eXtreme Content: Web Services Break Down Content Silos

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As a technician for On Display in 1996, Santi Pierini and his coworkers built XML parsers for business-to-business communication and discussing what the future prospects could be for XML as a commercial language. Even then, Pierini foresaw a time when there would be plentiful software applications, including ones providing a host of econtent capabilities, that would include native XML. Now, as VP of product strategy for Day Software, Pierini sees many of those prospects become works in practice, as companies use XML and Web services to break down information silos within their companies to deliver brochures, corporate information, articles, spreadsheets, etc., to internal and external customers on a variety of front-end devices.

Industry consultants and technology vendors agree that there's no single event that's led to the growth of the technologies. Yet it is clear that the applications have become more proven and are gaining critical mass among users, which has led to a steady increase in the use of XML and Web services to break down content silos.

Maturing Market
Many using Web services, including XML, have added these capabilities recently, according to John Blossom, president of Shore Communications. "The market has matured over the last few years. More companies are using JSP for Web services and understanding how content fits into a portal environment. From a content provider perspective it's easier with XML for vendors to provide flexible solutions flexibly across platforms," Blossom says. "It creates a lot of new opportunities now and future."

"XML has picked up a lot of steam the last 15 months or so," agrees Marc Strohlein, lead analyst, software content technology, for Outsell, Inc. "Factors driving the growth include publishers wanting to repurpose and restage their content." For example, CMP uses this capability to repackage content across different publications and journals, which helps generate more ad revenue without paying to produce additional content, according to Strohlein.

Other companies are converting "rooms full of microfiches" to XML so they can more easily provide repackaged content to their customers, according to Strohlein. However, the use of Web services and XML to break down content silos has just passed the trial phase, according to Paul Kramer, product manager of e-Synergy, North America for Exact Software.

At Your (Web) Service
By employing Web services and XML, companies can efficiently deliver content internally, to external customers, corporate executives and other constituents, and the press, just to name a few, says Steve Wilson, senior director of global Web communication, McDonald's Corp., which has used XML to do just that since the summer of 2002.

"We use XML as a standard or core repository for all of our unstructured content," Wilson explains. "We use it to feed our employee portal for everything from training releases to news releases to position papers." It's imperative for McDonald's to have a way to access and assemble this content that would be developed by the 400 content managers in the highly decentralized organization, Wilson says. "In literally a couple of hours, we can train an individual on a standard set of templates so that they can post content."

Speed is essential for many topics. For example, when the "mad cow" scare was among the top news stories a couple of years ago, the company was able to keep all of its constituents updated on the news (as well as unfounded rumors) via its Web site. Without the information portal and XML, it would be impossible to quickly share news like this across the globe.

The application enables the corporation to post content in as many as three languages (English, French, and Japanese) simply by checking a box. English and French have been available since McDonald's started using the application. Japanese was added at the beginning of the year due to the corporation's continued expansion in that country. Wilson expects further growth to other languages. McDonald's has operations in 121 different countries.

Additionally, the appropriate parities need to be able to access the appropriate content without getting to sensitive corporate information that the company doesn't want them to see, McDonald's uses Computer Associates' content security application to limit access. The application was initially Netegrity's, but the firm was acquired by Computer Associates earlier this year.

The XML capability in the application enables McDonald's to limit content access down to the paragraph level of documents, according to Wilson. When writing a press release, for example, the PR department executive can check a box to allow a paragraph to be included as part of the information accessible via the employees and franchisees, but not by the press. The information could also be limited to top management in the company. While limiting sensitive content is important, Web services, primarily via XML, are primarily used to make content more accessible, not less.

Financial services firms have been using XML and Web services much longer than other industries. By creating a Web service that connects to a back-end system, these firms can provide company reports, personal financial statements, and other information to customers, says Joelle Kaufman, VP of marketing for Reactivity. Some mutual fund companies use the technology not only to provide the statements and corporate information, but also to provide other shareholder services, like proxy information, which takes information from back-end systems that house compliance, corporate, and shareholder information, Kaufman adds.

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