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Speaking your language

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A new language for sharing data holds great promise for architects, but will businesses agree on an alphabet?

Most architects conduct a small amount of their business online, whether it is e-mail or looking at a supplier's website. Yet e-commerce has yet to hit the construction industry in anything other than an insignificant way. Most of us can sense that e-commerce will become more and more important, and probably think that now that e-mail is established, the Holy Grail of 'interoperability' has been found. Interoperability is about the transfer of information from one computer to another, independent of software capabilities. But full interoperability still remains some time ahead. Firms now use millions of different ways of codifying the products their business makes, sells or installs. If the optimism that the stockmarkets have shown towards e-commerce is to come to fruition, then a whole system of protocols, schemas and systems must be developed to aid the technology to find out information others need. For an industry, as diverse in scale, skills and products as the construction industry this presents huge logistical problems.

Bentley Systems, the developer of MicroStation, sees architecture as an e-business. To augment information crossover in the building industry, it has initiated aecXML. The 'aec' stands for architecture, engineering and construction and ' XML' stands for, of course, extended mark-up language. AecXML is an XMLbased language used to represent information in the construction industry about projects, documents, materials, parts, organisations and professionals, or activities such as proposals, design, estimating, scheduling and construction. The Internet is intended as the medium for this information exchange.

Yoav Etiel, vice president of marketing at Bentley, explained aecXML to me this way:

'Last summer my mobile broke and needed to be replaced while I was on a trip abroad. Our European headquarters sent me a replacement mobile via DHL and I spent a day in foreign customs releasing it. We looked at the shipper information, Nokia's catalogues and specification sheets, currency conversion tables, local customs duty rates and finally I paid the duty. . . .

'Then it occurred to me: we had conducted commerce yet we had never even opened the envelope! Information accompanying the article described it, so that we could conduct commerce without having to open it.

Think about how this approach can facilitate and expedite commerce when the customs officer has not one handset in an envelope but hundreds of cargo containers shipped from different countries, containing thousands of articles, forwarded to dozens of importers. The analogy in e-commerce is XML and in construction, aecXML- two parties no longer need to use the same application in order to conduct commerce.

AecXML is a component description language that, when applied, allows two applications to facilitate such commerce.'

To use a more specific example, an aecXML-formatted message could request a search for a particular type of sound-attenu - ating insulation and a different aecXML-formatted message could be used to identify a local contractor capable of installing it.

This all seems great, but, as computer commentator Beth Stackpole has noted:

'Even with what appears to be universal buy-in for XML, the lack of standard, vertical vocabularies, or tag sets, is still a major hindrance. If you think of XML as an alphabet, it's clear that, without consensus on how key business terms like 'customer' or 'invoice' are defined, there is no guarantee that companies within the same vertical industry - let alone across industries - will treat their data in a consistent manner, hampering data exchange. For example, if one company's XML tag for purchase order is defined by a customer name and number, but a partner's purchase order forgoes a customer number, something is bound to get lost in the translation. The problem is exacerbated when data is exchanged between two companies in different industries. Taken to an extreme example, terms like sole and heel would refer to footwear components at a shoe company and body parts at a hospital.'

So we can now see how difficult such a transition will be, but equally how important it could be to be able to communicate in this way. The Bentley initiative was made public in August 1999 and in January 2000 the International Alliance for Interoperability adopted aecXML for the construction industry standard.

Putting aside the problems of implementation the benefits of the industry adopting aecXML are illustrated in just this small example: IAI officials in the States and the UK have estimated that the benefits of interoperability would 'at a minimum save' one or two percent annually. In the construction market of the US, Canada and Mexico this would mean a saving of four to ten billion pounds annually. It might even save us a few quid on this backward-looking rock.

It might be the sauce that starts to bind the construction industry together, something that until now has always been missing.

See also the websites www.aecxml.org and www.bentley.com; for general information about extensible markup language, see www.w3.org/XML; learn about interoperability at iai - web.lbl.gov

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