Methodologies and Technologies for Rapid Enterprise Architecture Delivery


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Issue No 11:

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XML is NOT a Silver Bullet

PERTH, AUSTRALIA – July 22, 2000: We discussed XML previously in TEN (see XML offers great benefit, but it is not a silver bullet. This issue discusses how XML can be used effectively for e-Business and for integrating structured and unstructured data within and across enterprises through Enterprise Application Integration (EAI). The issue also announces an Online Webcast Seminar on XML, plus other upcoming conferences and seminars that will assist you.

Clive Finkelstein
TEN - The Enterprise Newsletter

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XML is NOT a silver bullet. It will NOT magically integrate the many redundant data versions that exist throughout most enterprises. It will NOT replace them with a single, common shared version of integrated data. But it will enable us to achieve the effect and many of the benefits of this “Holy Grail” … if we use it correctly. Let me explain why …

XML makes it even more imperative than ever that an enterprise must understand and resolve the different words and meanings that it uses to refer to things important to it. To illustrate, people may variously be called “Customers”, or “Clients”, or “Debtors” – all terms that are used to refer to people or organizations that buy from the enterprise. These different terms indicate “semantic differences”. An organization must know the different meanings of its data (as metadata) that are used throughout the business. It must then define standard terminology - and establish agreed meaning - as integrated metadata to be used by the enterprise. Only then can these terminology differences be resolved so that semantic integrity is maintained.

As Data Administrators and Consultants we were fooling ourselves if we thought that enterprises would throw away their many (dis)integrated legacy systems to improve semantic integrity. It never did happen; it never was going to happen; it never will happen. Pragmatically, legacy systems and databases will never be replaced for semantic purity alone. But once we understand the semantic differences and agree on the integrated metadata, XML can achieve dramatic cost savings. For example ...

Esperanto was once proposed as a standard language for common communication throughout the world. But it was never accepted. Why should people in every country have to change from their native tongue? Each reasoned that others could change … but not them! So we continue to have interpreters whose job is to understand several languages. They rely on reference tools (such as language dictionaries) and their knowledge of languages to translate between them. They use the language dictionaries and knowledge to resolve the semantic differences. The result ... understanding, meaning and communication!

Now consider XML. It enables the metadata "language" used by each application or department of the business to be documented in a separate "language dictionary". The metadata language dictionary used by each application is documented in a XML Document Type Definition (DTD) file. This is called “Application Metadata”. Common terminology is then defined for use throughout the enterprise. This is referred to as “Integrated Metadata”.

Knowing the semantic differences between application metadata and integrated metadata, XML can be used to resolve between those differences. We then know that the metadata used by the Order Entry Dept for Customer (say), and the metadata used by the Credit Control Dept for Client (say), both refer to the same thing - common integrated metadata of (say) "Organization". XML transformation engines can then carry out this semantic transformation. In our language analogy, the XML DTDs are the language dictionaries, while the transformation engine is the language interpreter.

We must also recognize that XML does not solve the semantic problems of legacy databases and systems: data redundancy. The only way this redundancy can ever be resolved is to throw out the legacy databases and systems and start again with an integrated database. But that did not happen, and it will never happen for semantic integrity reasons alone.

So the same data still exists redundantly in the Customer database for the Order Entry Dept, the Client database for the Credit Control Dept and the Debtor database for Accounts Receivable in the Finance Dept. But now with XML these different data versions can easily be synchronized dynamically via XML messaging. These XML messages are analogous to the physical "Change Request Form" that was sent to Order Entry, Credit Control and Receivables notifying them of a change so they could update their respective redundant data versions. But now through XML message transformation, this synchronization occurs at electronic speeds.

Yes, XML is NOT a silver bullet. But if we identify metadata and resolve semantic differences throughout the enterprise, we can use XML very effectively to resolve those differences. We can use Transformation engines to transform between and synchronize redundant data versions at electronic speeds. We can then reap the integration benefits as if we were truly using a single shared version of common, integrated data.

This problem of different application metadata within departments of an enterprise is magnified greatly when organizations communicate at electronic speeds through Business - to - Business (B2B) Trading Exchanges. Common message formats and integrated metadata enable clear electronic communication between buyers and sellers. XML can be used to transform between application metadata and integrated metadata as discussed above. This is called “Enterprise Application Integration” (EAI). 

The cost savings can be dramatic. For example, typical procurement costs based on mailed or faxed Purchase Orders often exceed $100 per PO … regardless of the actual cost of the product being purchased.  With B2B electronic procurement using XML procurement costs are reduced significantly to less than $10 per PO (Gartner Group). These are cost savings that go straight to the bottom line for all concerned.

XML is not a silver bullet. But when used well … based on agreed terminology and metadata that is defined using data modeling methods and modeling tools … it can deliver great cost savings and improved operational efficiency.

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Clive Finkelstein is the "Father" of Information Engineering (IE), developed by him from 1976. He is an International Consultant and Instructor, and was the Managing Director of Information Engineering Services Pty Ltd (IES) in Australia. 

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