Entities, Attributes and Elements: What Language(s) Are We Speaking?

“Whoooo… could imagine…” “It Can’t Happen Here” — Frank Zappa

Who could imagine…that meta data, data definitions, and data definition standards would one day be “cool”. Well, thanks to the internet and its latest progeny, XML, these disciplines have
now–finally, some might say–been thrust into the forefront, actually the bleeding edge, of information technology. But the group that should greet this development with the most
enthusiasm—data management professionals, including data administrators, repository administrators, data modelers and database administrators—appear
conspicuously absent from the growing numbers of XML enthusiasts. What, you might ask, is the evidence for this contentious conclusion? It’s rather a lack of evidence; any evidence whatsoever of
data-management discipline in the ongoing definition of XML. Consider if you will the following comparative table:

As a data management professional, you may have thought you finally had the meanings of these terms nailed down. Think again. It gets worse. XML advocates, including OASIS (Organization for the
Advancement of Structured Information Standards), Microsoft, and a slew of others are busily constructing and populating schemas (schemas are data specifications that include entities, attributes
and elements—sounds like data modeling?) and schema repositories (shareable sources of common schemas—sounds like, er, repositories).

This seems to indicate a troublesome overall trend toward reinventing the wheel in the development of XML standards. Much of the responsibility for this must be borne by data management
professionals, who apparently have been asleep at the wheel while this brave new data world is being constructed around them. The vast majority of the current standard-setters in the XML world come
from backgrounds of internet development and document processing, where data is just something that happens to be contained in messages and documents, and where the need for “persisting” and
sharing data has been realized as something of an afterthought. Data management professionals, for whom persisting and sharing of data is a fundamental (if not downright religious) pursuit, have
everything of value to add to—and gain from, by the way—the digital economy. DM professionals need to apply their hard-earned skills and experience to the
“cool” new ways in which data will be defined.

A case in point is the direction XML appears to be taking in defining data elements. So far there is no strong apparent trend in the XML world toward defining and storing standard definitions of
data elements anywhere other than in multiple document-type schemas. What this means is that there is no control or incentive to define or re-use the same data element (say, for example, the
oft-abused CUSTOMER_NUMBER) the same way, across multiple document schemas. The definition of a given data element is effectively dependent on the individual schema(s) (e.g., CUST_NBR in the
“Purchase Order” document type, CUSTOMER_NBR in the “Balance Inquiry” document type, etc.) in which it is (re-)defined. Sound familiar? It’s déjà vu all over again.
The Universal Data Element Framework (www.udef.com—go there!) appears as perhaps the sole voice of reason in this gathering potential chaos.

Data management professionals need to jump with both feet and both sides of their brains into the development of XML standards. It’s not too late–the stage is still being set. Should you write
your congressperson, or maybe Al Gore, the inventor of the internet? No, actually, familiarize yourself with the work of the folks who are, as we speak, setting what will be the standards for data
and meta data for the next decade. They include the World Wide Web Consortium (www.w3.org), the BizTalk folks at Microsoft (www.biztalk.org), and OASIS (www.xml.org). Urge these folks to apply and
re-use the time-tested disciplines, concepts and frameworks of data management, to assure that the digital economy will hum, and not grind, into the new millennium.

Am I wrong? XML professionals–with or without data management experience, and data management professionals working with or interested in XML, email datamodel@aol.com. Let me know what you think.
Let’s hear from you.

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About William Lewis

Wiliam has more than 20 years’ experience delivering data-driven solutions to business challenges across the financial services, energy, healthcare, manufacturing, software and consulting industries. Bill has gained recognition as a thought leader and leading-edge practitioner in a broad range of data management and other IT disciplines including data modeling, data integration, business intelligence, meta data management, XML and XSLT, requirements structuring, automated software development tools and IT Architecture. Lewis is a Principal Consultant at EWSolutions, a GSA schedule and Chicago-headquartered strategic partner and systems integrator dedicated to providing companies and large government agencies with best-in-class business intelligence solutions using enterprise architecture, managed meta data environment, and data warehousing technologies. Visit http://www.ewsolutions.com/. William can be reached at wlewis@ewsolutions.com.

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