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W3C works on standards development

By Stephen Lawson
June 1, 2001 1:01 pm PT

CONSCIOUS THAT THE future success of e-commerce and Web services hinges on interoperability between different vendors' products, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) attempted to fill in some of the gaps in the current array of standards at its 10th annual World Wide Web Conference last month in Hong Kong.

The W3C's painstaking standards work is critical for enabling companies to use the Web for commerce, according to Roger Cutler, a senior staff research scientist at the Chevron Information Technology division of Chevron U.S.A. and a member of the W3C for the past year.

"There's a tremendous amount of money that's projected to flow through [Web services]," Cutler says. "We're just concerned that the infrastructure for them is standards-based." Nonstandard technology is usually more expensive to buy and implement, and it is harder to make it work over time, he says.

With this in mind, IBM revealed it is preparing to propose to the W3C a new standard dubbed the WSFL (Web Services Flow Language). WSFL is designed to describe how a series of functions would work in providing Web services, according to Robert Sutor, director of e-business standards strategy at IBM in Somers, N.Y. It would help developers and corporate users specify the many pieces they need to plug into workflow applications or business processes and the sequence in which they should operate, he says. For example, WSFL might include a way to describe how well a service, such as a transaction engine, should perform. That would enable a Web services provider to guarantee QoS (quality of service), according to Sutor.

Getting the industry to agree on such workflow standards has been a common problem over the years, Sutor says, acknowledging that other initiatives compete with the WSFL, including ones from the Workflow Management Coalition and the Business Process Management Initiative. But Sutor senses a growing desire among many to consolidate the various proposals and technologies into one, and adds that he doesn't see why intelligent compromises can't be made.

"[WSFL] is not something we are trying to force down people's throats as the de facto standard. We think it has a lot of good ideas in it that are very consistent with some of the other Web services standards people are working on," Sutor says.

Sutor feels confident that the W3C will get a Web Services workflow group charted by year's end, which can bring a number of proposals together into a single, cohesive standard.

The W3C event was also the venue for the announcement that the XML Schema has been elevated to a W3C recommendation, the final stage for a W3C standard. The XML Schema defines how programmers should describe content using XML, which can put an identifying tag on any piece of content on the Web.

The new rules should pave the way for standardized, relatively low-cost applications for describing and managing online data, says Lane Leskela, a Hong Kong-based analyst at consulting company Gartner. Until now, most programmers have described Web content using DTDs (Document Type Definitions), which can vary among different applications and industries.

The XML Schema is good news for small and midsize companies and enterprises that aren't using EDI (electronic data interchange), a specialized system mostly used by large enterprises, Leskela says. Until now, there have been conflicting standards for communicating over the Web about products and transactions.

Now, "SMEs [small to medium enterprises] can find their feet in terms of approaching the ability to do that at a global, standard level," Leskela says.

Another promising idea that came out of the meeting is intended to help companies get timely information out to customers in a more reliable way. Krithi Ramamritham, a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, presented a paper on ways to alternately use push and pull techniques as network conditions allow. Some clients might call the server to request an update whereas others would have the data pushed to them automatically. Ramamritham's PAP (Push and Pull) and POP (Push or Pull) protocols have algorithms for automatically making those choices.

Part of enabling companies to implement new e-commerce systems is giving them confidence that those systems actually comply with standards and can interoperate with technology that a partner or customer uses. At the Hong Kong meeting, W3C members formally proposed that the group look into creating test suites and other materials so vendors can make sure their products comply with W3C standards, according to Janet Daley, head of communications at the W3C.

Alongside its standards-making business, the W3C meeting participants also found time to discuss more abstract issues; much discussion focused on a vision that W3C Director Tim Berners-Lee called "the semantic Web." Different participants described this idea in different ways, but essentially it means that anything in the Web could automatically figure out how it related to other documents and processes. On the semantic Web, for example, a company that uses e-commerce could keep an audit trail that accountants could use to verify past transactions.


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