The new Swiss army knife? (August 1999)

PDM's editor Neil McNaughton tries to sort out the hype from the facts and looks at the scope of XML as a new paradigm for interoperability. He is encouraged by the promise of XML as a quick fix to the problems of data interchange, but warns that only open, publicly available tags and data schemas will facilitate data exchange. Such schemas should be posted on public web-sites.

In the great tradition of new IT toys, XML is gathering steam at an alarming pace. But the same was true of many technologies of the recent past which have failed to set the world on fire. Much press comment (including ours!) has also tended to seek conspiracy and conflict in the rise of new technology, and it is certainly true that neither Bill Gates nor Larry Ellison would miss an opportunity to undermine each other’s efforts to rule the world. For once though, there may be more conspiracy theorists than conspiracies. XML really does seem to offer a (win)n all round.


XML has a venerable pedigree. When the US Navy realized back in the ‘70s than to carry the full weight of documentation on a battleship would sink it, it decided to develop a computerized way of representing the information held in manuals. Thus was born the Standard Generalized Markup Language. Over the years, this has developed into an ISO standard, and has had a small, but enthusiastic following of developers who use it to produce complex documentation and also to migrate databases. But in its existence, SGML has seen no success like its ridiculously simple offspring HTML – the language of the web. Whereas SGML is for eggheads, HTML really is for dummies.


The explosive success of HTML suggested that it might be possible to leverage the success of HTML’s simplicity with some more of SGML’s complex features, with the objective of transparent data exchange. The outcome, XML (for extensible markup language) differs from HTML in that it can be extended - you can invent your own tags. Now this should ring some alarm bells. If everyone starts to invent their own <well_location> <well_position> <well_coordinate> tags, then chaos will quickly ensue. So something else is required, yes you’ve got it, standards.


In e-commerce at large, several organizations such as and the Microsoft-sponsored are setting out to produce tag definitions and data schemas which are set to have wide currency in the business world. Likewise, other communities have their own XML flavors such as SMIL for multimedia, MathML, ChemicalML.


XML is also the big new thing in web browser technology with both Internet Explorer and Netscape offering XML awareness in their latest manifestations. In fact XML is probably already running on your PC if you subscribe to any of the ‘push’ service providers such as CNN and Reuters who both use the XML-based Internet Content Exchange protocol.


Closer to home POSC, INT and Oilware Inc. have encapsulated the Canadian LAS log standard into WellLogML. This illustrates a great opportunity to develop XML based protocols for data exchange around our existing E&P standards. Although the need for cooperation between the standards bodies remains, XML could provide a facilitator in those areas where agreement on standards has proved difficulty to achieve. XML acts as a buffer between data formats, and could become a sort of super-Geoshare lingua-franca provided that it is deployed in an open manner.


To use the analogy of the HTML based web of today assumes one rather important point. As you browse a web page, you can usually switch your browser to view the page’s source in HTML. It is not just an open standard, but is also open source code. Now if you buy an application that is written in XML, but somehow manages to conceal its inner workings, by encryption, or reference to an undisclosed schema, then this is not the same thing at all. For XML to take off it must be specified and posted openly. It is one thing for an IT shop to develop an XML based application for internal use, quite another for the community at large to benefit from commonly accepted tag definitions and schema which will allow business to business communication.


Before your eyes glaze over at the thought of B2B and e-commerce let me give you a heads-up. Just as a business object can be anything from a bank account to a well header, so can a B2B transaction represent anything from a credit card purchase to a seismic trade. To achieve the latter seamlessly, we need machine readable SEG formats, and XML could be the way forward.

conspiracy of the month

Seems like there is a bit too much mother & apple pie in this editorial so I will finish up with a conspiracy theory. How about XML as a trojan horse for Microsoft’s attack on the ERP fiefdoms that James Utzschneider talked about in last month’s PDM? Could it be that Microsoft, by adopting an ’opener than thou’ attitude will force SAP and others to lower the drawbridges to their castles. This would then preempt SAP or Oracle from extending their field of influence too far over the desktop? Well its only a (conspiracy) theory...

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