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CHIPS Articles: Promise and Potential...the Navy Works to Leverage XML's Power

Promise and Potential...the Navy Works to Leverage XML's Power
By Jack Gribben - October-December 2002
On a cool November day, a group of Department of the Navy (DON) professionals gathered below decks of the USS Coronado, Flag Vessel for the U.S. Third Fleet. After weeks of work, they were about to take their demonstration of a new technology for processing U. S. Message Text Format (USMTF) messages out for a spin, at sea. As the ship sailed through the ocean waters off the Southern California coast, the North Island Naval Air Station in San Diego began transmitting the information for which the group had been waiting: Maritime Patrol Aircraft tasking messages, also known as "greens," and post-patrol reports, or "purples."

Demonstration software aboard the Coronado received the messages and converted them from their native format, USMTF, into Extensible Markup Language (XML). Once converted, the message information would be sent to a database, for storage and further manipulation, and to a simple Web application, developed with Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) tools, for processing and display in a graphic format on a standard Web browser.

In the ship's Fleet Battle Lab, Vice Adm. Dennis McGinn, then-Commander of the Third Fleet, dropped by to see whether new XML technology applied to the USMTF messages would increase interoperability between systems and, in turn, improve the warfighter's ability to find, retrieve, process and exchange information. As the information came up on the monitor, Vice Adm. McGinn voiced his approval. The answer was a resounding yes.

The tasking and report data, which had previously been difficult to comprehend in the balky USMTF format, was organized and displayed in XML with descriptive information that was clear and easy to understand. The user could click on individual data components and "drill down" for additional details. Additionally, XML's flexible nature allowed the user to ask the system to quickly perform sophisticated last-minute calculations that produced key data elements such as the percentage of flight hours spent in transit to a search site, the hit rate on the number of torpedoes dropped, and the number of torpedoes expended over a specified time period.

Although it was a proof-of-concept demonstration, conducted by the Navy Center for Tactical Systems Interoperability at Vice Adm. Richard W. Mayo's request during the Navy's Joint Tactical Fleet Exercise 2000, it was a striking success. XML had made an impressive debut on the open seas, showing that its power and extensibility could make an important contribution to performing critical warfighter tasks.

XML: A Closer Look

The XML that performed so capably aboard the Coronado is a meta-language. Specifically, it is a semi-structured data exchange format that includes both data and a description of the data's structure in a single package. XML is expected to facilitate more efficient data exchanges and economical eBusiness practices, reduce information ambiguity and duplicative work efforts, and cut data exchange life-cycle costs.

XML first appeared on the information technology (IT) scene in 1998. It descends from two technologies: Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML), developed in the 1980s for use in large documentation projects, and HyperText Markup Language (HTML), developed in 1990, with unique capabilities for organizing Web page information. Since XML was introduced, its popularity has increased dramatically in the DON and in other government and private-sector organizations. The reason: the potential for greater interoperability. XML gives everything from databases to Web pages the ability to exchange information more easily, making it possible to achieve greater interoperability between systems. Interoperability, of course, has become a driving force in government and industry, as organizations search for new ways to accomplish their missions and carry out business processes more efficiently and effectively.

To get a closer look at how XML enhances interoperability, think for a moment about how it compares to HTML. Where HTML tells individual Web browsers how data should appear cosmetically on a computer screen, XML specifies to browsers exactly what kind of information is being transmitted. Through XML, for example, a system is able to recognize a string of numbers and text as an invoice or a medical record. A set of computer-aided design images are recognized as individual elements in a parts or clothing catalog, and so forth.

Consider XML's impact on an online purchasing process if all the systems involved in the transaction use the technology. A customer orders a laser printer from a Web site. At the vendor site, the order can trigger an inventory database to ensure the item is in stock and then check with a customer database to get shipping and billing information. XML can also tap into a third party supplier's logistics system to arrange for delivery. Since all the exchanges and data are described in XML, the same data are being used in the same manner by every system in the process. In short, XML eliminates the barriers between applications, databases, and users by enabling authoritative data and seamless transitioning between applications and databases.

XML uses element tags (words bracketed by '<' and '>') and attributes (name = "value") to enable systems to communicate with one another. Unlike HTML, which specifies what each tag and attribute means and how the described text will look in a browser, XML uses tags only to set boundaries for pieces of data and to structure the information. The application reading the data is responsible for interpretation.

In HTML, for instance, "

" is a presentation instruction meaning "paragraph." But in XML, tags indicate the nature of data between the opening and closing brackets. A tag such as "

XML is flexible, or "extensible," because it allows individual organizations to create an infinite number of highly customized vocabularies to describe exactly the data they wish to represent or exchange -- whether that data pertains to enemy aircraft or supply inventories. In addition, unlike other data exchange formats such as electronic data interchange, XML does not bind users to a particular software vendor's application. It is a platform-independent format widely supported by many different vendors.

XML's extensibility relates to another critical aspect of the technology: governance. To successfully leverage XML and increase enterprise-wide interoperability, organizations -- from the DON to large private-sector companies -- must carefully manage their XML vocabularies. Communities of XML users must agree upon standard meanings, or "metadata," for the tags, namespaces and schemas that make up the vocabularies so that systems can effectively communicate with one another. "One of the advantages to XML is the barriers to entry are very low. It's very inexpensive to get started," said Michael Jacobs, Chair of the DON XML Work Group. "It's an easy-to-understand technology, so training developers to use the basic technology and to program with it is pretty simple. Training developers to do it well from an enterprise perspective is much more complex."

XML and DON Interoperability Initiatives

The DON recognized early that interoperability and systems integration were crucial to achieving maritime information superiority, a key component of the Department's overall mission. Over the past several years, the DON has launched multiple initiatives designed to increase interoperability at the enterprise level, including Data Management and Interoperability (DMI), Enterprise Resource Planning, and Task Force Web (TFWeb). It seemed that a Department-wide effort to aggressively implement XML, where appropriate, was a logical addition. Initially, however, it was not clear how the new technology would fit into the larger DON interoperability picture. When DMI was launched in 1999, XML was just beginning to emerge as an enabling technology for improving interoperability. While it would be referenced in DMI documents, XML was not truly tied into the data management processes that were being developed at the time as part of the initiative.

The climate had changed, however, by the time TFWeb was initiated in April 2001. IT experts in the DON and elsewhere had developed a fuller understanding of XML and its potential. As part of TFWeb's charter to Web-enable all Department applications by 2004, planners identified XML as a primary component of the TFWeb technical architecture and directed that data exchange between Web-enabled applications and the DON Enterprise Portal use XML.

With a healthy assist from TFWeb, hundreds of XML efforts are underway today within the DON. In addition to applications of the technology like the Coronado demonstration, XML is being used in other, less visible ways to improve interoperability and enhance the DON's ability to carry out its warfighter mission.

Improving Operational Readiness

At the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR), program managers and directorates under the Horizontal Integration Initiative are using XML to help improve Fleet operational readiness. By developing common XML vocabularies, SPAWAR is linking technical and training data for the IT-21 LAN, the suite of IT systems SPAWAR fields aboard Navy warships for command and control operations.

Currently, each program of record within SPAWAR produces separate technical manuals (e.g., administrative, user, and operator manuals) for each platform to assist Sailors aboard ship with operating the individual systems that constitute IT -21. However, the manual formats vary so that each document, which is normally in a Microsoft Word, HTML or PDF file, has a different structure.

Adding to the difficulty for Sailors is the fact that training manuals extract information from the technical manuals, but adopt a different format for displaying the data. Because the classroom training materials differ from the shipboard technical data, Sailors have to "re-learn" methods for finding the information necessary to operate the systems. To leverage the common information contained in the technical and training manuals and develop a consistent structure for providing it to users, SPAWAR is developing a "job task information model" -- a user profile context for technical data that compiles information by Navy Enlisted Code on everything IT-21 users are required to do aboard ship in terms of duties, jobs and tasks.

The job task model forms the basis of an XML language that will be used as the primary control to combine technical and training content for reuse in multiple platform applications. Information will be made available instantly to users on a set of job performance requirements, thus, reducing the confusion for Sailors trying to locate information aboard ship.

"If you use the same duties, jobs, and tasks in the technical documentation that the training folks use to build their curriculums, then the Sailor completing schoolhouse training can make the transition from the classroom to operating Fleet equipment quickly, since the training and user documentation are synchronized. It's the common information data model that makes it work," said Brian Hopkins, a former Naval officer currently supporting SPAWAR and the DON as an XML project engineering consultant.

Enhancing Supply Processes

XML is also being integrated into the DON's business-to-business operations. The Naval Supply Systems Command (NAVSUP) headquartered in Mechanicsburg, Pa., is working with XML to improve the processes DON employees use to access critical supply data. NAVSUP's current supply software system, One Touch, uses Java business logic to connect to a large number of mainframe and non-mainframe supply databases that provide users supply check (also called "stock check") information. Currently, users must obtain supply check information through a Web application in an HTML format. This method has limitations, however, because users frequently cannot transfer the information easily into their own preferred record-keeping formats. They must interface to the data, read it and often re-enter it into the application of their choosing. NAVSUP officials want to see if XML can help to enhance the environment in which users access supply check information via the Web. Officials have created a modeled representation of a supply check's business object components (e.g., a supply check has activities, each activity has items, each item has attributes). Following the model parameters, they have also gathered information from the databases and output the results in an XML document.

An XML schema is being developed to describe the elements in the document. Using XML, the goal is to make it possible to provide transferable supply data through a secure Web service. With the schema well documented, DON organizations seeking supply check information would be able to use the Web to pull up the data in an understandable XML format and easily move it into their own applications, thereby eliminating the need to manually reenter the information.

The DON XML Work Group

XML's extensibility, which is helping SPAWAR, NAVSUP, and other DON organizations come up with interoperability solutions to information problems, also presents a challenge to Department leaders. Because individual developers have the discretion to create the various XML tags, namespaces, and schemas, the Department must establish an XML governance strategy with a defined set of business rules so that XML vocabularies and their meanings are easily understood across the DON. Without a governance strategy, the DON would risk having vocabularies developed for individual Department programs in an uncoordinated fashion. Such development may serve short-term interoperability needs internal to those programs, but it will not assist the goal of improving interoperability Department-wide to achieve maritime information superiority.

The Department of the Navy Chief Information Officer (DON CIO) established the DON XML Work Group in August 2001 to provide the leadership and guidance necessary to maximize the value and effectiveness of emerging XML component technologies being implemented across the DON enterprise. "XML has a lot of promise and potential," said Jacobs, XML Work Group Chair, "and we need to actively manage its implementation across the DON so that the Department can realize that promise and potential. There are many enclaves within the Department currently working independently with this technology. The Work Group's role is to provide the big picture perspective that will make it possible for their individual efforts to contribute to our enterprise-level goals for achieving greater interoperability through the use of XML."

TFWeb provided the impetus for creating the Work Group, which was initially asked to help define the XML namespaces and schemas that the Department would use as part of that initiative. Work Group members quickly concluded, however, that such a focus was too narrow. "We started out with that small focus and very quickly realized that there is so much more to it than just that," recalled Jacobs. "You couldn't just go get a group of XML experts together and develop a schema and say, 'Here's the Navy schema.' So that's really what led us into fully defining what was required for the DON and developing a plan for achieving those requirements."

The Work Group began by developing a comprehensive approach for promoting and encouraging the use of structured XML information standards throughout the Department. One of the first things the Work Group did was to help formulate the DON's Interim Policy on the use of XML for data exchange, issued in a September 2001 memorandum from DON CIO, Dan Porter. In addition to describing XML's role in the DON's overall efforts to achieve greater interoperability, the policy directed DON XML developers to document and register XML components into the Department of Defense (DoD) XML Registry. Developers were also asked to make use of existing components within the DoD Registry.

To leverage the knowledge and capabilities of DON organizations, the Work Group decided to make membership available to all DON agencies, their support contractors, industry partners and invited experts. Members contribute by participating in Work Group meetings and by reviewing Work Group products. The full Work Group's meetings, held every two to three months, draw about 60 members, but hundreds of individuals within the DON participate in Work Group activities through the Group's five action teams organized to carry out critical tasks.

The Strategic Vision and Approach Team is responsible for developing a DON XML vision, which encompasses the Department's strategy for implementing XML, and a framework to support enterprise-level implementation and provide a base for future XML Work Group efforts. The team played a major role in formulating Department of the Navy Vision for the Extensible Markup Language, which was issued by the DON CIO in March 2002. The document details DON CIO's vision for successful implementation of XML technologies across the DON. This team is also tasked with identifying XML targets of opportunity and highlighting critical success factors for achieving effective XML integration.

The Standard Implementation Team supports the DON's vision to fully exploit XML technology to achieve interoperability by developing policy, guidance and procedures to establish a standard framework for organization-specific XML implementation. The Enterprise Implementation Team establishes DON roles, responsibilities, and management processes for XML implementation and coordinates the DON enterprise implementation with other government and non-government XML initiatives. In particular, this team is working to develop requirements for a DON XML registry/repository and is charged with formulating XML policy and procedures that facilitate implementation of enterprise interoperability.

The Marketing and Outreach Team is tasked with developing and implementing a marketing and outreach effort to help achieve the Work Group's strategic vision. The Integration with Existing DON Processes Action Team, which has not yet been formed, will focus on integrating the XML policy, procedures and guidance with existing DON processes for requirements, budgeting and acquisition.

XML Developers Guide

Through its action teams, which meet weekly or bi-weekly, the Work Group is tackling several key XML-related issues. Chief among them is ensuring consistency in XML development efforts already underway and making developers sensitive to their important role in helping the Department achieve enterprise-wide interoperability. "XML provides a means for communities of interest to agree on a format of information exchange," said Hopkins. "But in order to have interoperability, you need common semantics -- a shared understanding of what the information is. So if I say 'tank,' you know what I'm talking about. Is it a thing that drives and shoots artillery or is it something that snaps on the bottom of an airplane that carries fuel?"

To assist developers, the Work Group's Standard Implementation Team released the XML Developer's Guide (Version 1.1) in May 2002. The guide provides developers, and program managers, information about the use of XML specifications, XML component selection/creation, XML schema design, and XML component naming conventions. Available on the Work Group Web site, the guide is to be a "living document" that will continue to evolve and change as the XML technology matures. The Work Group has even set up a Developer's Guide LISTSERV to gather feedback and allow individuals to participate in ongoing discussions about the guide.

One of the guide's objectives is to steer the DON toward consistent enterprise implementation of XML in a manner that will allow for the creation of reusable business objects for future XML development activities. Hopkins, who is also the Standard Implementation Team's coordinator, explains the value of such a strategy moving forward: "When you and I have identified a new information exchange requirement and we have to communicate, instead of falling back on the proprietary message standard in which you and I both need a complicated implementation guide to understand, we can select from a common set of reusable business objects, from a common model that we've taken the time to construct based on business processes, and build those packages for information exchange much more quickly."

Participation with Voluntary Consortiums

The Work Group is also focused on coordinating the DON's participation in the major voluntary consortium groups that are developing industry specifications and issuing recommendations for the use of XML moving forward.

"The real focus of participation is to provide the industry consortiums with the Department's views on technical specifications as well as business standards, like the XML-based Universal Business Language, that are the semantic underpinnings of XML information exchanges," said Jacobs. "This way, XML solution providers will be aware of our requirements up front, and we can avoid many of the modifications that we had to make to COTS software in past projects to meet our requirements."

In spring 2002, when the DON began its enterprise-wide membership in the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS), the DON CIO sent out a naval message identifying the Work Group as the single point of coordination for the Department's participation in the consortium. As OASIS develops a draft specification for a membership vote, for example, the Work Group will canvass the Department for comments on the draft and then provide a recommendation to DON CIO, the DON representative, on how the DON should cast its vote.

The DON is in the process of becoming a member of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the major player in XML technical specification setting activities. In the end, however, the Work Group's success will be determined largely by the participation of the various DON commands in Work Group activities. With data exchanges used in ashore and afloat systems easily numbering in the thousands, the scope of the coordination required is immense.

Jacobs is determined to leave no stone unturned, but is aware of the challenges that lie ahead. "In order to implement a successful enterprise-wide rollout of XML technology, we need to bring as many diverse ideas to the table as possible," said Jacobs. "The hard part is getting broad participation in order to ensure that what we develop and implement works for everybody across the Department. With broad participation, we have an opportunity to develop XML work products that meet the DON's overall interoperability goals and the needs of individual commands. That's a benefit to everybody."

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