Where XML Specs are Clicking

Industries tap EDI experience, motivated firms

If you like an argument, youll love XML. Extensible Markup Language is touted as the ultimate solution to every industrys dreams of business-to-business process efficiency. But first, of course, there has to be agreement on the schemata and tags that go into industry-specific XML standards.

And as the agribusiness industrys AgXML initiative demonstrates consensus can be hard to achieve. But there is hope. A handful of industries have already settled on XML standards and are actually implementing them.

Whats the secret? Some XML initiatives in industries such as insurance and health care were able to get there quickly because theyd already shed meeting-room blood over EDI (electronic data interchange) standards. Other initiatives—such as RosettaNet, the high-tech industrys XML standard for manufacturing—started early and were given a boost by the sudden rise of e-commerce.

Here are a few vertical industry initiatives that have made remarkable progress and the lessons they can teach the rest:

Health care

Health care companies early on recognized the B2B benefits that XML could bring, said Liora Alschuler, an independent XML consultant who works with HL7, the health care standards body. HL7 is made up of health care providers, vendors, consultants and other groups with an interest in using XML to share clinical, patient, financial and other information online.

HL7s first area of focus was what Alschuler called the "XMLification" of EDI. The group has protocols and middleware that transmit data between different software applications, some using EDI. That, Alschuler said, gave HL7 a jump-start. Some organizations have begun to use the standards to share information, although not many are using them for transactions.

"This isnt quite B2B, but its close, and its happened fairly quickly," Alschuler said.

But, from Alschulers point of view, B2B is just a starting point. She said XML will have the biggest impact on this industry in the clinical area, where complex data must be accessed and moved around quickly. "Initially, XML standards let us find out which bed a patient is in, but with the latest standard, we can start to transmit information about whats wrong with the patient."

HL7 is creating a new set of XML definition standards called Clinical Document Architecture, or CDA, which is a first step on the path to using XML to share this type of clinical information online. HL7 deliberately started slowly, deciding to make the specification initially a very basic way to transmit clinical information. The idea was to see if it would work.

"This current effort is not much richer than an English language string," Alschuler said, "but it is a good first effort." Basically, the initial version of CDA will make it possible to take information from a transcription machine and transmit it in XML to a clinical report.

To get to the next step, though, will require broad consensus, and not surprisingly, thats going to take some work. For one thing, doctors and health care providers will have to come to some agreement on the language they use to describe the same diagnosis—something that isnt universal today, Alschuler said. But the group has gotten started and agreed to some descriptive tags.

"The potential is here for a major revolution. And were getting started," Alschuler said.

Financial services

Among the industries driving XML standards, financial companies—banks, credit card companies and so forth—are making a lot of progress, said Wes Rishel, an analyst at Gartner Group Inc., in Stamford, Conn. Unlike in other industries, however, not all the work is being done by standards organizations. Vendors such as VeriSign Inc., of Mountain View, Calif., and large institutions such as Visa International are playing active roles in driving the standards.

That could be one of the reasons that the financial services industrys standard for digital signatures, the so-called XKMS—for XML Key Management Specification—was pulled together so quickly.

VeriSign, for example, besides working with other industry players on specs, has developed tools to jump-start XKMS implementation.

The companys new Web site, www.xmltrustcenter.org, allows developers to learn about the XKMS spec and download tools.

"Were seeing enough platform vendors and enough tools installed," said VeriSign Chief Technology Officer Warwick Ford. "Were reaching the critical-mass point."

Ford said that a companion standard for encryption is in the works and that all the financial industry participants have a vested interest in seeing these kinds of standards go through. And it helps, he said, that "the vast majority of our customers are saying theyre writing new applications in XML."


In October 1998, the insurance industry started a project to create XML for life insurance information and processes. The industry followed it nine months later with a property and casualty effort. And so far its all been fairly quick and painless.

"In many ways, were further ahead than other industries," said San Francisco-based Tana Sabatino, assistant vice president with the Association for Cooperative Operations Research and Development, or ACORD, the insurance industrys technology standards body. "Our people have already argued and fought over this stuff, with EDI and other things. And unlike other industries, we didnt have multiple standards bodies with competing standards. So we were quickly able to port over a broad range of transactions."

The ACORD XML spec for life insurance and the separate spec for property and casualty allow insurance companies to handle inquiries and quotes, as well as submit new business and process claims online.

But thats not to say the insurance industry is even close to completing its XML standards drive. In fact, the definitions, like the industry, continue to change even as theyre being established.

As the Web has opened up new markets, the insurance industry has expanded, adding online brokers who sell insurance products through portals. Adding these to the traditional mix of agencies and carriers means ACORD members will add new features to the existing specs.

Still, implementation will continue to be the standards groups focus this year, with new awards programs and certifications to encourage members to do more with XML. And ultimately, the property and casualty and life insurance standards will be brought together. "The marketplace is moving to more horizontal XML frameworks, and when that happens, well be there," Sabatino said.

High-tech manufacturing

Rosettanet is arguably the mother of all industry-specific XML efforts, with 300 consortium members and standards covering the gamut of products, from raw materials to electronic components. All told, the RosettaNet initiative identified more than 100 processes and created standard XML definitions and tags to support them. Standards exist today covering everything from inventory management to order management and design wins.

"Right now, were in a B2B state of enlightenment and awareness," laughed Mary Schoonmaker, vice president of marketing and strategic development for RosettaNet, in San Jose, Calif.

High-tech manufacturing has a natural advantage in getting XML standards in place quickly: Companies have such a strong desire to be seen as playing a leading role in B2B, and they see XML as so important, that theyve been able to pull together for the common goal of creating XML standards and deploying them, Schoonmaker said.

One way you can tell how seriously everyone takes this effort, she said, is to look at the list of companies participating. Its not just the companies youd expect—Intel Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. and IBM. Its also FedEx Corp. and United Parcel Service of America Inc. That, Schoonmaker said, says a lot about how solid the consortiums standards are.

Already, many companies have begun to use the RosettaNet XML definitions to link online to suppliers and partners. Next, Schoonmaker predicted, high-tech manufacturers will use the standard to link to many companies all the way through their supply chains.

One example: Schoonmaker said Intel expects to have hundreds of its suppliers linked up by the end of the year, using the RosettaNet XML definitions. Thats 10 times more than the Santa Clara, Calif., chip maker had last fall.

"This is all pretty exciting," Schoonmaker said. "It will be interesting to see what happens when information starts moving at lightning speed."