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Binary Showdown
Binary Showdown

On September 24 the W3C set in motion a process that could radically change not only how XML is used and how XML-based applications are developed - but XML itself right down to its beloved (or detested) pointyangle brackets. "The W3C Workshop on Binary Interchange of XML Information Items Sets" brought together 34 interested parties divided among binary revolutionaries, pointyangle- bracket fundamentalists, and a number of fence-sitters to try to form a community consensus and to decide whether or not to move forward to a full W3C activity and a binary XML Recommendation.

The price of admission to the fracas was a position paper, solicited both from within the W3C membership and from without. The positions can be reduced to four basic degrees of support or opposition to the idea the time has come for a standard Binary XML format:
1.  Urgently, compellingly, immediately required. Binary XML must be standardized with or without the W3C, but preferably with.
2.  Binary XML is a clear necessity, but adequate study and time must be taken to ensure a robust standard meeting a plethora of needs.
3.  Not too sure about this…approach with great caution and don't undo the things that have made XML so successful. Interoperability is concern #1.
4.  Not this stupid idea again! Moore's Law will solve this "problem" far faster than the W3C could.

Here is the breakdown of the how the workshop participants saw this fundamental question:

  • Urgent   17
  • Necessity   12
  • Cautious   3
  • Against   2

    Workshop participants can be grouped into eight technology sectors. The positions taken showed clear segmentation across the various areas of interest as shown in Table 1.

    The revolutionaries ready to storm the barricades come from the new applications for XML: wireless, digital broadcasting, and GIS. The independents (consultants, individual technologists, and none-of-the-above) showed only slightly less penchant for quick action. The more querulous old guard seems to consist of those with a greater investment in legacy XML: the technology powerhouses, database vendors, and those invovled with imaging and document applications.

    I dug up the annual revenue figures for the workshop participants and calculated a revenue-weighted score for the perceived urgency of standardizing binary XML. Revenue is usually a general gauge of stake in the current technology and, as one would expect, money comes down on the side of caution. Revenue-weighted mean score: 2.376

    Sometimes it doesn't matter what the industry as a whole wants to do but only what the industry gorillas want. So I looked separately at the positions of those companies with $30 billion U.S. revenue and above.

  • Urgent   0
  • Necessity   3 (Siemens, France Telecom, Nokia)
  • Cautious   1 (IBM)
  • Against   1 (Microsoft)

    Why does XML need a binary format? Workshop participants identified eight major reasons:
    1.  Bandwidth: How many bits it takes to send an XML message across a wireless link. Wireless devices have limited bandwidth and greater use of bandwidth increases transmission time and the error rate. Binary XML can reduce the bandwidth needed to send an XML message. Compression techniques include redundancy elimination (e.g., putting common strings in a string table) or domain-based (using knowledge of the structure derived from the schema to encode content more efficiently).
    2.  Processing speed/parsing: Generally, XML is too slow! Binary XML addresses this problem by making the data format closer to datatypes used in programming languages and by using compression techniques to reduce the number of bits processed.
    3.  Progressive download/streaming: Eliminates the necessity of reading the entire XML document before it can be processed, supporting applications such as partial rendering, packetization, and interleaving.
    4.  Random access: Various techniques for including an index of the XML document, enabling direct access to particular sections of interest without sequential processing of the document.
    5.  Dynamic update: Various techniques, such as delta records, for updating an XML document without modifying the original, eliminating stream rewriting or tree node manipulations.
    6.  New data types: Direct support for various data types useful in non-text based applications of XML, including native numeric data types, arrays, and graphs.
    7.  Link support: Fundamental support for XLINK or other hyperlink primitives in core XML.
    8.  Compactness: Similar to limited-bandwidth approaches but the applications usually involve archiving of very large amounts of data. En/decode time may not be as big an issue as maximal compression of the data.

    How important was each of these objectives for Binary XML to the workshop participants? Given the strong turnout from the wireless world, it isn't surprising that bandwidth was the overwhelming concern (see Table 2).

    Bandwidth and processing speed are not necessarily everyone's top two objectives. Eleven participants rated bandwidth as extremely important but either stated that they didn't care at all about processing speed or rated it much lower than bandwidth. Eight participants took the corresponding position in favor of processing speed and were lukewarm on the issue of bandwidth. There is a clear fracture in the interests of advocates for Binary XML. This is further illustrated by Table 3, which shows the percentage of participants within each technology domain that expressed strong or moderate preference for each objective of Binary XML.

    This was not a discussion in the abstract, akin to calculating angels dancing on pins: no less than 18 existing Binary XML formats were presented. Yes, Binary XML exists today - the only question is whether the W3C will Recommend it! Of these 18 some 12 formats could qualify as "proposals"; the other 6 were described as proprietary or special purpose and not suitable for a standard. Two formats were in use by multiple participants: ASN.1 and MPEG-7 BiM. ASN.1 is a mature standard used in the telecommunications sector, which has added an XML-specific XML Schema to ASN.1 mapping. MPEG-7 BiM has also come from an established standards body, in this case in the video/television/multimedia area, which has expanded its mantle to encompass XML. A numerically oriented Binary XML, BXML from the Open GIS Consortium, was the third format which, with the previous two, was more-or-less purported to be "the answer" by its advocates. The remaining 9 Binary XML proposals were offered more in the spirit of interesting experiments that could inform the work of creating the ultimate Binary XML representation. A dichotomy in approaches to Binary XML emerged, consisting on one side of techniques that require use of the schema and on the other techniques where the Binary XML file is selfdescribing. Some, like Sun, felt that both techniques were needed and proposed a model which included both. Table 4 categorizes all binary formats proposed in the workshop.

    A total of 14 benchmarks were presented. In the absence of a uniform methodology, data, and objectives for the format it isn't possible to say much more than that some interesting results were shown. Small XML files can be compressed with domain-specific techniques vastly better than with GZIP, no question about it. Encoding and decoding of Binary XML can be much faster than binding standard XML to programming data structures, but the numbers are fairly hazy. Everything else is very hazy if not positively chimeric. There is no credible data, for example, on the performance impact of random access or dynamic updates techniques that might be supported by a binary XML format.

    One Format to Rule Them All
    The W3C did a superlative job of ensuring that all opinions were heard from both the great and small and from non-W3C members as well as W3C members. On the first day papers selected by the W3C were presented by their authors to the entire assembly. All four categories of positions were given the podium, and presenters ranged from crusty individuals to representatives of the technology megaliths. On the second day the rest of the participants had a chance to present their positions to breakout groups and return to the afternoon plenary with a list of requirements for Binary XML. The final morning was spent in further discussion of the pros and cons of a Binary XML future and on various possible processes for deciding what, if anything, to do next.

    The tenor of the workshop was, arguably, dominated by the perspectives of the large technology vendors, with Microsoft and IBM, in particular, repeatedly cautioning participants not to throw away XML's greatest strengths - universality, interoperability, and simplicity - for the performance crisis du jour. Moore's Law was invoked again and again - along with the rejoinder that mobile device batteries do not obey Moore's Law.

    There was universal agreement that the objectives and performance measurement criteria for Binary XML had to be formalized, and that any standard needed to have solid benchmarking behind it.

    Most participants agreed that preserving XML's interoperability was of paramount importance and that the logical consequence of this imperative was that there must be no more than one Binary XML format, which will co-exist with and be easily translatable to and from standard XML. Only a few participants expressed confidence that one format would fit the bill (BiM advocate Expway and esXML proponents Stephen Williams, for two examples); others expressed open skepticism, which tended to spread quite a pall of gloom. Some were determined that the "one format" would be the one that met their needs and which were the only needs that really mattered.

    And now the W3C will go off and apply scientific techniques such as hepatoscopy to workshop data and come back with a decision.

    How I Read the Sheep's Liver
    John Schneider of AgileDelta invoked his modified version of Metcalfe's Law to argue for enabling a new universe of XML applications with Binary XML: "the value of information exposed as XML will increase exponentially with the number of systems able to access it." Ironically, the same principle was invoked by those arguing against Binary XML. They felt that the growth of XML would slow and perhaps be permanently stunted by introducing an additional and much more complex format.

    I think the numbers are with the Binary XML advocates: the wireless world is everywhere and wireless has been unequivocal about needing to standardize on a more efficient XML representation. A wireless-only standard already exists, WBXML, but the industry's current vision of the world is one where the wirelessness of a device is perfectly transparent to the network. Some of the not-wireless objectives for a Binary XML format are extremely interesting, but it does not appear that they have either the constituency or the hard data to prove their worth today. In standardizing Binary XML suitable for wireless platforms it will not be possible to trade bandwidth efficiency for features that everyone wants and thereby achieve consensus. But if there isn't one format that solves all problems there maybe some consolation for the losers. The Binary XML that emerges should give us a better core for implementing features for complex high-performance XML processing in the application layer.

    About Michael Leventhal
    Michael Leventhal is guiding the development of a new generation of hardware-based XML acceleration products as director, XML Technology, for Tarari (www.tarari.com). He has architected and led numerous projects in the area of Web applications and infrastructure and XML over the last 10 years, including a Web services framework and a Mozilla-based browser, DocZilla. He has spoken at numerous conferences, developed and taught the first university-level course in XML and wrote the first book on XML software development for the Internet.

    About Eric Lemoine
    Eric Lemoine is an XML architect, Tarari.

    About Stephen Williams
    Stephen Williams is senior technical director, HPTi, and founder of www.esxml.org.

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    Business Executives including CEOs, CMOs, & CIOs , Presidents & SVPs, Directors of Business Development , Directors of IT Operations, Product and Purchasing Managers, IT Managers.

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    Cloud Expo Show Guide
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    Join Us as a Media Partner - Together We Can Rock the IT World!
    SYS-CON Media has a flourishing Media Partner program in which mutually beneficial promotion and benefits are arranged between our own leading Enterprise IT portals and events and those of our partners.

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    Digital Transformation Blogs
    In this presentation, you will learn first hand what works and what doesn't while architecting and deploying OpenStack. Some of the topics will include:- best practices for creating repeatable deployments of OpenStack- multi-site considerations- how to customize OpenStack to integrate with your existing systems and security best practices.
    "IBM is really all in on blockchain. We take a look at sort of the history of blockchain ledger technologies. It started out with bitcoin, Ethereum, and IBM evaluated these particular blockchain technologies and found they were anonymous and permissionless and that many companies were looking for permissioned blockchain," stated René Bostic, Technical VP of the IBM Cloud Unit in North America, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at 21st Cloud Expo, held Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA.
    Founded in 2000, Chetu Inc. is a global provider of customized software development solutions and IT staff augmentation services for software technology providers. By providing clients with unparalleled niche technology expertise and industry experience, Chetu has become the premiere long-term, back-end software development partner for start-ups, SMBs, and Fortune 500 companies. Chetu is headquartered in Plantation, Florida, with thirteen offices throughout the U.S. and abroad.