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Semantic Mapping, Ontologies, and XML Standards

The key to managing complexity in application integration projects

When dealing with application integration, as you know by now, we are dealing with much complexity. The notion of ontologies helps the application integration architect prepare generalizations that make the problem domain more understandable. In contrast to abstraction, generalization ignores many of the details and ends up with general ideas. Therefore, when generalizing, we start with a collection of types and analyze commonalities to generalize them.

Clearly, semantic heterogeneity and divergence hinders the notion of generalization, and as commonalities of two entities are represented in semantically different ways, the differences are more difficult to see. Thus, ontological analysis clears the ground for generalization, making the properties of the entities much more clear. Indeed, ontological analysis for application integration encourages generalization. Thus we can say, "Within an ontological framework, integration analysis naturally leads to generalization."

Considering that statement, it's also clear that application independence of ontological models makes these applications candidates for reference models. We do this by stripping the applications of the semantic divergences that were introduced to satisfy their requirements, thus creating a common application integration foundation for use as the basis for an application integration project.

Returning to the core problem we wish to solve within application integration domains, we are looking to achieve semantic interoperability between very different systems. The solution to this problem is based on our ability to leverage formal ontologies required to account for the different types of ontologies for any business reason. For example, we can have resource ontologies we leverage to define semantics used by our SAP systems, but we may also have personal ontologies defining the semantics of a user or a user group. In addition, we have the notion of shared ontologies, which are common semantics shared between any numbers of information systems.

Once we define the ontologies, we must account for the semantic mismatches that occur during translations between the various terminologies. Therefore, we have the need for mapping.

Creating maps is significant work that leverages a great deal of reuse. The use of mapping requires the "ontology engineer" to modify and reuse mapping. Such mapping necessitates a mediator system that can interpret the mappings in order to translate between the different ontologies that exist in the problem domain. It is also logical to include a library of mapping and conversion functions, as there are many standards transformations employable from mapping to mapping.

Finding the Information
One of the benefits of leveraging ontologies is the fact that no matter where the information resides, we can understand and map information relevant to the application integration scenarios. Ontologies allow you to differentiate between resources, which is especially useful when those resources have redundant data (e.g., customer information in almost all enterprises). Thus, in order to make better sense of the data and represent the data in a meaningful way, terms defined in ontologies allow the application integration architects to fully understand the meaning and context of the information. Again, this is ontology's value within application integration.

When considering schemas, local to remote source or target systems, the application of ontologies is leveraged in order to define the meaning of the terms used in some domain. Although there is often some communication between a data model and the attributes, both schema and ontologies play key roles in application integration because of the importance of both semantics and data structures.

Another important notion of ontologies is entity correspondence. Ontologies that are leveraged in more of a B2B environment must leverage data that is scattered across very different information systems, and information that resides in many separate domains. Ontologies in this scenario provide a great deal of value because we can join information together, such as product information mapped to on-time delivery history mapped to customer complaints and compliments. This establishes entity correspondence.

To gather information specific to an entity, we need to leverage different resources to identify individual entities, which vary widely from each physical information store. For example, when leveraging a relational database, entities are identified using keys (e.g., customer number). Within the various information systems, many different terms are used for attributes. The notion of ontologies, in this scenario, allows us to determine whether entities from different applications and databases are the same or noncrucial to fusing information.

Ontology and Mapping Servers
So, how do you implement ontologies in your application integration problem domain? In essence, some technology - either an integration broker or applications server, for instance - needs to act as an ontology server and/or mapping server.

An ontology server houses the ontologies that are created to service the application integration problem domain. There are three types of ontologies stored: shared, resource, and application. Shared ontologies are made up of definitions of general terms that are common across and between enterprises. Resource ontologies are made up of definitions of terms used by a specific resource. Application ontologies are native to particular applications, such as an inventory application. Mapping servers store the mappings between ontologies (stored in the ontology server). The mapping server also stores conversion functions, which account for the differences between schemas native to remote source and target systems. Mappings are specified using a declarative syntax that provides reuse.

RDF and Ontologies
Resource Description Framework (RDF), a part of the XML story, provides interoperability between applications that exchange information. RDF is another Web standard that's finding use everywhere, including application integration. RDF was developed by the W3C to provide a foundation of metadata interoperability across different resource description communities and is the basis for the W3C movement to ontologies, for example, the use of Web Ontology Language (OWL).

RDF uses XML to define a foundation for processing metadata and to provide a standard metadata infrastructure for both the Web and the enterprise. The difference between the two is that XML is used to transport data using a common format, while RDF is layered on top of XML defining a broad category of data. When the XML data is declared to be of the RDF format, applications are then able to understand the data without understanding who sent it.

RDF extends the XML model and syntax to be specified for describing either resources or a collection of information. (XML points to a resource in order to scope and uniquely identify a set of properties known as the schema.)

RDF metadata can be applied to many areas, including application integration. One example would be searching for data and cataloging data and relationships. RDF is also able to support new technology (such as intelligent software agents and exchange of content rating).

RDF does not offer predefined vocabularies for authoring metadata; however, the W3C does expect standard vocabularies to emerge once the infrastructure for metadata interoperability is in place. Anyone, or any industry, can design and implement a new vocabulary. The only requirement is that all resources be included in the metadata instances using the new vocabulary.

RDF benefits application integration in that it supports the concept of a common metadata layer that is sharable throughout an enterprise or between enterprises. Thus, RDF can be used as a common mechanism for describing data within the application integration problem domain.

Web-Based Standards and Ontologies
The use of languages for ontology is beginning to appear, built on reasoning techniques that provide for the development of special-purpose reasoning services. In fact, the W3C is creating a Web standard for ontology language as part of its effort to define semantic standards for the Web. The Semantic Web is the abstract representation of data on the World Wide Web, based on the Resource Description Framework standards (see the "RDF and Ontologies" tidbit) and other standards still to be defined. It is being developed by the W3C, in collaboration with a large number of researchers and industrial partners.

In order for the Semantic Web to function, computers must have access to structured collections of information and sets of inference rules that they can use to conduct automated reasoning. This notion is known as knowledge representation. To this end, and in the domain of the World Wide Web, computers will find the meaning of semantic data by following hyperlinks to definitions of key terms and rules for logically reasoning about data. The resulting infrastructure will spur the development of automated Web services such as highly functional agents. What's important here is that the work now being driven by the W3C as a way to manage semantics on the Web is applicable, at least at the component level, to the world of application integration, much like XML and Web services.

An example of the W3C contribution to the use of ontologies is the Web Ontology Language. OWL is a semantic markup language for publishing and sharing ontologies on the World Wide Web. OWL is derived from the DAML+OIL Web Ontology Language and builds upon the RDF. OWL assigns a specific meaning to certain RDF triples. The future Formal Specification, now in development at the W3C, specifies exactly which triples are assigned a specific meaning and offers a definition of the meaning. OWL only provides a semantic interpretation for those parts of an RDF graph that instantiate the schema. Any additional RDF statements resulting in additional RDF triples are allowed, but OWL is silent on the semantic consequences of such additional triples. An OWL ontology is made up of several components, some of which are optional, and some of which may be repeated.

Using these Web-based standards as the jumping-off point for ontology and application integration, it's possible to define and automate the use of ontologies in both intra- and intercompany application integration domains. Domains made up of thousands of systems, all with their own semantic meanings, bound together in a common ontology that makes short work of application integration and defines a common semantic meaning of data - this, indeed, is the goal.

Extending from the languages, we have several libraries available for a variety of vertical domains, including financial services and e-business. We also have many knowledge editors that now exist to support the creation of ontologies, as well as the use of natural-language processing methodologies. We have seen these in commercially available knowledge mapping and visualization tools using standard notations such as UML.

Value of Ontologies and Semantic Mapping
The use of the ontologies concept within modern application integration techniques and technologies seems to be a good match. Indeed, today we are already leveraging certain aspects of ontologies within most application integration projects, whether we understand the concept or not. The value here is to recognize ontologies as a concept that formalizes the management and integration of information, services, and processes ... formalizing something we are already doing informally.

The real significance of ontologies leveraging the reusable aspects is within vertical domains where the use of common metadata, services, and processes has the most value. Once we get semantics under control within vertical systems (more often, a collection of systems), application integration or linking a common set of semantics to back-end systems won't be as daunting as this process is today. What's more, the application of standards such as Semantic Web and OWL will make ontologies that much more attractive.

More Stories By David Linthicum

Dave Linthicum is Sr. VP at Cloud Technology Partners, and an internationally known cloud computing and SOA expert. He is a sought-after consultant, speaker, and blogger. In his career, Dave has formed or enhanced many of the ideas behind modern distributed computing including EAI, B2B Application Integration, and SOA, approaches and technologies in wide use today. In addition, he is the Editor-in-Chief of SYS-CON's Virtualization Journal.

For the last 10 years, he has focused on the technology and strategies around cloud computing, including working with several cloud computing startups. His industry experience includes tenure as CTO and CEO of several successful software and cloud computing companies, and upper-level management positions in Fortune 500 companies. In addition, he was an associate professor of computer science for eight years, and continues to lecture at major technical colleges and universities, including University of Virginia and Arizona State University. He keynotes at many leading technology conferences, and has several well-read columns and blogs. Linthicum has authored 10 books, including the ground-breaking "Enterprise Application Integration" and "B2B Application Integration." You can reach him at david@bluemountainlabs.com. Or follow him on Twitter. Or view his profile on LinkedIn.

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