XML data integration: Lowering the bar
Still lost in much of the hype surrounding e-commerce applications is the need for reliable, easily implemented application integration. But the stakes are high for developers and businesses.
Online spending within e-communities will skyrocket to a whopping $1.2 trillion worldwide in 2004, according to estimates from Framingham, Mass.-based market research company IDC. As a result, IDC said that businesses have tremendous potential to increase their revenues through these communities.
But for most companies, taking advantage of e-marketplaces will require integrating their e-business applications with the rest of their infrastructures and throughout the supply chain.
Application integration isn't easy. When e-commerce applications, particularly those involving transactions worth thousands of dollars, are added to the scenario, things become more complex than they might already be. And getting it right is crucial.
EDI (electronic data interchange) has worked in the past, but only for large companies with deep pockets, and its use had been limited primarily to interenterprise information exchanges.
EDI is expensive, and the cost has plagued smaller companies. Typically, a large company with an EDI infrastructure will have smaller partners that may use a Web browser to access, for instance, supply-side data. Such a solution may suit that purpose, but it is not data integration.
When the large retailer with EDI capabilities in place puts an order in to a third-or fourth-tier supplier that does not have an EDI system, the large retailer has no way of knowing if the supplier has the needed inventory in stock; in other words, there is no guarantee that the order will be filled.
If the data is integrated between both companies, however, the retailer could access inventory data and, if the order cannot be filled immediately, request the inventory from a different supplier.
"Companies want to be able to automate that data as deeply as they can, and to enable bidirectional integration into both companies," said Jon Derome, a senior analyst at the Yankee Group, in Boston.
To help customers integrate their EDI and XML data, Denver-based New Era of Networks (NEON) last week announced its PaperFree EDI Adapter, which provides an easy connection between XML and EDI formats.
Although EDI certainly isn't going away, the industry seems to have agreed on XML as the glue that bonds together disparate systems.
"One of the big benefits of XML in e-commerce is that it is going to level the playing field and let smaller companies that don 't have EDI communicate with larger companies," said Chris Silva, associate research analyst at IDC.
To help developers realize that level playing field, a number of vendors are making XML easier for developers to use.
Compuware last week, for example, announced that its Uniface 8 supports XML, which the company claims extends development and deployment of multitier e-business applications.
Uniface can be used to generate XML and valid DTDs (Document Type Definitions) on request. As a result, no XML skills or DTD knowledge are necessary for e-business application development, and organizations benefit from increased developer productivity, ease of maintenance, and reduced costs, according to the company.
Uniface has traditionally used its own proprietary way of sending data streams.
"XML is the logical next step to take to be able to move into a true business-to-business environment," said Franco Flore, senior product manager at Uniface.
Flore continued that XML's benefits include that it's not very expensive, and that it is being accepted by developers. As a result of the first two benefits, XML is maturing quickly.
This is the first of what Flore said will be a series of initiatives by Compuware to embrace XML.
Universal Algorithms/CollegeNet, a Portland, Ore.-based portal designed to help students apply for college via the Web, uses Uniface to provide a Web component and database independence for an event scheduling application for classrooms, according to Andy Heydon, vice president of software development.
"XML will definitely make it easier for us to facilitate the data transfer between our applications and sources of data," Heydon added.
Compuware is not the only company making XML easier. ActionPoint, in San Jose, Calif., an e-commerce interaction management software provider, began shipping in mid-September an XML-based server that enables customers to deploy Web interfaces for real-time live interaction, Web content management, CRM (customer relationship management), middleware and business process automation, and e-marketing solutions, according to the company.