This is the final of our three-part series on collaborative commerce. The previous articles looked at Lotus' general sphere of influence in the world of c-commerce and its CRM offerings. Here, we spotlight the emerging world of XML.
Lotus is explicit on its Web site in stating that the next generation of e-business applications -- the cornerstone of collaborative commerce -- will be built upon a common, open XML foundation.
XML, Extensible Markup Language, is a data-interchange language that provides a common denominator for exporting and importing data to and from other systems without having to use complex proprietary drivers.
Sounds great, but what does that really mean?
Well, it means that because Domino has built-in programming classes to permit anything in Domino to be transformed to XML, all of the Domino workflow data associated with tracking and approval can be captured, transformed to XML, and then sent outside the company so that suppliers, manufacturers and customers are privy to the data and its status as well. These installations can in turn, import, update, and then export the data back to the original Domino infrastructure. All of this without a whole lot of shaking going on, either.
The even bigger picture, according to Beverly DeWitt, Lotus senior manager for Domino applications development and marketing, is that in the Lotus world of XML, it's not just data that is being exchanged but the representation of a database as well.
"We're not just talking about the data stored, we can express all aspects of the database itself," she explains.
One example she points to is that of departments within a Domino enterprise who also use external systems such as a human resources department running PeopleSoft software. By using XML functionality to modify an ACL, DeWitt says, you can ensure that a new hire has access to key databases within Domino.
And, she adds, with the flexibility of Domino, you can generate forms on the fly that can be stored in Domino and then have that data served to the Web in whatever view is needed.
From XML comes DXL -- Lotus' XML application programming interface for Domino. This is an outline for developers to follow that is simple, complete and represents everything in the database. Any developer can make Domino data work with other toolkits and use XSLT, a transformation language used to translate one XML document to another, to convert Domino data to any other XML Schema needed.
The beauty of XML, DeWeitt says, is that "it's self defining. That makes it ideal for defining structured data -- data integration as well as data interchange."
Additionally, she says, XML makes possible client-side viewing and manipulation. With XML data in hand a browser user can sort information and use XSLT to format it as they want for their own content management and repurposing.
So how does XML play an important role in collaborative commerce?
DeWitt notes that it allows customers to use Domino as a piece of the B2B infrastructure to keep up-to-date on where the project is at any given time. In a B2B world, she notes, tons of stuff has to be documented -- contracts, RFPs, project-management processes, invoices, receipts, etc. Since you never know who is going to want the status of any one of these processes, it helps if the information is being converted to XML as it happens, and then relayed along the proper path.
Obviously, "no one's going to use Domino alone to fly their entire B2B extranet. But XML allows Domino to be a key player," DeWitt points out.
While XML seems all the rage now, Lotus has been quietly building in its functionality within Domino for quite some time. With 5.0 Lotus first supported XML but it was basically a kind of do-it-yourself affair. With the launch of 5.02 Lotus added the special URL that permits viewing data from the browser in XML and in 5.03 Lotus added Java classes for generating Domino documents as XML. Just a few weeks ago, Lotus shipped its XML toolkit -- backward compatible for all R5 versions -- which permits users to import XML data as well as to export data. The toolkit also permits the entire database to be represented as XML.
What about the Lotus Enterprise Integrator? If XML is so great at getting data back and forth, then does that render the LEI moot?
LEI is still important, DeWitt adds, since LEI is simply connectivity middleware and not the data itself. She stresses that the relational database you need to interact with may not have XML capabilities or not have as good XML capabilities as Domino. If that's the case, she says, you can use LEI to fetch data from a relational system and import it into a Domino database. Then, users can combine that data with Domino information and express it as one XML document instead of two.
Rnext will have more XML functionality, she confirms, but could not be more specific.
The newest standard in XML to come along, Web Services, is a just-ratified W3C standard now being complied with by a majority of server vendors. The key advantage with this, DeWitt explains, "is that it runs over the http: server port -- just text going through and not binary data so a firewall doesn't get all upset about it."
With Web Services, Server A can not only exchange data with Server B via XML but Server A can also utilitize a process over Server B -- distributed apps running across the network.
A scenario where Web Services might be useful is something like this: Server A knows how to do stock-price lookups. Server B runs different applications but also needs the stock-price lookup at certain times of the day. Rather than have Server B waste its time and energies to do a stock-price lookup, Server B uses a SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) request (which has a chunk of XML in its code) to request the data from Server A. In this way, data is exchanged with no appreciable time spent on Server B's part.
Also keep in mind the first release of the ebXML standard, an XML format for e-business. ebXML "gives people conducting e-business some common ground with which to start," DeWitt says.
You name it, they've got it. Start here.
Lotus XML Home Page
IBM's deverloperWorks XML Zone
Tutorials, news, columns, links. A good spot to check.
ebXML spec released for public review
News from infoworld.com on the recently released standard.
Lotus' XML Plans
This July 2000 article from Group Computing, while a bit dated, provides terrific
background on Lotus and XML.
Exercising XML in Domino Designer
From Notes.net, this tutorial explains and outlines how Domino Designer provides
a medium for writing XML and then serving the XML data to a parser.
The XML/Domino Partnership
From Group Computing, a look at where Lotus and XML stand today.
Lotus and collaborative commerce ? Part One
Here is the first installment of our original series on collaborative commerce.
This feature explores the c-commerce arena and how Lotus Development
Corp. defines its sphere of influence.
Lotus and collaborative commerce ? Part Two
Our second installment of our original series on collaborative commerce. This
feature spotlights CRM, or customer-relationship management.
Wendy Maxfield is a contributing editor based in Littleton, Mass.