Army group adds XML to its repertoire

Army group adds XML to its repertoire

By Patricia Daukantas

GCN Staff

The Army Publishing Agency is turning to the Extensible Markup Language to make Army regulations easier to view and search.

The current edition of the Army Electronic Library, a quarterly CD-ROM set, contains four prototype documents converted from their original Standard Generalized Markup Language versions.

An edition due out next month will have about 100 documents tagged in XML, said Stephen P. Wehrly, chief of electronic publishing for the Alexandria, Va., agency.

Making the documents available in XML as well as two proprietary formats, IBM BookManager and Adobe Portable Document Format, gives more viewing and searching options, Wehrly said.

The agency, which runs Army Web sites for distributing administrative publications and forms, has been doing electronic publishing since 1984 and using SGML since 1991, Wehrly said.

'When we started in SGML, it was the era of 20M hard drives,' he said.

Electronic publishing efforts got a big boost in late 1998 when the secretary of the Army issued a 'less-paper policy' for reducing or eliminating manuals and forms, Wehrly said.

The agency has led an effort to standardize SGML tagging across all Army publishing. Because XML is a subset of SGML, most existing files were XML-compliant, Wehrly said. It takes only a bit of tweaking the SGML source files to convert them to XML.

The four XML prototype documents in the July 2000 edition of the Army Electronic Library include the 400-page Army Regulation 25-30, which governs the Army Publishing and Printing Program.

Flow with the form

The CD-ROM set also holds 1,204 publications in IBM format, 852 publications in PDF, and 1,933 forms in both PDF and several versions of FormFlow from JetFlow Corp. of Ottawa.

For personnel who need paper copies out in the field, PDF is an efficient way to print only the necessary pages, Wehrly said, but it requires more software than a simple browser.

Documents saved in IBM BookMaster format are translated into Web pages on the fly by IBM's BookManager BookServer application.

The IBM software has some attractive features, but IBM is not supporting the application as well as Army officials would like, Wehrly said. The agency also wants more powerful searching and indexing.

'If you'd asked me two years ago whether the Army would go to XML, I would have said in three to five years,' Wehrly said. 'It was going to be one of those magnificent technologies that no one was going to pay any attention to.'

Last December, however, agency officials changed their minds after they attended an XML conference in Philadelphia. They asked their document support contractor to convert a document from SGML to XML as a test, and it was surprisingly easy, Wehrly said.

The XML version turned out to be more searchable and less cumbersome than the BookServer-formatted document. Also, users who couldn't see the PDF version because they were unable or unwilling to install Adobe Acrobat Reader could still read the document in a browser window, Wehrly said.

The agency started distributing the Army Electronic Library on CD-ROM in 1996. The set of disks now goes out to 65,000 subscribers within the service.

Over the last two years, the publishing agency has seen a steady increase in the number of downloads of electronic forms and publications from its Web site, at www.usapa.army.mil.

Users downloaded 149,622 electronic publications in June, up from 37,535 in October 1998, Wehrly said.'The electronic count contrasts sharply with the days of all-paper publishing. 'We used to report our annual production in tons,' he said.

Eventually, Wehrly said, the Army Publishing Agency will integrate its electronic publishing products into the Joint Continuous Acquisition and Lifecycle Support system being built for the Defense Department by Computer Sciences Corp. [GCN, April 3, Page 47].

The JCALS Workflow Manager will let DOD workers and their supervisors locate available publications and track forms through the approval process.

Wehrly also wants to develop multiple XML style sheets for Army publications so that users can, for example, choose a sans serif typeface for on-screen reading and a serif typeface for printing.

One drawback of XML is that older Web browsers do not display XML-tagged documents accurately. XML files require the Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.0 browser or a later version.

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