Let’s say your organization sells shirts, but another organization makes them. You have data about each shirt regarding its size, color, and material, but your organization’s customer relationship management system and the manufacturer’s enterprise resource planning system each read this data differently.

When systems read data differently, they can’t share it. Extensible Markup Language (XML) can solve that problem.

Not new, but a new tool
While not a technological breakthrough, XML has become a more sophisticated data tool and data systems integrator, said Chetan Patel, vice president of engineering for Coherity, an XML data management solution provider.

XML’s appeal is that it’s easy to use, and it is not bound by the rules many of the current relational databases use. XML marks data in such a way that two systems can agree on the XML format and read the data. The language basically solves interoperability problems by providing an interface between computers, databases, and systems, said Ron Schmelzer, a consultant with ZapThink, an XML and Web Services research firm.

“XML is really nothing tremendously revolutionary, (but)…it allows people to share data without having to worry about the data format, without having to worry about where the information is coming from,” said Schmelzer.

Why it works in an organization
An organization may store its data in multiple relational databases on multiple systems. Coherity’s product, the Coherity XML Database, connects these databases and systems and stores the data most often shared by those systems in an XML format. The cost depends on the size of your organization and the type of machines you use. According to the company, small- to medium-size enterprise systems have a per-CPU (central processing unit) price of $40,000.

The Coherity XML Database optimizes integration by storing elements that are common between systems. For instance, it can store data about a blue, extra-large shirt and make that data available to any system that needs it. If you’re trying to do a query across multiple systems, you don’t have to hit each system; instead, you hit the Coherity XML Database’s central store.

However, if someone on the CRM system wanted information not found in the central store—for example, if they wanted to know how long it takes to sew on a button—they could query that data using the Coherity XML Database.

Of course, the amount of data that disparate systems can exchange with XML runs deeper than the size or color of a particular product. Even complex, structured data can be formatted and exchanged between systems. For instance, the physical specifications for a jet plane, which can include thousands of pieces of data, can be stored in XML format.

When data evolves
The Coherity XML Database does more than just integrate data for disparate systems; it also makes it easy to change data when necessary. For example, if an engineer wants to use a different bolt in a jet’s landing gear, the jet’s recorded data must be altered. If you’re using a normal relational database, this product change means you must alter one of your database’s predetermined data fields. Because relational databases rely on strict data rules that must be created before data can be stored in a database, changing just one data field is difficult.

XML and the Coherity product, by contrast, can adjust easily to data changes, thanks to the flexibility of XML, which can create new tags on the fly. While current relational databases such as those from Oracle, Microsoft, and IBM are not set up to handle XML data, the Coherity XML Database solves that problem.

The flexibility that the Coherity XML Database offers can help your organization adapt as its data changes and evolves. However, Patel warned that too much XML might cause problems if you have to alter a data format. He recommends users stick to what he calls “business XML” instead of “programmer’s XML.”

“If you ask a programmer to exchange information, he will define every little piece of information that’s in (a database),” said Patel. The Coherity product is designed to help organizations exchange only the business information.

XML is a powerful tool. Once you begin to use it and are successful at exchanging information with one of your business partners today, you’ll see XML’s true value for yourself. Soon you may want to extend your use of XML to exchange information with more of your vendors, manufacturers, or customers.