Building a better B-to-B marketplace

Web services hold great promise for bringing businesses and their applications together, but many of the integration particulars remain murky. As a result, CTOs are questioning the potential of Web services and, as our 2001 InfoWorld Web Services Survey indicates, their XML implementations have been slow to get off the ground. Less than 25 percent of the 500 respondents are even somewhat familiar with UDDI (Universal Description, Discovery, and Integration), the XML-based standard that allows businesses and customers to locate one another's Web services, and 36.8 percent are still researching and learning about XML.

It's really no surprise. Because Web services pioneers have been building architectural frameworks from the ground up, they have yet to address many of the top-level requirements necessary for conducting complex b-to-b transactions. Until it becomes clear exactly how Web services are going to facilitate transactions among business partners, IT and business leaders will be slow to prepare for implementing them.

But while Web services initiatives have been busy hammering out the specifications for cross-platform integration, a separate initiative, called ebXML (electronic business XML), has been tackling specifications that address specific e-business requirements. Designed to facilitate e-business interoperability, ebXML is a set of XML-based specifications and protocols not only for exchanging XML-based messages but also for modeling business processes, which is integral to collaborative e-business.

In other words, ebXML embraces existing Web services standards, including SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) with attachments for messaging transport, and supplements them with XML specifications that facilitate e-business. And although ebXML does not rely on the UDDI service registry, instead providing one of its own, it does not exclude interoperability with UDDI, making it possible for businesses to locate ebXML-ready services through UDDI registries. Because ebXML goes beyond UDDI to include key data for building b-to-b partnerships and transactions, there's a clear advantage to its use.

Using ebXML profiles, agreements, and core components, companies will be able to build standardized document exchanges that are easily adaptable through XML and readily available over the Internet. And because ebXML supports business process modeling, companies will be able to form complex supply-chain relationships based on Web services.

With its long list of provisions, from security and messaging to workflow processes and QoS (quality of service) agreements between trading partners, the ebXML specification is shaping up to provide the most comprehensive way to advance e-business integration.

Building a standard

The ebXML initiative was begun in 1999 by the United Nations Center for Trade Facilitation and Electronic Business and the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS), and it quickly came a long way.

As does UDDI, ebXML allows companies to describe and publish services utilizing a centralized registry and to engage outside services through XML-based messaging transports. But ebXML goes beyond UDDI and other service-oriented standards to allow companies to define specific business roles, relationships, and responsibilities during Web services transactions. Entire messaging workflows can be outlined to mimic real-world transaction scenarios, enabling detailed routing between services, sequencing of complex payloads, and insurance against transactional repudiation.

Using ebXML, companies can create CPPs (collaboration protocol profiles) outlining the process capabilities of a business, and they can establish CPAs (collaborative protocol agreements) with trading partners to help standardize both technical and business issues. A CPP outlines the specific processes, interface details, and protocols in which a company can engage, along with details such as the QoS levels they are capable of maintaining. The CPA is used to strike a deal for run-time parameters.

Unlike the general category of Web services, which has seen its share of vendor adaptation, ebXML has been successful in attracting the support of industry heavyweights across all industries. IBM Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc., and Cisco Systems Inc. were early supporters of the project. B-to-b companies, such as Ariba Inc., Commerce One Inc., and RosettaNet Inc., have all announced intentions to support the specification.

A good deal of work remains before the promise of ebXML will be fully realized, particularly in the development of the core components responsible for translating various industry data types, such as EDI (electronic data interchange), to an XML vocabulary.

Developers should be closely tracking ebXML alongside developing Web services standards. Given its industry-agnostic approach, convergence with developing standards, and strong industry momentum, ebXML appears poised to become the glue in global b-to-b transactions.

Test Center Managing Analyst James R. Borck can be reached at james_borck@infoworld.com.

THE BOTTOM LINE- ebXML

Executive Summary: Building on existing Web services standards, ebXML provides a set of specifications and protocols that allows partners to form complex e-business relationships and take advantage of XML-based messaging workflows that mimic real-world business processes.

Test Center Perspective: The ebXML standard has come a long way quickly, although much work remains before real-world deployment is viable. IT and business leaders should closely follow the developments of ebXML and other Web services standards to ensure that their companies will be able to support high-level collaborative e-commerce.

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More about AribaCiscoCommerce OneCPA AustraliaIBM AustraliaOrganization for the Advancement of Structured Information StandardsRosettaNetSun MicrosystemsUDDIUnited Nations

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