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12:20:03 AM
Written By : Richard SchwartzCategory : IBM Lotus Notes And Domino
Location : Nashua, NH

Philip has reacted to my post about the end of proprietary data formats from a couple of days ago.

Of course, I note that only the document formats are open. No opening of a format for Outlook, for instance - nor for Access. Richard Schwartz asks whether or not IBM should open up the NSF format, and I think that the absence of an open Outlook or Access storage format shows us that he's on the wrong track. This is about opening up formats for data interchange - and you're more likely to send an individual item than a whole collection that's stored in a database.

With all due respect to Phillip, I think he's on the wrong track when he makes a comparison to Access and Outlook, and I'll get back to that point at the end of this post. But first I want to say that I think we're really in violent agreement! I totally agree with him about putting the emphasis on the individual item. And by item, of course I mean the document (aka the "note"). I agree with Phillip that XML does not make sense at the database level. I'm looking at it, however, at the document level. In the earlier post, I wrote: "why not open up Notes and Domino at the document level by changing the ODS to store all documents (i.e., data notes, and maybe design notes,also) outside of the NSF?"

Remember: Notes is about documents, not about database records. There is just enough structure in those documents that we can do a lot of the same things to them that we do to records, but they are not records. Fundamentally, the reason we're using Notes is because it does more than deal with records! At the document level, it seems to me that making XML files an alternative for "native" storage makes every bit of sense. It would make the document transportable and manipulable without being tied to the Notes API. Think of all the tools that could be turned loose, and of all the developers who could get access to all this valuable data if only we could get the document out from behind the proprietary API.

So let me be clear: my concept for native XML documents still requires that the NSF file stays around. The indexes and all the other meta-stuff that ties documents into databases would still be in NSF even if the documents themselves were stored in separate XML files. And everything -- metadata and documents would all still be accessible from the API just as if it were all a single NSF file. It's just that the documents would also be natively accessible with file-oriented XML processing tools.

I think that what I'm talking about is very much in line with user expectations. Users know that when they create a document in Word there's a file stored on disk that contains that document. They know that they can copy it and do to it all the other usual things that people do with files. When they create a document in Notes, however, they can't do that. So we tell them that yes, it's a document, but it's a document in a database. We tell them that you can't do the same things to documents in databases that you can do to documents on disk, and if they look at us funny and ask why. And what do we say?. Tthat's just the way it is. Except that it really doesn't have to be that way. A few years ago there was an add-on a few years ago that exposed NSF files so that they would look like ordinary file systems on the Windows desktop, and I've always felt that it was too bad that it didn't get a lot of support.

IBM is already proving with DB2 in ND7 that NSF doesn't have to be the only way of storing documents, and they're not just doing it for the scalablity. They're doing it to unleash all the tools of the DB2 world so that they can access data in Notes documents through their own relational API instead of having to go through the proprietary Notes API. The result is that ND7 now has a more database-like flavor available as an option. So why not a more filesystem like flavor, too?

It seems to me that NSF is more akin to an indexed object base than it is to a database, anyhow. NSF is what filesystems want to be when they grow up! Except for one problem: the objects that NSF contains aren't easily separated from the structure that contains them. Users can't work on those objects in an ad hoc manner using simple commands, and standard GUI file manipulation metaphors. Programmers have to use a proprietary API in order to do anything at all with the objects in NSF. But when Microsoft finally gets WinFS right, they will finally have something that rivals NFS, and it won't suffer from those problems. And with Office storing XML documents in WinFS, Microsoft will pretty much have what I'm suggesting. And this is why I believe that Phillip is on the wrong track when he looks at older Microsoft products like Outlook and Access. What I suggest is that rather than looking at old products for excuses not to do this, look instead at where Microsoft is going for the reasons that IBM should look very seriously at bringing "native XML" to Notes and Domino.

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Comments :v

1. Nathan T. Freeman06/07/2005 05:26:59 AM

Frankly, Rich, I don't see why this gets you excited. But, if you really think there's that much potential, it sounds like a product opportunity to me. After all, you've already DXL, you can use a server add-in or even just Trigger Happy to initiate the process. A beta version should take, what, a week? If the market's there, it should be easy to justfy.

2. Richard Schwartz06/07/2005 07:42:55 AM

It's all about marketing, Nathan. XML adds zero technical value to Notes, Domino, Office, or anything else. But take out the word "technical" from that. Openness of data does add value because it expands the technical toolkit we can use to work with the data. I believe that there's a huge weakness in IBM's "openness" strategy, in that from what I can see, Workplace merely substitutes an old high-priesthood of data access through proprietary APIs for another high-priesthood of data access through J2EE. Native XML storage means that the high-priesthood goes away -- except in cases where security or functionality truly demands that it be there.

What I'm reacting to is the prospect that in about two years Microsoft will be able to legitimately say things like "Why are you still locking all your data up behind a proprietary API? Our data formats are wide open. Why aren't IBMs?" I think that in about that time-frame we're going to see that everyone will know that they want "native XML"... and even though nobody will quite know why they want it, it will still be a deal-breaker. And nobody will want to pay extra for it or have it as an "add-on". Sure I could build this. Anyone could. But it's worth about 1000 times less if I do it.


3. Philip Storry06/07/2005 05:50:40 PM

Interesting thoughts there, Richard.

I'm afraid I've just done an 11 hour day after very little sleep, so my response will be delayed. But I think we are probably arguing along similar lines, albeit with minor differences.

4. Carl06/07/2005 10:23:13 PM
Homepage: Http://

For a short time I was development manager for an XML tools company. The thing to remember is that XML itself does not make a format open for everyone to use. You can have encrypted proprietary data within an "XML" Document. So Office docs may be stored in XML, but who's to say that somebits of the doc within the XML tags go undocumented?

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