Magazine Article | September 1, 2001

The XML Standardization Stance

Source: Innovative Retail Technologies

In an attempt to make the world of retail integration a better place, industry leaders are banding together to establish XML (extensible markup language) standards. How much do you know about the crusade?

Integrated Solutions For Retailers, September 2001

XML (extensible markup language) stems from complex and unwieldy beginnings, but the tagging language is positioned to become an e-business enabler for various levels of the corporate world. Specifically, the text-based messaging will be used in the retail environment to exchange data between in-store applications on different platforms and is quickly becoming the standard for data interchange on the Web.

One of the problems with XML (if it can be considered as such) is its ability to be used in any number of applications. This has prompted various standards organizations to figure out where and how it will work. In retail, XML standards are being determined not only by technology gurus, but also by those who will be applying the language to their business applications - retailers, manufacturers, and technology vendors. A cooperative effort of the Association for Retail Technology (ARTS), which is a division of the NRF, and ActiveStore, a Microsoft-led standards initiative, established the standards group known as IXRetail (International XML Retail Cooperative). Together, retailers and vendors are working to create of a set of standard XML messages for a range of retail functions. These standard messages will eventually enable retailers to integrate plug-and-play, platform-independent, vendor-neutral applications, and ultimately reduce costs and increase operational efficiency.

Jerry Rightmer, CTO of 360Commerce, and Ray Allen, senior manager, IS of The Home Depot, are both active on the IXRetail standards committee. They share their observations on the committee's progress and encourage retailers to participate in establishing the framework for XML.

What is XML?

Jerry Rightmer: It is a way of describing data in an application independent, hardware independent way so that any two applications can exchange information without having to share the same database or the same binary formats. Each piece of data that is described gets its own data tag; for example a price would be labeled so that it was clear that price information would follow. This means any application can usually be extended to understand and work with XML, including old legacy applications.

What makes XML useful for retail applications?

Ray Allen: XML is a simple, but powerful integration tool that works on almost any platform and can greatly reduce the integration effort of connecting separate software solutions. Historically vendors built single solutions and retailers didn't have the ability to choose best-of-breed applications. If you tried to connect separate applications from different companies, the integration processes were extensive. XML allows you to build interfaces quickly. Retailers can select applications based on the best mix of functionality and value for them and not be limited by the integration efforts and costs as they have been in the past. Retailers benefit by having more choices, and application providers have more opportunities to sell their products.

Why is it so important to establish standards for this language?

Jerry Rightmer: If two retailers want to share information with the same product descriptions, they have to have the same coding method. If we don't establish standards, it becomes impossible for any two organizations to exchange information without additional work. The IXRetail is defining an XML vocabulary for the retail industry to use to describe data. Integration is 35% of the total cost of acquiring a piece of software, so there is huge ROI in reducing those costs. Currently, if a retailer integrates two applications (a merchandising package with a POS system), it might have to write custom code to get them to work. This creates more development costs, is harder to maintain, and if the programs get updated or changed it is probable the integration code will also have to change. XML will reduce that cost.

What flexibility does XML offer retailers?

Ray Allen: Every retailer wants the best system they can put together to support their business. For most retailers, this involves a collection of best-of-breed applications - some custom and some off-the-shelf - that have been seamlessly integrated together. The XML standard we are developing in IXRetail will simplify the integration of these applications and the introduction of new applications over time. In reality, the main goal for all the ARTS standards is to reduce the systems integration barriers that create cost, risk, and hesitation in trying new business solutions and products.

How close is the retail industry to establishing XML standards? What is the process?

Jerry Rightmer: With XML we can establish an electronic vocabulary for specific vertical industries. IXRetail has published an element tag dictionary that they are revising and updating based on public comment. Within the next year we want both vendors and retailers to use these standards to reduce integration costs. IXRetail's scope is only to define standards for integrating applications and data within the retail enterprise; we are not working on B2B (business-to-business) standards for exchanging information between companies. When we see a piece of data that we think applies beyond retail then we might adopt another organization's definition. Luckily the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is the only standards body that says what XML is and how it behaves as a base language. That will help stabilize it. IXRetail will never define all the integration points, but there are things that don't change, like the ability to update an inventory status once a store sells an item. They are focusing on the fairly static items that have been with retail for a long time. The two groups that are the closest to a standard have to do with requesting a price and recording a sale.

Are retailers hesitant to incorporate XML into their applications because of the lack of standards?

Ray Allen: I don't think so. Retailers who understand the competitive advantage of reducing their integration costs and being able to react faster to changes in their business are actively using XML and pushing their vendors to develop and conform to an industry standard; they just aren't pushing other retailers to develop the same advantage.

Jerry Rightmer: Sometimes when it comes time to integrate a new piece of software, the IT department might not have the skills to do it in-house. Retailers like The Home Depot are already using it throughout their enterprise. Others like Sears are using it at the enterprise level, but not at the store level. I expect XML to be used by small retailers as it becomes an element of packaged software. As soon as a retailer buys one of those products it is using XML whether it knows it or not.

What can retailers do to support standardization?

Jerry Rightmer: Both vendors and retailers can join the committees. If they are unfamiliar with XML, they can learn before they try to use it internally. If they are using it internally they can join and bring some of their own knowledge to the table. As XML standards become available, it will be important for retailers to make it a requirement in their buying processes. Retail pressure will influence those vendors who may resist incorporating standards, and XML will become a criterion for selling software. A lack of standards won't stop the industry from doing business; it will just slow them down and cost them more money.

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