exchanged by customers such as B.F. Goodrich and Dell Computer. "Less than 2% of those documents are in XML. Most are still in EDI."

Goldstein's guess is less than 5% of all business-to-business transactions are done using XML. The main problem with XML is the technology has become splintered, forcing users to convert documents between different vendors' XML tag sets. Commerce One, for instance, has the cXML and "Roundtrip" tag sets, while its rival, Ariba, promotes its xCBL and "Punchout" tag sets. Microsoft has BizTalk, and then there's the RosettaNet consortium XML document set supported by the electronics industry.

"There are fees for doing this XML-to-XML document conversion, and frankly, it's a profitable business model for us," Goldstein says.

Some companies are buying into such conversion services, though. J.L. Hammett, which uses Ironside Technologies' Ironworks commerce server to accept purchase orders over the Internet, uses the Ironside. net conversion service to change Ariba-defined purchase orders into Commerce One-defined ones, when necessary.

"We now get 18% of our sales online, which is more than $30 million annually," says Dave Merigold, J.L. Hammett's director of marketing. "But it does cost money to do XML-to-XML conversion."

This is ironic for XML, because the original idea was the technology would not require the kinds of value-added network services - and costs - that have turned off many EDI users.

"Sure, XML and the Web will eventually replace EDI, and will bring new trading partners to the Web," says Joseph Giles, vice president and chief information officer at Vans, which sells skating and snowboarding equipment. Vans, using IBM's WebSphere application server, has opened up its J.D. Edwards supply-chain system to distributors and equipment suppliers to check order status and transact business.

But Giles says he hears more demand for EDI. "XML is just the buzzword du jour," he says.

SciQuest is one of the most active online business-to-business exchanges, with more than 700 suppliers, including Dow Chemical and DuPont, selling scientific and laboratory products to university and commercial researchers. SciQuest uses Mercator's Windows NT-based CommerceBroker translation and mapping server to convert purchase orders, acknowledgements and invoices into EDI, XML or formats such as SAP R/3 - whatever each business partner on the exchange wants, says Karen Khiser, SciQuest's director of e-commerce integration.

"Not many people have XML at this point, though we do have two suppliers receiving XML documents with us," Khiser says. "But the XML document standards are so ill-defined at this point."

Adil Shabbir, chief technology officer at BenefitPoint, which is building a business-to-business exchange for the insurance industry based on XML, says the baseline XML 1.0 specification is well-defined. Shabbir says the bigger issue now is defining specific business documents based on XML, such as those being built under the insurance industry's Acord effort.

But CIOs in the insurance industry at this point seem more interested in using EDI than XML, so BenefitPoint will pay special attention to mapping XML into EDI.

The proliferation of XML standards, schemas and other projects continued last week with yet another XML framework. A group of 36 of the most vocal XML backers, including IBM, Microsoft, Ariba, Commerce One and Sun, aired plans to devise an XML-based repository where companies can advertise their services and programming interfaces they support. The initiative, called the Universal Description, Discovery and Integration (UDDI) Project, intends to have a standard in place so that repositories built around it could be linked into a global network.

"There is a need for a system where partners can discover each others' interfaces," says Burton Group analyst and Network World columnist Jim Kobielus. But the UDDI specification appears to be at least 18 months away from being submitted to a standards body.

The never-ending trail of XML standards leaves close observers feeling XML is always over the horizon.

"We plan to move to XML, but we feel the standard just hasn't solidified yet," says Rick Heroux, the IT program manager for the Securities and Exchange Commission's Edgar filing system.

"We're watching XML carefully, but the jury is still out," says Ed Dembek, senior analyst at utility company Commonwealth Edison in Chicago. "Based on the companies driving it, we think XML will be everywhere eventually. But our question is when?"

"It's like going back to the old X.400 days when everyone was implementing the specification differently and nothing worked together," says Jim McDermott, board member at the Network Applications Consortium, a user group that has championed application integration issues for a decade. "I don't want to go through that again."

One important emerging XML standard, called XML Schema, is set to be approved by year-end. XML Schema, now a candidate recommendation within the World Wide Web Consortium, is the needed "blueprint" for defining the structure of XML messages, says IBM's XML technology expert Bob Suter. "If we are exchanging business information, such as dollar amounts, it has to be in the right place and format." Supported in software, XML Schema will spare e-commerce providers from having to write software to validate a range of business information, Suter notes.

Suter acknowledges that few businesses are using XML in e-commerce, but he notes that the technology is gaining use in the publishing and storing of data. "We're seeing XML a lot inside corporations, such as banks or government. The Defense Department is building repositories holding XML Schema."

Members of the financial industry, including J.P. Morgan, last year started working on a set of XML-based documents for use in trading securities derivatives (called the Financial Products Markup Language), but that is still a work in progress.

XML is also getting traction as a transport mechanism, with Microsoft pushing an XML-based protocol called Simple Object Access Protocol (for more on SOAP, see story).

For e-commerce, XML is "still early," says Daryn Walters, vice president of marketing at XML Solutions, which sells a business-to-business server called the Business Integration Platform. "Everyone thought the first deployments of XML would be in e-procurement. But that hasn't happened. Companies are now confused with how to take a technology like XML and implement it. There are so many dialects."


Contact Senior Editor Ellen Messmer

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Contact Senior Editor John Fontana

Other recent articles by Fontana

Breaking XML news
Latest XML news from Network World and around the 'Net. Updated daily.

XML marks the spot at Microsoft
XML is the defining technology for interoperability between unlike computing systems, Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates told financial analysts recently. And it's the glue for Microsoft's .Net Internet platform. Network World, 9/11/00.

Building a new web:
Scaffolding the New Web: Standards and Standards Policy for the Digital Economy
A report from Rand.

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