Angie Hirata, JustSystems XMetaL

The Promise of DITA

DITA (Darwin Information Typing Architecture) is on the leading edge of information management and is certainly one of the industry’s most significant developments in the last 10 years. DITA takes into consideration many common information challenges that content-rich organizations face and attempts to offer practical solutions with smart content modeling. There are several things that DITA offers that other “standard” information models do not. The core DITA concepts are good, the potential to re-use information is outstanding, and the potential to share information across business units to keep information consistent and accurate is promising. One other aspect that makes DITA unique is the large user community and freely available online support groups that make it an unparalleled standard – making adoption easy. When you take into consideration all of DITA’s attributes, if you haven’t looked into DITA, you should.

What Does DITA Do?

There is one key misunderstanding when it comes to DITA. DITA in and of itself doesn’t really do anything! DITA is essentially the shape of the box in which you will store information. It provides a hierarchical framework on which you can mold information and make sense to your knowledge workers. But without a solid implementation strategy, DITA will not help your organization manage information any better.

Once you have decided that the DITA model, along with its flexibility through specialization, works and you begin to formulate your implementation strategy, it is important to also understand the limitations. DITA was created by IBM to essentially offer “content management like” functionality on a file system. It has intelligence built into the model to enable things like topic-level authoring, content re-use, and global update. These features can be leveraged to make your information more useful.

DITA allows for organization of content into reusable units called “topics,” each of which has a distinct purpose and can be reused in various combinations to produce multiple outputs. Topics are held together by a “DITA map” which acts as a table of contents that points to various topics. Authoring of topics, creation of personalized outputs, and publishing for customers – whether for consumption through a hard copy manual, online help system, or mobile device – can be done with XMetaL® Author 5.0, the new XML authoring software from JustSystems, which provides unparalleled DITA support.

The key to a successful DITA implementation is the organization of DITA topics in your file or content management system in such a way that they are both accessible and reusable.

What Does DITA Not Do?

On the one hand, DITA facilitates reuse of information across deliverables and business units within an enterprise, but on the other hand, there is no mechanism within DITA itself to search for information to reuse. Also, if you are considering changing the content of a topic or deleting a topic altogether you have no way of knowing what impact that change or deletion may have on your information as a whole. Additionally, DITA doesn’t by itself provide a way of storing metadata around your information, versioning your topics, managing security, nor providing process automation via workflow. So for many organizations, DITA by itself on a file management system may not be enough. The more information and content you have, the more it makes sense to use DITA with a content management system.

The Promise of Content Management

Content management systems (CMS) have been around for more than a decade now but the promise of the “right system” for an entire organization’s needs has not been realized.  While there are several excellent systems in the market place, there still are many unsolved problems. For example, while CMS systems often promise the elimination of information silos by providing a single enterprise-wide repository, often times the truth is that different divisions have different content needs or different aggregations of the same information. Moreover, each CMS approaches information slightly differently and is somewhat dependent upon the content model for optimal performance.

What Does Content Management Do?

There is much that a CMS can bring to the table to round out a solid DITA strategy. Content management systems add an additional level of intelligence to your content and assist you in the effective organization of your DITA topics. Most commercial systems offer capabilities to facilitate reuse of content elements, discover where any piece of content is in use, enforce user security, manage metadata and storage, expose search capability, automate workflow, and implement version control.

However, be aware that many content management systems will claim to support DITA “because DITA is just another DTD.” The issue is then not if a CMS supports DITA, but how it supports DITA. Many CMS vendors use the same terminology and talk about similar features so if you’re a first time buyer, it can be difficult to differentiate between the best CMSs from the rest. A few of the leading CMS platform vendors do have DITA specific editions of their system and can have proven experience in DITA implementations. These DITA specific editions are typically very robust in their use of the DITA model and often have several features built-in that enable you to leverage things like1 and DITA maps. So if you’re implementing DITA, consider not just the creation side of the content lifecycle, but DITA-specific CMS functionality to optimize use of the DITA model.

What Does Content Management Not Do?

Much like DITA on its own, a CMS on its own doesn’t really do anything. Most have rich functionality and are highly configurable, enabling you to use any number of content models. And for an effective implementation, all XML content management systems are dependent upon the data model. The idea is that the CMS, by providing features on top of a file structure or database, can add intelligence to your content model. As we have seen above, this is true as long as you have selected the right content model and information hierarchy and are leveraging that model so that it is understandable to your knowledge workers.

How does it all fit together? XMetaL Author 5.0 – Content Creation, Publishing, CMS Integration with DITA

DITA as a content model is effective and provides intelligence around your information to improve productivity of your knowledge workers and accuracy of your information. Some companies may choose to start creating content in DITA topics and maps with XMetaL® Author and a file management system. However, using a DITA-capable CMS along with XMetaL Author is essential for content-rich organizations to fully realize the promise of XML and DITA, as they provide critical components such as searching, versioning, security, and workflow.

Further, with the XMetaL Connector, users can create one main interface for knowledge workers – eliminating the need to switch between XMetaL Author and the CMS to search for and then reuse content. The XMetaL Connector is unique as it enables you to connect to numerous CMS systems – which is ideal for organizations that have already deployed and use a different CMS in each division or department.

Then, after DITA topics are created and assembled in DITA maps, writers can create final published pieces for multiple destinations (print, PDF, online, or help systems) using the DITA Open Toolkit and other publishing engines. With XMetaL Author, complexities of the Toolkit are removed and users can use a simple interface to preview and publish customer-facing items.

With the release of the new version of XMetaL Author, which leads the industry in DITA support, content creators can now truly utilize the authoring interface to effectively create, reuse, manage, and publish content. As a result, companies are able to capitalize on the promise of XML and DITA for information publishing speed and accuracy.


1 Conref stands for content reference, a linking method for content reuse.