webMethods courts EDI users

Setting its sights on companies invested in traditional EDI, webMethods this week re-aligned its targets on the once high-flying business-to-business integration market.

Fairfax, Va.-based webMethods unveiled two new solutions that claim to infuse rigid, batch process EDI implementations with more collaborative capabilities. Available now, webMethods Solution Suite for Collaborative EDI leverages business process management functionality to enhance EDI document exchange with more complex business interactions between trading partners, officials said.

For example, a customer sending an EDI-based order request to a supplier might also want to implement a business process dubbed "availability to promise," which asks the supplier to provide a response in real time about when it can ship the product. Batch-mode EDI doesn't enable a real-time response without manual intervention. Using webMethods, the business process would execute automatically, pulling data from back-end inventory systems to gauge shipping time, and then transforming the response into an EDI format to send back to the customer, according to Pat Condon, senior manager of strategic planning for webMethods.

"For new business processes, the challenge in doing EDI is that documents are complicated technically or in batch systems that don't support real-time," said Condon. "Our integration platform co-exists with EDI to support those documents through the business process."

The second EDI product builds on Solution Suite for Collaborative EDI by adding workflow capabilities that trigger automatic human intervention at certain points in a business process, such as when a purchase approval is required, Condon said.webMethods appears to be "moving back to its roots" of b-to-b integration, after nearly a year of focusing on internal enterprise integration, according to Jon Derome, analyst at Boston-based Yankee Group. But he said the EDI solution only addresses one aspect -- improved process management -- of the current EDI conundrum.

"It's not clear to me how this technology overcomes the investment hurdle that has inhibited EDI adoption by smaller partners," said Derome.

Indeed, the high fees associated with tapping into multiple EDI networks have prevented many small and midsize companies from reaping the benefits of e-business trading relationships.

In related news this week, Computer Associates subsidiary ACCPAC and IBM Global Services look to address the problem with a partnership aimed at helping ACCPAC applications users circumvent the EDI cost hurdle. ACCPAC makes enterprise applications for the mid-tier, including software and ASP services in accounting, financial, warehouse management, and CRM.

ACCPAC Exchange uses the Internet as the transportation medium for EDI processing, allowing smaller players to transmit EDI documents but avoid linking into costly EDI VANs (value added networks) to do it, officials said.

Instead, ACCPAC users route documents to IBM's data centers, which handles re-routing them to specific EDI VANs, according to Craig Downing, vice president of product management at Pleasanton, Calif.-based ACCPAC.

The cost of ACCPAC Exchange runs about $100 per month versus a typical $1,000 per month fee in VAN charges, which should help smaller suppliers meet their large customers' demand for EDI compliance.

"Let's face it, no one voluntarily does EDI, they do it because Wal-Mart tells them to," said Downing.

Both EDI initiatives this week indicate a renewed interest in b-to-b technologies, according to analysts.

"It's a market that rose too quickly in '98 and '99 and probably fell further than it should have in 2001 and 2002," said Derome. "We might be seeing a right-sizing of the market where companies invest in technologies to improve communication between companies."

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