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Using XML Glue to Solve Big Integration Problems : Page 2

You know that enterprise application integration is a big problem that has various possible solutions, including packaged applications, software adapters, and EDI. But none of those technologies has the flexibility of XML. Find out why IT has pinned all its hopes on XML and industry-specific XML extensions for enterprise data integration.




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Arrival of XML
In the last few years, companies have begun to use XML to move business documents over the Internet. Prior to XML, companies had to build custom code to pull data from their data sources, construct a message, and then pay transmission fees to send it to another application or to a vendor company's application. Instead of using proprietary formats, companies can now use XML and standard tools to pull data into a queue.

XML-based business interchange has proven itself more flexible and less expensive to implement. Numerous XML parsers are available for free, and its common information model is widely supported by many tools. The architecture of XML Web services is an open Internet standard that allows communication between business systems and data sources and provides a way to expose data in back-end systems, thus leveraging the existing infrastructure.

Companies that take advantage of XML can let their employees and clients connect directly to enterprise systems and data sources. A company's ability to structurally identify sections of a document and data elements allows developers to create applications that can intelligently respond to user input. (To find out how XML supports these capabilities, see the sidebar "Why XML Solves the Integration Problem.")

Connecting Users to Data
Interestingly, the technology fueling integration is also fueling an outgrowth of the network—one that makes it possible to make mobile employees full-fledged network clients. The maturation of wireless technology, of course, quickly introduced mobile clients, such as mobile phones and PDAs, operated by end users. Typically, a client requests data from a back-end data system. That data, when converted to XML, can be converted to WML (Web Markup Language), wrapped in the SOAP protocol, and displayed in the mobile device. Once the client receives the returned document, it performs application-specific actions on that returned data, such as applying a stylesheet, before presenting the data to the end user. By using XML, a single view of the requested company data can be presented to a client. This advancement has been critical to the success of wireless client computing.

Mobile clients can also use Web services to connect to their back-end data. Companies that create smart client systems to take advantage of XML Web services by accessing the information directly and dynamically, and then presenting the right information in a defined format where it is needed, can present their employees and customers with a real solution to their data access needs. Using XML, the client application can send updated XML in a request to the server and effectively change the back-end data sources immediately.

What About Unstructured Data?
Not all business data is contained within databases—if it were, integration would be far less challenging. Although we have some well-established methods for storing and validating structured data, unstructured and semi-structured data is more difficult.

Businesses' structured data consists of information that is organized so that it can be easily located, searched, and updated. Structured data is most often contained within databases, but this type of data represents only a portion of any company's entire business data. In addition to the structured data, a business will typically create, own, and distribute a significant amount of unstructured and semi-structured data too.

Unstructured data can be defined as any data that has no convenient technology or tool to parse the information into elements and provide access to the information. An image is one example of true unstructured data because there is no method to isolate one element of an image. You cannot, for example, isolate an individual's face in a group picture.

Businesses' semi-structured data consists of white papers, letters, marketing materials, reports, memorandums, research, presentations, Web pages, and e-mails. The data is semi-structured because tools and technologies exist that define the elements of the data and present it in a defined layout. For example, browsers use a document object model (DOM) to parse the HTML contained within a Web page and present it as defined.

A business's unstructured and semi-structured data can contain a significant amount of text that cannot be reliably accessed by multiple users. The unstructured or semi-structured format of the data contributes to its inaccessibility and creates a conversion problem for any business, but this data is also vital to a company's success.

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