Getting Started with XML in the Federal Government:

Recommendations to the EIEITC XML Working Group













Mark Crawford

Logistics Management Institute

June 2000


Getting Started With the Extensible Markup Language

If the federal government is to make a serious commitment to implementing the Extensible Markup Language (XML), it must take specific, decisive action to put in place both the necessary XML implementation guidance and policy and supporting structures to ensure that government wide benefits of XML are achieved. This paper is intended to provide information on how to address this need.

Government Wide XML Issues

By its very nature, the XML technology is extensible.  This extensibility is both the boon and the bane of the technology.  Being extensible means that the underlying XML syntax can be used to create any tailored markup language by anyone with only rudimentary IT skills. However, the ability to create on-the-fly markup languages can lead to a proliferation of XML languages within a single organization. Such a proliferation is not critical in simple browser to web server solutions.  However, in the area of business to business (B2B) exchanges, such a proliferation is undesirable. More importantly, the government's efforts at creating a single face to industry will be more difficult.  This is because the use of different XML project processes, XML document design rules, document definition methodologies, and employment of competing World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) technical specifications put escalating resource requirements on both the government and private sector sides of any XML implementation equation. 

To properly address government wide issues, stem the expected flood of divergent XML solutions, and ensure smart application of Information Technology (IT) resources, the Enterprise Interoperability and Emerging Information Technology Committee (EIEITC) of the Federal Chief Information Officer (CIO) council has chartered an XML Working Group.  The XML Working Group's charter identifies the following areas of responsibility

u       Develop XML best practices and recommended standards

u       Develop partnerships with key industry and public groups developing XML standards and specifications

u       Develop partnerships with existing federal "vertical" communities to accelerate the delivery of XML benefits, and

u       Conduct "results-oriented" education and outreach

It is critical for the XML Working Group to take aggressive steps in each of these areas early on. The following sections provide preliminary recommendations for a course of action for each of these areas.

Develop XML Best Practices and Recommended Standards

u       Develop XML implementation and use guidelines.  To start this process, the XML workgroup should:

ä     Draft a memo from the CIO council for government wide distribution that -

n         lets Departments and Agencies know that the XML Working Group is developing XML implementation and use guidelines,

n         identifies meeting plans to discuss approach and issues,

n         seeks involvement of key players in the process,

n         seeks partnership with the Federal EC Program Office (ECPMO), and

n         requests information on any related efforts that may be underway

ä     As a precursor to subsequent meetings, the Working Group should -

n         Conduct some level of research to determine extent of existing XML tag and schema repositories[1]

n         Conduct some level of research to determine if comparable documents are available in both the public and private sectors

n         Determine if modifying Federal Information Processing Standard (FIPS) 161-2 to include XML is appropriate

n         Prepare outline and skeleton draft of proposed guidelines

u       Determine approach to XML registries and repositories

ä     Define the need for, and functional features of, a federal XML registry and repository[2]

ä     Evaluate the developing XML.ORG, ebXML, and BizTalk registry and repository solutions.  Determine if one or more could be used as the actual registry and repository, or at a minimum, as the model for a federally funded and operated system.

u       Determine the current approach to developing/managing XML standards and implementation

ä     Send a formal request to the Federal ECPMO requesting the status of empowering the Federal EDI Standards Management Coordinating Committee (FESMCC) with XML standards responsibilities. 

u       Develop XML design guidelines.  These design guidelines should differentiate between documents for web browsing/database interactions and those that will be part of automated computer-to-computer B2B exchanges. Design guidelines should -

ä     Select between XML Document Type Definitions (DTDs) or Schema's as the preferred method for defining XML document structures and datatypes.

n         This is an area that properly falls under the FESMCC.  However, until the FESMCC agrees to assume this role, the XML workgroup should offer an interim position.  This position should be that all work is to be done in the W3C schema specification.  That specification is in last call status, and is expected to move forward to candidate status.  Tools are already available for developing and processing schemas, and the technical advantages available outweigh the slight risk of future changes to this specification. We make this recommendation because we believe those risks are limited to increased functionality in the schema specification that will come about from other related W3C XML technical specifications that are in the development process, and any changes can be readily incorporated if they hold value.

ä     Identify which W3C approved specifications can and/or should be used in developing XML documents.

n         In that respect, certain specifications address the same if not similar issues.  Additionally, the capabilities and limitations of Department/Agency technical solutions must be evaluated as part of this process.

ä     Define preferred document and data modeling approaches.

n         The Unified Modeling Language (UML) and Rational Rose seem to offer the best fit with XML.  UML is being evaluated by ebXML and American National Standards Institute (ANSI) Accredited Standards Committee (ASC) X12, and UML and Rational Rose are being adopted by the United Nations Centre for Trade Facilitation and Electronic Business (UN/CEFACT).  Tools exist that will transform UML into XML objects. A unified approach within the federal government to follow the above mentioned selections will help move the government towards increased interoperability.

ä     Identify how the component pieces of XML documents (such as entities, element names, namespaces, and attributes) should be created and used.

u       Develop approach to defining, identifying, sharing and refreshing XML best practices

ä     Conduct some level of research to determine the availability, if any, of private sector best XML practices repositories. 

ä     Conduct some level of research to determine availability of government best practices

ä     Based on the previous two elements, develop recommended approach

Develop Partnerships with Key Industry and Public Groups Developing XML Standards and Specifications

The XML workgroup needs to determine an approach to achieving compliance with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Circular A-1119 with respect to participating in the development of and using commercial standards. Key to ensuring a coordinated federal effort is developing a process to coalesce requirements across department/agency boundaries.  As such, the Working group needs to develop specific recommendations and an operational framework for maximizing and coordinating participation in key XML standards groups.  The purpose of this involvement is to influence and ultimately attain the best set of XML technical specifications and business standards that supports the governments needs.  Candidate groups are -

u       W3C. A non-profit consortium responsible for the technical specifications that create the World Wide Web and related technologies such as XML.

u       Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS).  A nonprofit, international consortium dedicated to accelerating the adoption of product-independent formats based on public standards

u       RosettaNet. An independent, self-funded, non-profit consortium dedicated to the development and deployment of standard electronic business interfaces.

u       BizTalk. A community of standards users, with the goal of driving the rapid, consistent adoption of XML to enable electronic commerce and application integration.

u       ebXML. An initiative that is co-sponsored by UN/CEFACT and OASIS to develop an interoperable framework for using XML

u       ANSI ASC X12. Accredited to build national EDI standards.

u       We also recommend contact with CommerceOne and the Object Modeling Group (OMG) to determine their level of XML development work.

Develop Partnerships with Existing Federal "Vertical" Communities to Accelerate the Delivery of XML Benefits

Numerous XML initiatives are underway within existing federal vertical communities.  These initiatives are in many cases not leveraging the lessons learned and resources available of other federal initiatives.  Further, these initiatives are in many cases developing competing solutions that exacerbate interoperability within agencies, between agencies, and between agencies and the private sector.  To address this issue, and leverage the resources being applied to achieve better results, the Working Group as a first step should catalog all initiatives and develop a structure and methodology to facilitate cooperation and partnerships.

Conduct "Results-Oriented" Education and Outreach

To develop an education and outreach approach, the working group should

u       Proactively foster understanding within Departments and Agencies that XML can replicate and extend traditional EDI functionality in B2B and A2A exchanges using Internet compatible transport protocols.  This could be accomplished through presentations by members of the workgroup and development and publishing of a white paper on the role of XML in the federal government.

u       Develop a methodology for ensuring that important issues under consideration by the various XML forums, including at a minimum those identified above, are identified and shared across the agencies.

u       Develop a methodology for identifying and sharing information on  free and reduced cost XML training and education.

[1] The term schema (small s) is used to generically describe "a definition of an XML document's structure and content".  There are two methodologies available, the Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML) Document Type Definition and the developing W3C Schema Specifications.  All references to schema (small s) will equate to this definition.  All references to Schema (large S) will equate to the developing W3C Schema specifications.

[2] A registry is a mechanism whereby relevant documents and metadata about them can be registered such that a pointer to their location, and all their metadata, can be retrieved as the result of a query. A repository is a location or a set of distributed locations where documents pointed at by the registry reside and from which they can be retrieved by conventional (http / ftp) means, perhaps with additional authentication/permission layers. Source: ebXML Requirements Specification Version 1.0 of 8 May 2000