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XML Apps Target Databases, Commerce
(01/30/98; 8:14 p.m. EST)
By Richard Karpinski, InternetWeek
Separate development efforts were disclosed this week using the Extensible Markup Language (XML) to ease creation of database-driven Web applications and enable the exchange of data between disparate servers.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) said it submitted XML-Data, a proposed specification from Microsoft, ArborText, Inso and DataChannel.

XML-Data adds some important data-handling functionality to XML, including the addition of object-oriented programming concepts to the ASCII-based language. Those concepts include inheritance, strong data-typing and validation, according to Norbert H. Mikula, DataChannel's senior online information architect, and a pioneer in the XML space.

In a separate effort disclosed today, a group of partners, including Vignette, Firefly, JavaSoft and several content-oriented companies, said they are working on an Information and Content and Exchange (ICE), specification. ICE is an XML application for enabling server-to-server data exchange, including the buying, selling and sharing of content and user profiles between sites, said Brad Husick, vice president of business development at Vignette.

Vignette also detailed upcoming versions of its StoryServer product that include XML support.

The two efforts continue the march forward of XML, which has emerged as a key language for building next-generation applications that use meta-content to describe, deliver and distribute data across the Internet.

Of the two efforts unveiled this week, XML-Data is designed more to enhance the "plumbing" of the XML specification, while ICE is a higher-level application framework that could potentially make use of XML-Data if it does indeed become a standard.

XML-Data is mainly about the definition of so-called schemas, which allow one application to receive data from another, without having any prior built-in description of the data structure, said DataChannels' Mikula.

Schemas define the rules of an XML document, including element names, which elements can appear in combination, and which attributes are available to each element.

An example of a schema provided by DataChannel goes like this: The definition of an employee record, which consists of Name, Address, Social Security Number and Employee Number.

Another important feature of XML-Data is data-typing, which lets databases and XML engines know the format in which a certain element is stored. For instance, a name is a string of characters; a social security number is a string of integers. That eases the processing and exchange of XML-defined data, said Mikula.

Some of the functions of XML-Data are available today in Definition Type Declarations (DTDs). DTDs provide a set of rules that help define an XML (or SGML) document, but lack the data-centric functionality of XML-Data.

"This is a good step," said J.P. Morgenthal, analyst with NC Focus. "Until now, all schemas were required to be in separate DTD documents. Now the schema can be included directly as part of the XML document. This makes for much easier creation of dynamic data structures when exporting data from applications."

With improved data handling enabled by XML-Data, "you'll see in the next few months dozens of applications pop up that do data interchange over the Internet in very sophisticated ways," predicted Mikula.

Aiming to provide an even richer framework for distributed, XML-based Web applications is the ICE group. Led in part by content providers such as Cnet, Preview Travel and Tribune Media Services, ICE hopes to not only enable distributed data exchange using XML, but tackle the problems of trust and privacy as well, explained Vignette's Husick.

The power of ICE, said Husick, is that it automates a number of online applications that either aren't feasible or are technically difficult today, including online "superstores" combining content and commerce from multiple sites; syndicated publishing, where sites seamlessly republish content from others; and online reseller channels, where a single site resells services or products from many others, often in a business-to-business environment.

Husick described Cnet's Snap online service -- a Vignette customer -- as a classic example of this kind of cut-and-paste e-commerce. Snap produces just 10 percent of its content itself, and licenses the rest from a variety of partners with which it has to craft not only business partnerships but technology solutions as well for transferring data between Web sites. ICE could automate the data exchange and build on top of it a layer of content and user profiling to yield an even richer user experience, Husick said.

In addition to XML, ICE leverages the proposed Open Profiling Standard (OPS) and related privacy work in the W3C's Platform for Privacy Preferences Project (P3P) working group, said Saul Klein, senior vice president at Firefly.

"ICE is attempting to bridge the gaps between XML and P3P," said Klein, who noted that the ICE group is not yet a formal W3C Working Group, nor has it submitted its work to the W3C as a potential standard, though that is planned.

While neither Microsoft nor Netscape are on board the ICE train yet, Klein and Husick strongly hinted they may be soon, noting that the two leading browser vendors are members of both the XML and P3P working groups.

"Where ICE is focused is on intelligent exchange of information based on business rules and trusted relationships," said Husick. "It's all well and good for data to be whizzing about the place, described in standard formats. But then let's look at the way individuals, developers and business want to use this stuff." TW

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