Commentary: Extended markup language and how it applies to you

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Q. Let’s start with the basics, what is XML?

A. Like any “markup language,” it’s used to introduce additional information into a stream of text. It allows for the placement of special markers around pieces of text, thereby providing new, relevant data concerning the original text.

Q. Where does it come from?

A. Its origins, like those of all markups, goes back to print publishing. It stems from the symbols editors and graphic artists have long used to give typesetters specific instructions concerning how a given page is to be laid out.

Q. How does it work?

A. Let’s say we have a simple sentence, such as, “This book was written by John Smith.” A person reading this would know that Mr. Smith is an author, and if they wanted to see more of his work, they would begin to search for it. However, if we wanted a computer to understand the sentence, we would have to give it a great deal of information about the English language to understand that Mr. Smith is an author, and that there may well be other things out there written by him. This level of intelligence is generally not present in computers, so we’d need to “mark up” the text in order to make it more amenable to automated processing. Using XML, we could rewrite the sentence to say, “This book was written by John Smith .” Now the computer can readily understand that “John Smith” is special, because he’s called an “author.” Then, it’s very easy to write software that can easily search through text, identifying authors.

Q. How does XML compare to prior technologies?

A. It’s a subset of SGML (standard general markup language), which was standardized in 1986, and is in widespread use in multiple industries where complex, voluminous documentation is maintained. Similar to HTML (hypertext markup language), which allows for, among other things, merging data with both images and sound, over the Web in a web browser, XML confines itself to representing only the data. One of the most widespread uses of XML is passing information over the Internet. Previously, companies used proprietary formats that they designed themselves, or other formats, such as EDI, which were expensive to implement and limited data sharing with outside suppliers or partners.

Q. Would you describe XML as a database or document technology?

A. Both. At its core, it is document technology, but many of the documents are actually data messages used to pass information from one computer to another. Because of its flexible way of presenting data, a single XML document can represent a complex set of business objects, such as a “customer,” in a more convenient manner than other technologies, such as relational databases.

Q. Should the business community care about XML?

A. I’d say, if you have more than one information system supporting your business, you need to at least consider if XML makes sense for you. Once you have more than one system, you have the potential issue of similar information, such as customer or order records, stored in multiple places. The need to coordinate this information is a problem that often leads to using XML to pass information from one system to another. This is especially useful as information is passed to customers, suppliers, and partners over the Internet. XML is the common language that not only communicates content, but also the context or meaning of that content.

Q. Who is using XML today, and how are they using it?

A. All of the major players in the information technology field have embraced XML as a strategic, core technology. The roster includes Microsoft, IBM, SUN and BEA, among others. To answer the second part of your question, XML is used in a variety of applications. It’s seen most often when data needs to be moved from one computer to another, either within a company’s internal network or over the Internet. Financial institutions, insurance companies, health care providers and government organizations are all using XML to simplify the exchange of information. For example, one XAware customer in the financial services area processes 16,000 stock research documents each morning, before Wall Street opens each day.

Q. Is XML a fad, or will we see it still in use a decade from now?

A. I’m confident that it will be around for at least the next ten years. It is a base technology that is easy to understand, yet powerful. Its rate of adoption is very rapid, and it’s now quite common in many business-critical areas, including ones which have been traditionally slow to change. For this reason alone, it will be around for a long time.

Kirstan Vandersluis is chief technology officer for XAware. He can be reached at 719/262-3736, or via e-mail at XAware is a participant in the Colorado Springs Technology Incubator. Visit their website at