DM Review Published in DM Direct in March 2001.
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XML to the Rescue: Improving The Efficiency of Web Content Management

by Lisa-Jean Boulet

Summary: For companies to meet the growing demand for the continual exchange and presentation of information, they must expertly manage content quickly and efficiently; a critical tool to aid in this process is XML.

Faced with an explosion of ever-changing information in our Web-centric business environment, companies today are challenged to maintain dynamic, up- to- date sites. For companies to meet the growing demand for the continual exchange and presentation of information, they must expertly manage content quickly and efficiently. A critical tool to aid in this process is extensible markup language, or XML.

Why is XML the answer to this content management challenge? XML is designed for delivering structured content over the Web. One of the key design goals for XML was to allow arbitrary markup to be used in representing information. As such, XML, like standard generalized markup language (SGML) before it, is actually a markup meta language in that it provides a framework for defining markup languages.

Practically, this means that organizations may use any markup structures they wish in representing their data, thereby allowing the markup to be self-descriptive and aid in semantic processing. This last point is important because typical XML documents represent the structure and semantics of a document, not its presentation.

XML offers three key advantages in the management and publishing of Web content: reuse of information, delivery of personalized content and customizable workflows.

Reuse of Information

XML eliminates the chaos associated with hypertext markup language (HTML) while allowing better management and reuse of structured documents. XML allows this by enabling Web teams to separate Web content held in a data repository from business logic (the rules that govern how content is delivered) and presentation (the layout templates that determine the graphical look of the Web site). By separating the definition of content from the way it is presented, XML makes it easier to use the content in multiple ways and for multiple presentation formats.

The separation of content, presentation and logic also facilitates the content-delivery process. Web pages can now be constructed based on the visitor's actions or requests. When a request is made by the user, data that the user is permitted to see is pulled from the content repository based on the defined business rules. This type of on-the-fly page generation lowers the costs of repurposing information and updating content.

Enhanced Personalization

XML-based content management systems can help businesses undergo an e-business transformation by moving them from a relatively static Web site to an environment offering access to personalized data. XML is the key to a sophisticated personalization infrastructure, enabling firms to tag content to deliver information and services that are highly relevant to the individual. Reusing the same underlying document, an XML- based content management solution can filter content based on such criteria as business role, need to know, context and user interest to extract the appropriate document elements. This enables the personalized pages to be created at runtime for a variety of users.

Simplified Workflow

A workflow system must be flexible enough to easily accommodate the way a business works by providing structure, but must also support ad hoc projects that may need to be completed outside regular parameters. Workflows establish an orderly process for content management practices in organizations. Workflows assign tasks to individuals and/or groups, and move the tasks through a series of states until the content associated with the task is ready to be published on the Web site. Workflow processes that are defined in XML enable organizations to customize their workflows easily, thus allowing businesses to build any type of workflow process ? rom the most simple to the most complex.

XML is also an ideal format for data exchange because organizations can use it to exchange their workflows with partners, resellers and other audiences as necessary.

Creating Structured Content

Most organizations today want to empower their employees to actively contribute to the company's Web site. Likewise, many companies see the importance of XML and the need to produce content that can be expressed as XML. Content management solutions can ease these challenges through forms- based authoring and XML conversion tools.

Forms-based authoring provides an environment for nontechnical users to easily create XML-structured content. To contribute content, the author simply fills out an HTML form. Once the form's content is submitted, the content is saved as an XML data file that can be transformed into HTML, wireless markup language (WML) and other structured file formats via templates.

Other content management solutions enable business users to contribute XML files via tools that transparently convert common office applications such as Microsoft Word into XML. Systems that offer such capabilities enable users to create documents in a Microsoft Word template or use the style sheets in Word. When they attach the Word file to a task in the system, it is transformed into XML. The resulting XML file can then be further transformed into HTML, WML, extensible hypertext markup language (XHTML) and other structured file formats. The solutions maintain the original Word document as well as the derived XML file.

Future Proof Content

Content management solutions that are XML-based enable companies to protect against changing programs, formats and presentation environments. XML is vendor-independent, which is especially important to companies that are required to keep documents for long periods of time. Tying documents to specific vendors' technical specifications is risky as the vendor may cease to exist within the next few years. XML allows companies to avoid this risk.

XML is also application- specific, allowing documents to remain available when software changes or becomes obsolete. Additionally, companies are afforded the flexibility of changing the data formats by simply applying a new stylesheet.

XML files can be easily transformed into other structured data formats, such as WML, for delivery to other devices such as mobile phones, WebTV or handheld devices.

XML allows companies to reduce costs, open new opportunities and maintain customer relationships. With these significant benefits, XML is quickly becoming the universal format for managing Web content. By enabling better organization, reuse and targeting of information, XML is helping evolve Web sites by greatly facilitating the communication of critical business data that companies exchange every day over the Internet.

Lisa-Jean Boulet is vice president of worldwide marketing for eBT and has responsibility for marketing and product management. She has more than 10 years of experience in the software industry with proven ability in marketing, management and business development. Most recently, Boulet held positions as the director of marketing and strategic relationship management at Softbridge and as the director of marketing at InterQual, where she had responsibility for marketing and business development and where she successfully built and implemented a strategic market growth plan.

Copyright 2004, Thomson Media and DM Review.