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Johnny Got Stuck in the Washing Machine

Johnny Got Stuck in the Washing Machine

While I understand that technology adoption occurs in steps, moving from simple to more complex, I'm amazed by how many people in the computing industry still don't have an understanding of what XML is and what problems it enables solutions for. I'm even more amazed by the people who are still using XML as a data format for systems integration.

But before diving too deeply into the problems of XML adoption, let me explain the title of this editorial. I recently got to thinking about the issue of context. Context provides a perspective from which other ideas and concepts may be better understood. It's a relative position. For example, with a context of discussion around a sunny day, you could easily gather that we were talking about "weather" and not "whether."

Context is one of the most beneficial components of representing information in XML. Each level of hierarchy in an XML document provides greater and greater context over the information that follows. For example:


As you descend the hierarchy you reach an element identified as "First." First without context of Person/Name would be totally ambiguous, but within the defined context is quite easily understood to mean a person's first name.

This brings us back to the title, and to the subject of this editorial: information. Months from now, after the Web indexing agents have had their go at this piece, the title will have absolutely nothing to do with it, and only the full-text index of the article will present any real-world value for someone looking to better understand the power of XML. Thus we can garner information value only by identifying the key words that will unlock the information we seek, much the way the right ordering of teeth on a key will open a door.

The title of this piece offers no context for the information held within. Is the piece diminished in value? Hopefully, the answer is no. Would this piece offer more value if it were represented in XML with a properly defined context and an associated abstract and keyword list? Absolutely! Chances are unlikely for this scenario, as is expecting those creating our world's content to start marking up their content in XML.

This brings us back to the adoption issue. I view using XML for integration - as it's defined today - as one of most immature uses for this technology to date. Effectively, it amounts to a data serialization format, which is why integration projects are still failing in large numbers. The idea behind using XML for integration was not just a new data format. The goal was to make the information more usable by providing context to the legacy information so it can be used more effectively by other applications.

Those who are simply creating elements called "Amount" to replace the database column name "Amt" have missed the boat. Remember, integration is about making multiple systems operate as one. The types of information that should be defined in XML should answer questions such as: "What does that amount mean to System A relative to System B?" and "What other systems contribute to the creation of this amount?" That is, XML should provide the context for integration rather than act as the interim carrier of information between systems.

When asked recently what I thought the key benefits were to representing data in XML over relational technologies, my answer wasn't as straightforward as I first thought. My answer was that it was better suited for hierarchical data, which, on reflection, didn't answer this person's question. The key benefit is that hierarchy provides direction and context for the information, whereas relational data is arbitrarily ordered based on the user of the information.

After all I've seen, I still believe we've barely scratched the surface of what we can do with XML. As we get better at developing structures for data that make them usable to more processes than the one currently identified, we'll begin to push the envelope of this technology and realize greater information gains than ever imagined.

More Stories By JP Morgenthal

JP Morgenthal is a veteran IT solutions executive and Distinguished Engineer with CSC. He has been delivering IT services to business leaders for the past 30 years and is a recognized thought-leader in applying emerging technology for business growth and innovation. JP's strengths center around transformation and modernization leveraging next generation platforms and technologies. He has held technical executive roles in multiple businesses including: CTO, Chief Architect and Founder/CEO. Areas of expertise for JP include strategy, architecture, application development, infrastructure and operations, cloud computing, DevOps, and integration. JP is a published author with four trade publications with his most recent being “Cloud Computing: Assessing the Risks”. JP holds both a Masters and Bachelors of Science in Computer Science from Hofstra University.

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