XML: The Little Standard That Could

Odds are that when they hand out the Oscar for Best Supporting Technology at the 1999 Academy Awards, there is one star that will shine brighter than the rest: Extensible Markup Language (XML).

OK, maybe there is no such award, but in reality the importance of XML has grown enough over the last year that it has become imperative for every database, application server, and enterprise application integration software vendor to include XML support in their products and strategies.

Although the emergence of a standard for data interchange shouldn't come as a real surprise to anyone in this age of the Internet, it is surprising that the technology began simply as a stripped-down version of another standard, the Standard Generalized Markup Language, that has been languishing in obscurity for several years.

Another interesting point is that the real progress for XML was not necessarily made in the technical development or increased availability of the technology -- in fact, popular opinion bemoans a distinct lack of tools support to date -- but in a simple understanding and appreciation of its potential.

"What happened in 1999 in terms of XML can really hit on two or three points," says Morgan Gerhart, senior program director at the Meta Group, a market research company in Mountain View, Calif. "First [there] was a standardization around XML, the technology itself, and along with that came a clearer understanding of what XML can and can't do."

One company that has quickly seized upon the opportunities offered by XML is Campus Pipeline, in Salt Lake City, which offers colleges and universities a back-end data integration platform for information such as course catalogs, class schedules, and grade reports.

XML is a key component of Campus Pipeline's offering because it facilitates the data interchange between legacy systems at the schools and the platform it provides.

According to Tim Mills, vice president of engineering at Campus Pipeline, the technology could not have emerged at a better time.

"XML [is] definitely in the right place at the right time," Mills says. "It's one of those things that just took off and was a no-brainer for us to use."

The biggest benefits that XML offers over other technologies, Mills says, are its simplicity, its flexibility, and its growing ubiquity.

Those reasons are exactly why XML has succeeded where its more complete but more cumbersome predecessors have failed, Gerhart says.

"From a technology perspective there's nothing really new there; it's no better than anything out there," Gerhart says. "What's important is that people have agreed that this is what they will use to share information, and having everyone agree on something is often more important than choosing the best technology."

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