When the Going Gets Tough: Real World XML

October 3, 2001

Alan Kotok

The emergence of XML as an important business tool has fueled its spread and encouraged scores, if not hundreds, of industry groups to develop business vocabularies using XML. For XML to work successfully in business, however, it needs to address the way business really operates or wants to operate; this will prove to be its acid test. The increasing challenges faced by the global economy make it imperative that standards groups, industry organizations, and tools vendors working with XML all have solutions that meet real business needs.

To define business needs, standards groups and industry organizations have relied on modeling to describe the processes from which they identify the interactions between parties and the data carried in those exchanges. Much of the RosettaNet ( work, the groundbreaking and comprehensive vocabulary for the computer technology industry, revolves around Partner Interface Processes (PIPs). Likewise, much of the Electronic Business XML (ebXML) technical architecture flows from business process models translated into XML. For these initiatives to succeed and, thus, for these applications of XML to succeed, their models now need to reflect a sharply different business world.

Here's a real surprise: doing business is different than before

Business today needs to operate in vastly different ways from before, a phrase that sounds trite, but with the softening world economy in 2001 and particularly the tragic events of 11 September, many companies are being forced to make changes that may have seemed unlikely only a year earlier. The relationships between businesses and consumers and other businesses have changed markedly, and company information systems need to reflect these changes.

In perhaps the most significant change, information has given the customer more power. The quantity and quality of information available to customers -- both consumers and businesses -- has grown significantly, in part because of increased connectivity of the population and the availability of more information resources. In pre-Web days, the flow of information mirrored the supply chain, with retailers offering customers most of the information on the goods and services they provided (except for an occasional Consumer Reports article). Now many consumers come into stores armed with pages printed from third-party web sites, and business customers do research on the Web before calling prospective suppliers.

The result of this shift in power is a loosening of loyalties between customers and suppliers, making business relationships fluid and dynamic rather than solid and stable. In some cases the power shift offers more opportunities for companies to expand their customer base, but, at the same time, competitors are watching a company's once-loyal customers in much the same way. The power shift to customers means companies have little margin for error and cannot take customers for granted. For example, the softening economy in the summer of 2001 forced many airlines to loosen or eliminate many conditions for fare discounts, such as Saturday night stay-overs, a process accelerated after 11 September.

With customers able to get business information independently of the supply chain, intermediaries in the supply chain need to redefine their roles or face extinction. These intermediaries include marketing representatives or agents in the employ of the suppliers, as well as distributors, jobbers, wholesalers, and retailers actually handling the goods. For example, many travel agents and stockbrokers learned, sometimes through bitter experience, that customers did not need their services simply to book tickets or make trades. For intermediaries to survive or thrive in this environment, they must provide a higher level of service than before, keeping in close contact with customers and solving their problems, not just performing routine tasks.

These new kinds of business relationships are known as collaborations. By sharing more information among businesses in the supply chain and with consumers, companies can build closer relationships, provide higher levels of service, and increase productivity throughout the supply chain. For example, some suppliers and business customers share detailed marketing and production plans so they can synchronize their operations and avoid shortages or surpluses. Many suppliers will also manage the inventories of their larger customers to help customers avoid inventory financing and carrying costs. Some retailers, like Wal-Mart Stores, require suppliers to have the ability to exchange electronic transactions and deliver goods on time, no sooner and no later.

Modeling lets business talk business, not technology

The modeling tool of choice for many industry groups is the Unified Modeling Language (UML), a set of graphical notations for describing data objects, from functional requirements at a high level down to a fine granularity. UML was written originally for software analysis and design but has since been adapted for describing business processes. Like other modeling languages, UML describes objects in a syntax (in this case, a graphical one) independent of technical implementations and, thus, independent of computing platforms or vendor solutions. This ability to capture interactions and semantics separately from technology encourages interoperability among systems.

UML uses a series of diagrams, starting at the highest level with use cases that identify the parties and the general interactions among the parties, progressing to levels of greater detail. As shown in Dave Carlson's instructive series for XML.Com (Part 1 and Part 2), at the level of detail called class diagrams, UML can translate data objects into XML vocabularies.

The ebXML specifications base much of their use of business process models on the UN/CEFACT modeling methodology (UMM), which presents two views of business activities: a business operational view and a functional service view. The business operational view defines the interactions among organizations in business terms, and the functional service view translates those activities into corresponding technical representations. The goal of the methodology is to let business be business, to let companies describe their business operations in their own terms, yet accurately represent those operations in the technology.

In ebXML, these two views are represented in a meta-model, a model of models, that defines the roles, relationships, interactions, and semantics of the collaborations among trading partners. A subset of the meta-model, called the business process specification schema (BPSS), is represented in both UML and XML. At the time of its release in May 2001, the BPSS was the only mandatory part of the meta-model defined as a full-fledged ebXML specification.

Is UML everything business needs?

While UML has shown itself to be a powerful tool for capturing business functions, activities, and objects, some observers question UML's ability to represent all of the important ideas businesses need to communicate with their stakeholders. Steve Wertheim of MEGA International, in a presentation prepared for the XML World conference, says that UML, designed for object-oriented software and retrofitted for business process modeling, has exposed some gaps in its capabilities. Wertheim notes that UML does not represent business goals and objectives, often expressed in financial terms or market share, which often drive the work of the entire enterprise. According to Wertheim, UML could also do a better job in coupling objects, a feature needed in highly synchronized business collaborations. He says that the Object Management Group, responsible for UML, is aware of these gaps and has proposals under consideration for fixing UML in version 2.0 for the standard.

Wertheim also notes that XML has become a basic tool for messaging, used in collaborations that define an increasing share of the activity in the business world. But messaging does not need to be confined solely to interactions between companies. Frank Ryan of Silverstream, in another presentation prepared for XML World, says that XML can provide a separate interface layer when working with integration servers in a corporate architecture. With this separate layer, companies can quickly develop XML messages for exchanges both between enterprises as well as among applications within a company. Ryan says in this environment, XML messages can help companies more easily integrate ERP and backend legacy systems, as well as with advanced portal functions using messages defined by SOAP or ebXML.

What it takes to meet the challenge

The kinds of capabilities described by Ryan and Wertheim highlight important features of a more flexible computing architecture demanded by these more difficult times. First, the use of modeling reduces, if not eliminates, dependence on a single platform or vendor solution. With the need to engage new partners in business more quickly, company information systems need to be able to communicate with many more and different systems than before. CEOs will simply not settle for explanations or excuses to the contrary.

Second, the lines between internal and external systems are blurring. When suppliers can monitor a customer's inventory levels, or when customers can track progress of a shipment in a transportation company's system, where does one draw the line between internal and external operations?

In fact, the coupling of company systems creates an inter-enterprise computing environment that highlights a third important ingredient: open standards. In a business world with so many challenges and changes, the investment in systems requires a continuing and stable base on which end-users and developers can depend. That base of stability is standards, developed in an open and transparent process, that represent the needs of end-users as well as the contributions of vendors.

XML has shown itself able to respond to times of rapid economic growth, due in large part to its origin as an open standard, and its ability to grow to meet the increasing demands of business. Now in these times of economic challenge, XML and related standards will be put to an even stiffer test, and the standards world will need to pull together -- shall we say collaborate? -- to a much greater extent than before.