Try XML-based Extensible Business Reporting Language (XBRL) for accounting reports

A few years ago XML came to the fore – right away it was chock full of ways to transfer metadata over HTTP. That was the good news. The bad news was that there were so many industry-specific standards that it was difficult to keep track or keep up. Colleague William Brogden tracked this phenomena recently in his end-of-the year look at a full deck of off-the-shelf standards (

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''Whatever happened to 'X'?''). When there are so many standards it behooves the Web services developer community to take a wait-and-see attitude, less they spin their wheels.

Which brings us to XBRL. In the early 2000s, this format for sharing business data came to light. XBRL stands for Extensible Business Reporting Language. XBRL's initial creation is traced to the work of Charles Hoffman, who promoted the idea of using XML to structure financial statements. On SearchSOA.com in 2007, Daniel Rubio wrote about XBRL in ''XBRL, XML with a mind for business''.

In his story he showed an example of an XBRL instance document. And, he wrote:

XBRL's primary focus is on the financial community's needs to prepare, analyze and communicate business information. As is known to even those outside finance circles, a company's books often need to be expressed in numerous forms to satisfy not only local, state and federal authorities, but occasionally report on internal metrics perhaps only critical to senior management. It's definitely financial arcana, but when placed under an IT lens it's something that begets structure and it is precisely what XBRL offers.

XBRL defines a syntax that enables software to find, extract and interpret reporting facts. The XBRL framework splits business reporting information into two components: XBRL instances and taxonomies. The taxonomy defines reporting concepts; actual values are contained in XBRL instances and are referred to as "facts". The current specification for XBRL is version 2.1.

Tools are available to work with XBRL. These include validation tools, taxonomy creation tools, and instance document creation tools.

What's up next? XBRL may soon be due for new attention. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) last year proposed a schedule requiring the largest U.S. companies – those with a ''worldwide public float over $5 billion'' - to make financial disclosures using XBRL as part of their Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) filings.

Expect long-germinating XML formats to escape from the lab in months to come. Remember, the 'X' in XML stands for 'extensible.'

Related XBRL information
XBRL spec recommendations- XBRL.org
'XBRL, XML with a mind for business' - SearchSOA.com
XBRL tools - XBRL.org
SEC spotlight on XBRL - SEC.org

This was first published in February 2009

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