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The Web's Next Leap

By Patrick Thibodeau
April 21, 2003 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Information technology managers are familiar with the concept of the Semantic Web, even if they haven't heard the name before. The Semantic Web is about giving users the ability to manipulate, connect and associate Web resources in new and powerful ways. It's a capability similar to that of the corporate workhorse, the relational database.

The Semantic Web is about taking the relational database and "webbing it," as Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, described it at a recent forum of the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Va. The Semantic Web will allow businesses to manipulate external, heterogeneous Web data in much the same way they do internally, he says. But its most immediate use may be as a tool to solve data integration problems.

The Semantic Web is intended to infuse meaning into the Web and make data "machine-understandable." It relies on the development of standards and "ontologies," the vocabularies that systems need in order to associate and connect data across multiple databases. These ontologies would be linked to documents and other Web resources, giving computers the ability to infer relationships among these information sources.

The Semantic Web would allow manipulation across multiple, heterogeneous databases. This capability could, for instance, allow an electronic airline reservation service to automatically interact with a personal calendar program to arrange a flight that fits a user's schedule, even if there was no pre-established interface between the two pieces of software.

But accurately forecasting the kinds of services that the Semantic Web will deliver is as difficult as it was to anticipate at its inception what the Web might become. "In the beginning, I think it was very unclear what the dominant business model would be," says Ora Lassila, a research fellow at Espoo, Finland-based Nokia Corp.'s Nokia Research Center. Similarly, the kinds of services that may emerge from the Semantic Web remain a "big question," he says.

But for corporations, the immediate value of the Semantic Web may not rest in using it for new services, but rather as a means of integrating data in heterogeneous environments. And the concepts and standards are sufficiently developed to allow that now.

Eric Miller, who heads the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) Semantic Web effort, believes it's the Holy Grail of enterprise integration. "We're talking about really reducing the turnaround time of data integration," he said.

The Cambridge, Mass.-based W3C, which is headed by Berners-Lee, is leading the effort to develop Semantic Web standards, such as the Resource Description Framework (RDF), the standard used for expressing ontologies, and XML, the standard for creating customized tags for the exchange of data between heterogeneous applications.

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