An interesting trend in product information management and master data management is the gradual movement toward the use of semantic technologies.

The semantic Web is an evolving development of the World Wide Web where the meaning (semantics) of information and services is defined, making it possible for the Web to understand and satisfy the requests of people and machines consuming Web content. At its core, the semantic Web comprises a set of design principles, collaborative working groups and a variety of enabling technologies. Some elements of the semantic Web are expressed as prospective future possibilities that are yet to be implemented or realized.

Some of the language within that definition ("making it possible for the Web to understand and satisfy the requests" and "some elements ... are expressed as prospective future possibilities that are yet to be implemented or realized") sounds a little bit like science fiction.

An IBM white paper on this topic called "Explorations in the Use of Semantic Web Technologies for Product Information Management" gives us a glimpse of the future, including implications for PIM in the use of concepts like the Resource Description Framework (RDF) and the Web Ontology Language (OWL). This vision has already been realized in much of the work of the S-TEN project, where the use of semantic technology defined the mapping between ISO 10303 models and data into ontologies in the OWL/RDF world.

The ISO 10303 is an international standard for the computer-interpretable representation and exchange of product manufacturing information more commonly known as Standard for the Exchange of Product (STEP) model data. This standard defines models to store and exchange product data. Since the initial release of this standard in 1984, the core data models have been widely extended in a way to maintain a strict upward compatibility as defined using Express modeling language. Using Express, complex constraints can be defined that have made data exchange between different systems possible.

The S-TEN project's goal was to preserve all the core concepts of STEP while overcoming the limits of the earlier modeling strategy in their mapping between the ISO 10303 standard and OWL/RDF. The mapping of STEP data models to equivalent OWL/RDF-based ontologies was performed as a two-step process. First, STEP models were converted into a form better suited for OWL/RDF purposes by constructing a set of new Express defined data models, to take advantage of OWL/RDF capability. After this was accomplished, the derived Express models were converted into OWL/RDF using an automatic syntactic conversion process.

The resulting SemanticSTEP application data is not intended to be exchanged by individual files, as is the case for using classic STEP file-based scenarios. Instead, application data is now expected to be hosted on database servers and accessible on the Internet through a valid OWL/RDF document available under a particular URL. Statements in other documents can refer to these URLs, establishing the concept of named graphs and further extending the flexibility and rich expression. You can review the resulting SemanticSTEP Ontologies by visiting s-ten.net/ontologies.

One useful application of OWL/RDF is the creation of product taxonomy with class inheritance in an easy-to-understand hierarchical model (see the Product Taxonomy Schema at s-ten.net for an example).

If you define the Computer category as a class, and then define Laptop as a subclass, the Laptop will automatically have the properties CPU speed and Memory, and you can add new properties such as Screen Size as well.

This makes the process of creating a new product within PIM much easier. Simply assign it to the proper node in your product taxonomy, and it will inherit its default attribute values from that node, a helpful capability. Set up your taxonomy carefully, and any new products you create will automatically inherit the attributes and attribute values of the taxonomy node to which you attach them. This saves you a lot of time as a product manager and ensures better control over the product design process, while still allowing you the flexibility to override default attribute values where needed.

I think we can safely conclude that using semantic technologies (RDF and OWL commonly serialized using RDF/XML syntax) is not science fiction. OWL is now considered one of the fundamental technologies underpinning the semantic Web. The use of these technologies in product MDM will continue to evolve as more mainstream organizations begin to adopt and realize its potential power.

Dan thanks James Parnitzke, technology executive, partner, adviser and software publisher, for his contributions to this column.