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DITA: The Darwin Information Typing Architecture


Amber Swope is a Principal Consultant in Content Lifecycle Solutions at JustSystems. Michael Priestley is the lead DITA architect for IBM, and co-editor of the OASIS DITA 1.0 and 1.1 specifications. They can be contacted at info@justsystems.com.


The Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA) is an open standard from the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) for creating, managing, and publishing modular content. It supports the definition of new content types within a comprehensive content ecosystem, and has been increasingly adopted across a wide range of content disciplines and industries.

DITA Overview

You will better understand how DITA can support your organization and how it can scale to meet your enterprise content needs by first understanding the basics of DITA standardization.

DITA Topics and Maps

DITA is a modular, structured, XML framework based on topic-oriented content. This means that content developers author units of content, called "topics," which can then be assembled into deliverables, such as books and Web pages. Typically, each topic covers a specific subject with a singular intent; for example, a conceptual topic that provides a system overview, or a procedural topic that tells readers how to accomplish a task.

In addition to chunking information into small units, DITA structures content by type. By default, DITA provides a base type, topic, and several more specialized types: task, concept, reference, and glossary entry. Each type has a specific structure that defines the valid elements that can exist within that type. For example, DITA does not allow you to create a <step> element in a concept topic because steps are parts of procedures and thus belong in task topics.

You can organize topics into collections using a DITA map, which can then be used to generate a Portable Document Format (PDF) file, Web site, or other information application. Maps can reference topics and other maps. Because the same topics and maps can be reused in many different collections and deliverables, DITA enables a powerful reuse architecture that can scale from simple Web pages or newsletters up to complex inter-related libraries or information centers.

DITA Specialization

No one set of content types could meet the needs of every organization or even of a given organization as it grows. For this reason, DITA supports the creation of new content types and collection types as required. Specialized types can exist at many different levels: for example, a relatively generic type such as reference might be specialized for a particular subject area, such as semiconductor design, or for a particular company's needs, or for a product area within a company.

Specialized types can inherit associated behaviors from their more generic ancestors, so even new DITA content types can be included in standard publishing streams, although it is common to extend processing to take advantage of some of the new markup. For example, a new content type for policy analysis might introduce sections for risks versus rewards, and processing could be extended to automatically create subheadings for the new section types.

DITA Support

DITA is an open-source standard approved and supported by OASIS. Participating OASIS members, drawn from active vendor and broad user communities, work together on the DITA Technical Committee to evolve the DITA specification. In addition to vendor-specific implementations of the standard, the DITA Open Toolkit provides open-source processing support for the specification. As DITA matures, more companies and organizations are participating on the Technical Committee and its subcommittees, contributing functionality to the Open Toolkit, and contributing specializations to the community.

Because of the benefits of XML in general, such as the separation of content from format, and of DITA in particular, DITA is becoming a popular information model in today's global, multi-channel environment.

Maturity Model Investment/Return Summary

One of DITA's most attractive features is its support for incremental adoption: You can adopt DITA quickly and easily using a subset of its capabilities, and then add investment over time as your content strategy evolves and expands. However, this incremental continuum has also resulted in confusion, as communities at different stages of adoption claim radically different numbers for cost of migration and return on investment.

The DITA Maturity Model addresses this confusion by dividing DITA adoption into six levels, each with its own required investment and associated return on investment. You can assess your own capabilities and goals relative to the model and choose the appropriate initial adoption level for your needs and schedule.

[Click image to view at full size]
Figure 1: DITA Maturity Model

The DITA Maturity Model: Investment/Return Summary

  • Level 1: Topics. Achieve simple single-sourcing by migrating current XML content sources.
  • Level 2: Scalable reuse. Achieve flexible reuse by architecting content using DITA topics and maps.
  • Level 3: Specialization and customization. Achieve quality and consistency by expanding DITA architecture to a full content model, which explicitly defines the content types required to meet different author and audience needs and specifies how to meet those needs using structured, typed content.
  • Level 4: Automation and integration. Achieve speed and efficiency by leveraging investments in semantics with automation of key processes, and unify the semantics across different specializations or authoring disciplines.
  • Level 5: Semantics on demand. Achieve dynamic personalization as DITA is adopted as a cross-application, cross-silo solution that shares a common semantic currency for content authoring and management needs.
  • Level 6: Universal semantic ecosystem. Achieve universal knowledge management with a new kind of semantic ecosystem that can move with content across old boundaries, wrap unstructured content, and provide validated integration with semi-structured content and managed data sources.


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