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XML is fast becoming the universal data exchange format, and there would seem to be a natural and obvious synergy between XML and databases. Databases are central to most enterprises’ IT infrastructure, and integrating them must be key to any transition to XML or Web services.

At first glance, this seems to be a solved problem: XML databases have been available for some time; relational database vendors are also adding XML data type support to their offerings. What’s striking is that these products have so far gained only limited acceptance. This is less surprising when one realizes that the majority of relational databases are already running business-critical applications that need to be integrated with, not changed or replaced. Over time, XML may become the data format of choice for these applications, but for the foreseeable future the data will remain in the existing native formats and won’t be stored as XML.

This article focuses on what at first seems like a simple problem but turns out to be much more complex.

A Not-So-Simple Example

Imagine the simplest XML or Web services-based integration problem: An existing order processing database application needs to receive orders from another department or another company. The purchase order will have a number of segments, such as the sender’s contact details, the list of ordered items, order references and other terms.

Each order is part of an exchange of documents, and response documents such as acknowledgments or rejections must be returned to the requester before the transaction is completed. As you will see, even in this simple case there are potential “icebergs” that can sink the integration project.

The icebergs appear because the order processing application was originally designed to operate within a closed environment where the clients were coupled to the application. The set of messages between client and server is typically defined to closely match the database design. Moving to any integration-based architecture introduces a level of decoupling, as the messages being sent between the integrated systems are less likely to be directly mappable into the existing data definitions, since these predate the integration.

Moving to XML-based integration takes this decoupling further. The XML documents exchanged are typically defined entirely independently of the database design. This is because the documents are either industry-defined (e.g., FpML for financial services products such as foreign exchange contracts), based on company-wide standards or defined as part of an intercompany service agreement for B2B integration. This means the database application no longer has control of the incoming data that will need to be processed, and this data will no longer directly match its own data structures.


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