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Business at XML 2002

January 08, 2003

XML Refocuses

The XML 2002 conference and expo (8-13 December 2002), this year's IDEAlliance showcase, reflected the impact of the technology recession on XML business applications. With many business customers cutting back on new technology investments, XML vendors now take a greater interest in government clients and offer their tools to help organizations integrate current applications as well as build new ones. This focus on government and integration came through repeatedly during the conference.

The subdued atmosphere of the meeting, held at the Baltimore (Maryland, USA) Convention Center was most evident in the expo hall, which had a sound and feel more like a public library than the raucous midways of past years. Just as libraries often hold valuable intellectual gems, many conference sessions had important messages about commercial uses of XML, particularly XML's ability to handle the increasing complexity of business, another recurring theme.

XML For, Of, and By the People

The changing nature of the market, along with Baltimore's proximity to Washington DC, which is about 30 miles (50 km) to the sorth, gave the U.S. government a major presence at the XML 2002 conference. Many presentations, both in the general and track sessions, discussed either XML's use in government systems, solutions funded by federal agencies, or applications mandated by government regulations.

In the opening keynote, Robert Haycock, who serves as acting manager of e-government in the OMB (Office of Management and Budget, the central budget and policy agency in the executive branch) laid out the proposed Federal Enterprise Architecture and the role of XML in that architecture. Haycock said that the current e-government initiatives, arrayed in a series of 24 projects, represent functions matching citizen needs and services, and that cut across the traditional agency boundaries. Haycock said XML will play a key part of the architecture, due to its ability to provide a neutral medium for information sharing and to develop a common framework for delivery of services, independent of platform or vendors.

One example cited by Haycock is Pay.Gov, a service of the U.S. Treasury Department, but also part of the larger e-government initiative on federal asset sales. Haycock said Pay.Gov uses a component-based design for collections, forms submittals, bill presentment, authentication, and agency reporting. The forms submission and bill presentment functions use XML and are the parts of Pay.Gov with which the public interacts.

The initiatives outlined by Haycock described efforts by central agencies like OMB to exercise overall direction for XML in the government, but other presentations showed how agencies, particularly the Department of Defense (DoD), are moving head with XML for business and publishing applications.

A working DoD use of XML involved a large-scale content management application in the U.S. Navy. Jon Parsons of XyEnterprise discussed XML's role in managing the large and detailed database of maintenance data that covers the Navy's entire fleet and all of its contents. Not only is the scale of this endeavor enormous -- nearly half a million separate pages of maintenance requirement cards (MRCs) are represented in the database -- it is constantly changing, growing, and needs to be published in several different print and on-line media.

The Navy had already recognized the structured nature of the information and started a few years ago using SGML for this application. Parsons said that with the coming of XML, the Navy could integrate its existing base of SGML files with the new XML documents. The production process operates on a regular schedule of updates every six months but also provides event-driven updates generated by changes required by circumstances, such as engineering research data or field experience.

Parsons cited return-on-investment (ROI) statistics, such as reducing the cost of document updates by 50% and reduction of time needed to perform an ad hoc update from eight weeks to five days. But the ultimate ROI in this case is the fact that XML (and earlier SGML) made this capability possible for the Navy, which uses off-the-shelf software, based on open standards, to publish the maintenance data. Without XML and SGML, the Navy would have likely had to develop its own maintenance publishing system at a much higher initial cost and probably requiring much more care and feeding.

The conference sessions had other productive uses of XML to solve specific problems in government and improve the way agencies serve their customers. Few operations in government are done on a small scale. The Census is no exception. Steven Schafer of Fenestra Technologies, a contractor to the U.S. Census Bureau, described the development of an XML-based graphics vocabulary to help conduct the 2002 Economic Census.

The Census Bureau conducts this survey every five years, which covers all basic business activity in the country and provides important baselines for policy decisions. The survey covers the five million businesses in the United States, using some 650 different survey forms, with each form running 10-12 printed pages. In five years's time, the nature of business changes to such an extent that many of the forms needed redesigning.

In addition to the large volume, the Census Bureau had important business and production goals. The time needed for forms redesign was too long, which hampered the work of the business domain experts who created the forms. The Census Bureau wanted to get the process as close to real time as possible; it also needed a common repository for the printed and online forms that store the content and layout data.

The forms themselves needed strict visual fidelity, which means a document will be rendered identically on any output device. Census's experience with survey forms indicates that even subtle differences in rendered output can affect the responses collected by the surveys; inadvertent line breaks, for example, are unacceptable.

Schafer said Fenestra needed to write a new XML graphics vocabulary because the Extensible Stylesheet Language Formatting Objects (XSL-FO) specification was still in preparation. The XSL-Fo draft offered at the time did not appear to offer enough precision for this work. The Survey Formatting Objects (SFO) vocabulary developed for the job used some of the same principles as XSL-FO, such as the separation of layout from content, but SFO provided more control for the forms designer.

SFO exercises control over the two-dimensional flow of forms, allowing for precise placement of the objects. It divides the form page into regions, with the different regions stacked on the page. SFO also allows for the nesting of regions and the use of different borders in the different regions. Schafer reported that the use of XML helped improve the exchange of the forms data among Census operations, but they ran into some problems with the heavily nested forms that made it difficult to track the flow of the form.

Joe Carmel of the U.S. House of Representatives described (with his colleague Cindy Leach demonstrating) XML's use for drafting legislation, a topic XML.Com reported on last May ("Can XML Write the Law?"). The drafting of legislation involves a legalistic and traditional environment, but with the volume of legislation increasing -- some 3,600 bills a year -- and legislation getting more complex, the U.S. Congress needed a solution that would improve the old process while maintaining its current base.

The Congress has a history with automation, including the use of automated typesetting equipment in the Government Printing Office (an agency of the Congress) and like the Navy, has used SGML. Because legislation follows a specified structure, it lends itself to markup languages. But before XML, the main tool for drafting legislation was a DOS-based text processor that required the attorneys drafting legislation to learn typesetting codes -- perhaps not the best use of a lawyer's time.

The presence of XML, based on SGML but simpler and less expensive to implement, encouraged a solution that would make automation easier for the users. As Carmel explained, the Congress needed a WYSIWYG UI to hide the typesetting codes and offered templates to present the structure of the documents but hide the underlying schemas.

The solution used customized versions of Corel's XMetal product that offers a WYSIWYG screen and templates. The system (implemented in 2001 and 2002) also allows Congress to add in the management support for tracking cross-references to other legislation and improve navigation through the bills, which can become complex as they move through the legislative process. Most importantly, it lets lawyers be lawyers and not typesetters or computer experts.

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