Enterprise affection for XML Web services may have C-level hearts fluttering over the immediate efficiency and productivity gains, but the other shoe is about to drop in this relationship.
Users and experts expect 2005 to be the year companies realize en masse how taxing XML is on enterprise networks, sparking a spending spree on XML acceleration products and optimized appliances that offload this burden. Meanwhile, standards bodies like the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) work in the shadows on the ratification of a single binary XML standard that could bring an about-face to the commitment companies have to the ASCI text encoding that is currently the foundation of XML 1.0.
"There's quite a lot of awareness to the performance impacts of XML on networks, in terms of bandwidth and XML overhead processing and its impact on application server performance," said James Kobielus, a senior analyst at the Burton Group. "No one is getting caught off guard, but everyone is groping for approaches on how to deal with this."
Kobielus predicts that acceleration appliance vendors like DataPower Technology, Tarari, Sarvega, ZSoft Ltd. and Conformative Systems will have a big year, as companies search for ways to compress XML data to its smallest footprint.
"What's going to happen in 2005? Network managers are going to implement these XML acceleration appliances to offload the overhead of XML processing from application servers so [the app servers] can focus on their core competency, which is business logic," Kobielus said.
In November, the hot-button topic of a binary format of XML surfaced at the annual XML Conference & Exhibition. Michael Leventhal, a member of the W3C's XML Binary Characterization Working Group, said the W3C would work toward the acceptance of a single binary XML format. Encoding text-based XML in a binary format would lessen the bandwidth and performance hit, he said, but opposition to binary XML has been vocal in the past.
"One thing that makes vendors nervous is that this work could invalidate all of those existing [text-based] applications," he said. "The second fear is that XML is seen as very interoperable and transparent. It's human readable, simple and straightforward. People are afraid to lose those qualities."
Some users contacted by SearchWebServices.com concur that the time has come for binary XML, adding that most of the fears are unfounded.
"What logic would compel anyone to object to the creation of binary XML standards? If an application doesn't need binary XML it could continue with the text format. I don't see how you lose anything with binary XML," said Rick Hogenmiller, senior consultant with St. Louis-based Elite IT Services Inc. "The impact would just be that an existing text application would need an encoder/compiler to send the message, and a decoder/de-compiler to extract a text-based version. For anything that doesn't require manual/human parsing, who cares what format it is in, as long as there is a compatible software component that knows how to interpret the content?"
Hogenmiller concedes there may be a slight performance twitch at each end, but throughput gains on the network outweigh those.
Kobielus said work on a single binary XML format is on a strong track and he expects vendors to support that standard in their products once it is ratified by W3C. He added, however, that could take up to two years, leaving the door open for the acceleration vendors.
Others, meanwhile, aren't so sure the need for binary XML is urgent and that companies should take advantage of zip compression libraries that support any number of languages. Some even suggest that reliance on XML be minimal.
"I think the bandwidth requirements for XML necessitate alternatives. If a binary XML solution becomes popular, it supports the case for using proven native binary protocols such as Remote Method Invocation," said Sam Chance, an information systems technologist with a U.S. government agency. "In fact, I am considering a Jini-based SOA because XML is not only verbose, it is a false sense of security that has somehow bamboozled people into thinking it is safe over port 80! Don't get me wrong, I am an avid fan of XML; however, I don't support its predominant use on the network layer."