In-Depth

Toolmakers embrace XML

Most developers already know about XML-based Web services, but the XML tools category is actually much broader than that. It ranges from full-fledged IDEs to point tools that do one thing, like edit and transform many different types of schemas, for example.

Many vendors provide XML in some way or other, and more tools are in the works. But because it is such a young and volatile market, XML tool suppliers are being acquired, merging and otherwise morphing. And analysts expect this to continue for quite some time

Nobody really tracks the entire XML tools market. Instead, analysts segment XML tools into several smaller pieces -- creating XML-based content as either a developer or end user, or doing integration that requires XML as the lingua franca between otherwise incompatible apps. On top of these are XML-based IDEs, which are usually lumped into the overall application development tools market.

But some of these lines are getting fuzzy. Ron Schmelzer, senior analyst at ZapThink LLC in Waltham, Mass., expects more people to start thinking of content as a service, and then delivering it as such. ''Among the parallels between content and Web services,'' he said, is ''how do you componentize content so that you can reuse it, discover it and then compose it into larger documents?'' If this ''content as a Web service'' idea does come to pass as Schmelzer expects, the lines between XML-based middleware used for integration and ''pure'' content creation or development tools will become blurred even further.

Still, by 2006, the market for just XML content tools is expected to grow by 41.5%, according to a recent study by IDC, Framingham, Mass. Because XML is the ''de facto standard'' for sharing documents and other information, developers and end users alike are clamoring for tools, say IDC analysts.

This is what is driving many companies to start switching to XML to connect disparate islands of information. ''The only reason anyone ever buys any kind of technology is to solve a business problem,'' said Steve Weissman, president at Kinetic Information LLC, Waltham, Mass. ''XML is about facilitating enterprise interoperability. It's present and it works.''

Weissman acknowledges, however, that there is some confusion about what XML can do. ''I'm not sure people yet know what it's good for. XML can be both a dessert topping and a floor wax, to quote that old 'Saturday Night Live' commercial, and so people are using it for lots of different things.''

The notion of using XML to share information will get a huge boost with the next version of Microsoft Word -- Word 11 -- which will create XML documents behind the scenes. That is expected to both ''bless'' the market and create much havoc in it.

In the meantime, here is a roundup of the types of tools that already exist.

The IDEs
There are few native XML-based complete development environments on the market. One, Stylus Studio, was originally from a vendor called eXcelon, which has since been acquired by Sonic Software Corp., Bedford, Mass., an operating company of Progress Software. Another IDE is XMLSpy from Altova GmbH, an Austria-based concern with U.S. headquarters in Beverly, Mass. A third player is Tibco Software Inc. in Palo Alto, Calif.

With more than 1 million users in 100,000 organizations, Altova's XMLSpy claims market leadership. Version 5.0, released in September 2002, is aimed at ''programmers, developers and IT professionals trying to architect, build, test, debug and deploy XML-enabled apps,'' said Larry Kim, Altova's marketing director.

The visual tool is broader than Web services, Kim claims, and is used for integration and content projects. ''XML is language- and platform-neutral,'' he explained. ''We want to be that utility belt that can plug into any environment.'' Along those lines, the next release of XMLSpy, which was scheduled for late January, will have the ability to automatically generate C# code, include new editing and server administration features for Oracle's XML DB, and provide a new utility to document and publish a Web services interface, among other features.

Altova also makes Authentic 5, an XML authoring tool for end users, and StyleVision 5, which converts HTML Web sites to XML-based sites.

To help seed the market for its products, Altova has been cutting deals with larger software suppliers. It works with Microsoft to support SQL Server's XML extensions within XMLSpy and has an agreement with Iona to bundle XMLSpy 5.0 with Iona's Orbix XMLBus Web services development infrastructure. It also has a pact with Software AG to bundle XMLSpy with the Tamino XML Server.

Sonic Software's Stylus Studio is another IDE that includes visual XSLT and XML editors, wizards for creating XML and XSLT documents from HTML and other sources, as well as other features. Sonic plans to keep Stylus Studio available as a separate product -- with regular enhancements to boot, according to Gordon Van Huizen, Sonic's vice president of product development.

The company's original purpose with the acquisition was, and remains, to integrate Stylus Studio into its SonicXQ middleware platform. But one move does not obviate the other, Van Huizen said.

There is a need for both, he said, because ''working with XML is fundamentally different than writing Java or C. XML is very function-oriented; you're not writing a great deal of logic. You're creating sophisticated expressions and then debugging them, and code-oriented IDEs just don't handle XML very well.''

In fact, because they are so different Van Huizen predicts a ''fundamental split'' between XML and ''traditional'' application development over time. Perhaps, others have speculated, business users will be more XML-oriented and traditional programmers will retain the keys to the different language kingdoms.

In the meantime, Sonic will do more to integrate the IDE with its own runtime environment, Van Huizen said. ''The first example of that will be a version of Stylus that works with the repository in our integration bus, so you can create maps and drop them into the directory.'' A future version may ''create an XML expression, write the rules for the expression and test it without leaving the IDE,'' he said.

The third vendor in this space -- Tibco -- is better known for its middleware products than for its XML-based IDE. But TurboXML creates, validates, converts and manages XML schemas, XML files and DTDs. It also includes XML-specific project management tools, according to the company, and it is deployed in 'thousands' of customer sites around the world. As part of Tibco's Extensibility product family, other products in this line include XML Validate, XML Transform and CML Canon/Developer for storing, managing and distributing XML.

The middleware
Many of the traditional middleware vendors play in the XML arena -- as does Tibco. WRQ Inc., a Seattle-based middleware company, and IBM with its MQSeries have also incorporated XML into their respective products. WRQ, for example, sells Verastream Integration Broker, which helps transform legacy code into Web-based apps. This includes Web-based Java and XML integration tools. For its part, IBM's MQSeries can now use XML as a trigger for applications to start different workflow processes, and also as a means to start applications.

In addition, there are some new middleware vendors that are XML-only. These include New York-based XML Global Technologies, which bases its technologies on the notion of an enterprise service bus (ESB). Like many ''traditional'' technologies, it is based on message-oriented middleware. But while others have a central repository at their core, the company takes a more distributed approach with content-based routing.

XML Global's scheme also includes data transformation -- mapping structured data from one format to another.

''People often want the mapping -- from one format to the other -- but they don't necessarily want to take an entire broker and plunk it down on a server,'' said Bryan Baker, XML Global's vice president of product marketing. 'They already have their own infrastructure and just want to embed the tools,' he said. Another plus is that 'you need not pay for an entire business process modeling tool. If all you're doing is just a few point-to-point integrations,' it may make sense to start small.

That said, XML Global does sell a repository, a business process management tool, a native XML database management system and a SOAP-based messaging system.

There are also some point solutions available. XML Architect from Popkin Software in New York is a graphical XML schema editing tool. Formerly called Envision XML, it supports Microsoft's BizTalk and DTDs, with other schema support planned for future releases.

Another schema tool is XSLWiz from Induslogic Inc., Vienna, Va. With a drag-and-drop interface, it maps XML documents from one schema to another, and then automatically generates XSLT script.

Be careful out there
The XML tools market is both young and fast-moving, and some vendors that are here today may not be tomorrow. To make sure you do not get stuck with an orphaned product, check out the supplier's market share. If it is a leading product in its niche, chances are it will be supported even if it is bought by another company.

Another option is to check with your computing infrastructure supplier. Most of them -- IBM, Sun, HP, Microsoft and others -- have an XML initiative ongoing. Some have more than others, but it is worth checking; some are even working with the new players described here.

Also remember that whatever your company is doing with XML today will likely morph at some point. A 'simple' integration job could become a corporate mandate for every document to be XML-compliant. While that should not stop you from looking for that point solution today, it is something to point out to the higher-ups. Just getting them to articulate an XML strategy might help you figure it out.

Above all, keep in mind that a primary job right now is to educate your business users about why XML is important to them, and what it will let them do.

For example, CambridgeDocs' Virk shared this anecdote: ''We were talking to a government type the other day. He's a tech guy, and he was talking about how they were going to implement XML in the agency. He went to talk to his business groups -- and they don't know about XML, but they do know about needing to dynamically create training documents and other types of content. He was surprised they could do what they needed to do with XML, and said he'd need to go back to his business users to explain it to them and get their buy-in. Sometimes we forget that not everyone knows the benefits of XML, and we think, ''Of course you can do that.''


See the related story ''XML content creation: Danger ahead?'' by Johanna Ambrosio

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