Brewing Up a Standard

The National Coffee Association uses XML to turn documents into formats for e-commerce, possible Web services.

The National Coffee Association Inc. has decided to forgo Java and put XML in its cup. While Java chants the mantra of write once, run anywhere, XML is proving more and more to be the language of e-commerce and of integrating disparate systems. As a result, the NCA has adopted XML as its lingua franca.

The organization recently completed its standardization of XML formats for its new Standard Traffic Documents. Four new XML-based documents that it established—Shipping Advice, Sample Order, Delivery Order and Invoice—turn standard coffee industry documents into electronic formats for e-commerce and potential Web services use.

Members of the NCA, which was established in 1911, conduct 90 percent of the coffee business in the United States. They include growers, exporters, resellers, importers, roasters, retailers, market exchanges and suppliers.

Robert Nelson, president and CEO of the NCA, called the new XML-based standards an "essential step" to e-commerce.

"The global coffee trade, involving 50 exporting countries and a multitude of importers throughout the world, is dependent on extremely accurate trade records and reliable and immediate information," Nelson said. "Our members wanted these e-commerce traffic forms to create operating efficiencies and reduce back-of-the-house costs, which they will."

Officials at the New York-based organization said Altova Inc.s XMLSPY, an XML development environment, accelerated the standardization process.

XMLSPY is an XML development platform for designing, editing and debugging applications using XML, XML Schema, Extensible Stylesheet Language, Extensible Stylesheet Language Transformations, Simple Object Access Protocol, Web Services Description Language and Web services technologies. A sister technology from Altova, Authentic 5, is a browser-enabled document editor that lets business users capture information directly into XML and save it to a variety of repositories.

XMLSPYs data and Web service modeling tools help industry consortia such as the NCA develop Web services standards and conduct e-commerce, said Alexander Falk, president and CEO of Altova, in Beverly, Mass.

To help promote the adoption of XML standards across the coffee industry, Altova said it will provide free licenses of Authentic 5 to NCA users. Falk said this tool will help solve the problems of "content fragmentation" because, unlike nonstandard content, XML file formats provide for more efficient indexing, retrieval, reuse and transformation.

"XML is a great vehicle for getting organizations to agree upon some sort of basic dialect for describing business projects or business objects," Falk said.

However, the coffee industry is but one industry that has decided to adopt an XML format for e-commerce and document interchange, Falk said. He said others such as the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards, or OASIS, and the Health Level Seven Inc. health care organization also have used Altovas XMLSPY to create standard XML documents.

Other industries and vertical business segments—financial services, insurance, pharmaceuticals and the government—have moved to standardize on XML for document interchange and integration.

"[Coffee] is the newest one," Falk said. To make it easier for users, "Altova has developed some style sheets so that a clerk can even go in and type in data for an order without needing to understand XML," he said.

Munish Minocha, chief operating officer at ExImWare Inc., a development company that created the NCA system, said XMLSPY was a must-see for user applications because of its ease of use.

"I come from the commodities background, with no technical training. Ive been involved with software development for three years but mostly with design. But even I could use XMLSPY," said Minocha, in Ann Arbor, Mich.

"Vertical industries of all types are flocking to XML since it solves a basic problem for intercompany communication: the standardization of business documents and exchanges in their industry," said Ronald Schmelzer, an analyst with market research company ZapThink LLC. "When a company has hundreds, or even thousands, of suppliers, customers and partners, it becomes an almost-impossible task to manage the interactions if each of the business parties has their own proprietary way of communicating. The movement to standards—especially in a particular vertical market—is therefore an obvious and needed step to guarantee the efficiency of the market."

However, there are limits to how much to standardize.

"A caveat to this is that there are some efforts to standardize on business documents across all vertical industries," said Schmelzer, in Cambridge, Mass. "While it is true that all businesses share the same fundamental components of business interchange—such as customer, invoice, shipping—the nature and specifics of those interchanges can vary dramatically across industries."