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XML and Your Business

So youíre probably wondering: ďThis XML stuff Iíve been hearing about, is it just a geek toy or is there some way I can apply it to my business?Ē This edition of The Geneer Business Report examines some ways that you can incorporate XML into your business today, and some trends that could affect you in the future.

First Off, What is XML?

From a business perspective, XML can be considered a common language that allows differing business systems to talk to one another. Thereís been a lot of hype about XML, and many people seem to think it will save the world, in one way or another. But XML is not the Holy Grail; itís a way of constructing conversations between business systems.

XML is not magic, and itís not a quick fix for all communications problems. To understand what XML can do, consider the following analogy. Letís suppose we all agreed to speak French whenever we discuss business. While this might solve some problems by giving us a common ground, it by no means ensures perfect communication. I might refer to an invoice using one French word (facture); you might use a different word (relevť). We could still have problems communicating due to the vocabulary and syntax we use.

So it is with XML, but with a distinct difference: When you communicate using XML, you can refer to a particular standard that defines the meaning of the terms you use. Itís sort of like including a dictionary and a grammar book along with your message. All terms in the message are explained in the definition, which is called a Data Type Definition (DTD). This makes the communication much easier. In our imaginary French conversation, I would include in my document a reference to a DTD that defines facture to mean invoice. When you read it, you can find out that Iím talking about an invoice by also referencing the DTD.

As you can imagine, the various terms used in business communications vary drastically across industries, and as a result, there are dozens of standards bodies defining the DTDs for their industries. You can access a list of many of them.

What Does XML Mean to My Business?

If you are using Microsoft Office 2000, youíre already using XML. Microsoft is one of the many software vendors to make a big commitment to XML. Like most Microsoft efforts, this means they have their own XML standard, called BizTalk. And XML figures very prominently in Microsoftís new .NET initiative. So youíll be seeing a lot more of XML in the future.

Where XML will do the most good, however, is in the exchange of business documents such as purchase orders, invoices, and bills of lading. Right now, chances are good you have some kind of software system that enables you to deal with these documents. You probably can generate a purchase order or an invoice, and perhaps you turn that document into paper and mail or fax it to your trading partner. Wouldnít it be nice if you could email that document, or even better, have your system automatically transfer it to your trading partner? And if you could have your system automatically deal with your partnerís response to that document, think of all the manual entry and error you could avoid.

Of course weíre describing business-to-business electronic commerce (B2B e-commerce), and, while it is not necessary to use XML to achieve it, the majority of B2B players are. For example, the two major eProcurement vendors, Ariba and Commerce One, each use a flavor of XML to automate buying and selling in their marketplaces. Ariba uses Commerce XML (cXML), and Commerce One uses XML Common Business Language (xCBL). If you want to connect your systems to either companyís marketplace, youíll need to use their flavor of XML. Once thatís done, though, youíll be able to completely automate the buying and selling of goods either on the Ariba Commerce Services Network or the Commerce One Global Trading Web.

Another area in which XML is becoming important involves electronic commerce trading partner standards. An effort initiated by Ariba, IBM, and Microsoft, called the Universal Description, Discovery and Integration (UDDI) Project, has recently established a central database, based on XML, of trading partner characteristics. Businesses will uses this registry to find out about the capabilities of existing or prospective trading partners. The registry allows your business to:

  • list a definition of itself and its services
  • define how a partner can conduct e-commerce with your business
  • describe the business services your Web sites offer

Once you register, your business is accessible through searches by potential buyers and marketplaces. You can register for free at

How Do I Get Started?

To get ready to conduct e-commerce with your existing and prospective trading partners, youíll need to make your existing systems XML-compliant. And hereís where a development partner like Geneer can help by assisting you in selecting the XML standards to support as well as creating Internet e-commerce processes that enable you to communicate with partners over the Internet. Geneerís consultants can help you assess your e-commerce readiness, make recommendations for adapting your systems for trading over the Web, and create the new systems that will bring all the opportunities and savings of B2B e-commerce to your organization.

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