XML and XSL: A Critical Component for Content Management
The need for content management solutions has exploded as companies have transitioned their Web sites into dynamic, e-business storefronts. To keep visitors returning, a Web site must offer interesting and up-to-date information. This article discusses content management and its challenges, the content life cycle and how using native extensible markup language (XML) and extensible stylesheet language (XSL) will guarantee that a content management solution will meet your needs, both today and tomorrow.
Enterprises determining their e-commerce strategies need to take a close look at the content management component of their total solution to enable easy content generation and delivery for their information providers. Content affects the Web site, company brochures, documents and partner sites. In order for a content management solution to achieve a high return on its investment, it must address the following:
- Content comes from many sources that must support many delivery mechanisms including browsers, wireless devices, application servers, business-to-business (B2B) servers and print media. Can the solution easily provide a many-to-many relationship between the content sources and the output devices?
- Adding and updating content in your environment requires a process that must be flexible enough to meet your requirements. Does the solution offer a customizable workflow mechanism that is easy to update?
- Features such as personalization and syndication are important to a complete e-commerce solution. The ability to choose the best-of-breed component for each function allows flexibility, both in terms of which vendor to choose as well as when you need to implement it. Does the solution enable easy integration of the key components you need to make up your e-commerce system?
- Content will continually have to support emerging technologies in the environment. Can the solution easily adapt to future requirements without having to replace the infrastructure?
The solution you choose for managing the needs of content generation and update for your organization should address these challenges.
Content Life Cycle
The content life cycle simplifies understanding the key requirements of a content management system that is easy to use, flexible and achieves a low cost of ownership. The three stages to the life cycle include content creation and update, content assembly and content delivery.
Content Creation and Update
Content comes from inside and outside of your organization from many sources including people, databases and news feeds. A requirement of effective content creation is that the content management system should keep content separate from format. This enables content contributors to worry about the content and the Web design team to deal with the look and feel.
To be effective, the system must enable contributors to create, submit and update content directly from any Web browser or from their office software (such as Microsoft Word) in any format. A content management system must be all-inclusive with respect to the types of content that can be managed including text, images, PDF files, AVI files, multimedia files and other files containing binary content types. In addition, the contributors need to be able to associate the content with "relevancy information" that targets it for specific audiences such as internal or external users, site location or for limited time frames.
Keeping the content separate from the format also simplifies the task of designing and controlling the site's look and feel. The system must not force the design team into a narrow set of tools - or worse - a proprietary template language to control site format. Web designers must be able to use any standard HTML design or site management tool to maximize their design skills.
Content comes from many sources beyond the content system repository including production databases, file systems and outside source feeds. No matter where it comes from or where it will be stored, all content needs to be assembled for uniform management.
Content in the assembly stage is considered raw information, therefore, assembly needs to happen independently from the eventual output format (such as HTML). During content assembly, relevancy information is uniformly applied to target content to audiences and site areas as well as to enforce any other rules associated with content meta data. Further, any approval workflow is applied to ensure content is accurate and appropriate.
Finally, different types of conversion need to take place. Formatting rules must be associated with the "content object" to allow all users to access the content from any type of client device. Output should also support conversion to any type of file format for use in print or viewing media.
Conversion to different XML dialects lets external B2B or e-commerce applications use just the raw content. Each of these applications often describes the same content differently, and that is usually different from how the content is described internally. A "product" to your company may be a "part" to a supplier or reseller. A content management system must, therefore, be able to convert from the vocabulary used internally to any of these external XML vocabularies.
Today's Web sites are delivered by a variety of methods, from simple file systems to custom application delivery engines. Content delivery includes periodic publishing, dynamic delivery and custom delivery. Each offers advantages and trade-offs for the types of content being served. The content management system needs to support all of these to ensure the right content for the right people in the right format.
Extracting all pages as static HTML files and pushing them (bulk copying/saving) to your Web server of choice provides a very simple way to manage content such as brochure ware. With content that does not change very much, this type of delivery is good for providing multiple versions of a site as well as easy roll-back capabilities.
With dynamic (real-time) delivery, you have the power to deliver precisely targeted content to users as they browse through your Web site. This approach applies the appropriate relevancy and formatting information in real time based on run-time user context information such as cookies, CGI variables, HTML parameters and login. Dynamic delivery from any data source eliminates duplication of content between repositories and ensures accurate, up-to-the-minute information.
Delivering Web content has quickly gone beyond the realm of the standard Web server. There are personalization servers, application servers, portals, search engines and more. All of these are built to deliver Web content for specific uses. To interface with custom delivery engines, your content management system needs an open interface that provides access to the content with all its relevancy and workflow rules applied from standard, URL-based requests or via an internal or external API.
The Value of Native XML and XSL for Content Management
A key ingredient required by content management systems that deliver on all of the previously mentioned requirements is the use of native XML and XSL. The strength of XML lies in its ability to separate content from presentation and delivery, which translates into significant benefits when applied to managing Web content.
- First, XML enables content to come from any source in any format. It also enables the content management system to work within an existing infrastructure, supporting any Web development tool, database, site management tool or desktop delivery mechanism.
- Second, this separation of content from format enables the content management system to take the relevancy rules (such as to whom the content is targeted, where it is to be posted and when it should be posted or removed from the Web site) and apply them to the content one time. In addition, relevancy includes access control information down to the field level.
- Third, by using XML for assembly of the content, any outside application or server can get at the raw content with the relevancy rules bound to it. This enables the content management system to package the content for many different delivery mechanisms (such as personalization servers, syndication servers or for printing as documents) without having to duplicate the information.
- Fourth, each XML content object may then be passed through an XSL conversion layer to apply formatting or conversion for a specific file type. Key to this process is that each type of XSL conversion may be targeted to specific devices, users and security or other session context information, such as cookies or CGI variables. If the conversion happens at the server, all types of devices may be serviced, from the oldest browsers to the newest cell phones and PDAs, and from the same set of data, allowing any type of client or consumer to access the right content for them.
- Finally, a native XML and XSL content management system provides end-to-end integration with best-of- breed components, allowing you to build a system of well-integrated products from page design tools to personalization, syndication and high-speed content delivery.
Content management is no longer just about your Web site. Using XML and XSL, companies can implement what is called a "write once, use anywhere" content management system. This means that content can come from any source, whether it is entered manually or comes from syndication servers, and it can be formatted for any output, whether that is for the Web site, a document or another medium. Add to that the ability to choose the best components and easily integrate them; and customers will have a flexible system that can grow as they grow, evolve as the Web evolves and lower the total cost of ownership over the life of the system.
A best-of-breed approach using native XML and XSL is the most cost-effective way to build an e- commerce solution that will satisfy requirements, now and into the future. This building-block approach delivers the following benefits:
- The solution can be delivered in pieces, ensuring each meets the needs of the environment.
- The solution can start small and grow as new projects emerge or the business model changes.
- Components can be swapped out for new models without having to change the entire infrastructure.
- The solution can easily adapt to changes in technology.
Companies that pick a solution to solve a short-term requirement will find themselves replacing it for a more robust and forward- thinking solution. XML and XSL have been developed to take Web-based applications forward with the simplicity and flexibility to adapt to emerging requirements.
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Debra Murphy, director of marketing for Percussion Software, has more than 20 years of experience in the software industry. Prior to joining Percussion, she was a business unit manager for Electronic Messaging products at Banyan Systems. She served for six years as a manger of product managers for messaging products at Digital Equipment Corporation. Before that, she was a product manager for networking products at the company. Murphy can be reached at email@example.com.
Provided by IndustryBrains
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