B2B standards push faces big challenges

The words open and standards can be loaded terms in the world of business-to-business e-commerce, but IBM this week promised to remake its middleware products around what it hopes will be open Internet standards that can nudge corporate users closer to achieving a free flow of information between companies.

Even so, some users and analysts questioned whether technology vendors will ultimately be able to curb their proprietary tendencies and make the standards that IBM has embraced capable of being used in mission-critical business-to-business transactions. And IBM itself acknowledged that more work remains to be done.

"It's a big animal to move," said Dave Kulakowski, a South Bend, Ind.-based development and technology manager at the aircraft landing systems division of Honeywell International Inc. "I don't know that any one company can get you there by itself . . . My guess is it's going to take a long time to build those connections."

By the end of next month, under a Web services architecture plan announced earlier this week, IBM is due to release updated versions of its WebSphere application server, DB2 relational database, Tivoli Web management tools and Lotus Domino messaging software.

All the new releases will support the Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) delivery mechanism; the Universal Description, Discovery and Integration (UDDI) B2B directory; and Web Services Description Language (WSDL), which defines what services a business offers and how trading partners can electronically access those services (see story).

But Rod Smith, IBM's vice president for emerging technology, cautioned in an interview this week that airtight messaging security, transactional protocols and business process schema are all critical and still-unavailable pieces of the e-commerce puzzle. "I compare this to a 10-mile race, and we're still at the half- to three-quarter-mile [mark]," he said.

The finish line is a world in which corporations can freely exchange information both internally and externally, when and how they please. To date, most companies have been challenged to put their own IT houses in order and are attempting to share only limited amounts of information over the Web with customers and business partners.

Smith claimed that IBM's upcoming new releases will provide off-the-shelf tools that can at least get a lot of users into the race. But, he added, IBM and other technology vendors face the challenge of convincing skeptical IT managers that they can collaborate with one another to build products that will work together.

"Integration is not going to happen quickly," Smith said. "[Vendors] have always made it real difficult to do business, because we haven't built to standards. These new Web services are an attempt to change that."

Martin Marshall, an analyst at Zona Research Inc. in Redwood City, Calif., said IBM is breaking some new ground by making its existing middleware products suitable for business-to-business usage. "Wrappering legacy tools has huge potential," he said. "Why? Because [they've] already been debugged."

However, Marshall argued that giving companies a method to exchange information doesn't solve the major business-to-business challenges. "It's business process and workflow that is the real nub of this stuff," he said. "That's the level at which things get done. And right now, we don't know if it will be transferable or if that's where the proprietization takes place."

Microsoft Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc. and Oracle Corp. are also scheduled to release enabling technology and product suites that support Web services and business-to-business applications this year. Marshall said he expects few of the rival products to interoperate beyond the messaging and directory levels at first.

But Sun spokesman David Harrah said his company plans to support the same Internet standards as those in IBM's plan as "a cross-platform, vendor-neutral way of dishing up your data." And Microsoft was the original proponent of SOAP and has worked jointly with IBM on the development of the UDDI directory, which was launched earlier this month (see story).

Ted Schadler, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., said he expects users to demand that vendors adhere to certain standards like SOAP, UDDI and WSDL. But ultimately, he added, vendors will offer products before many of their customers have defined exactly what it is they want.

On the upside, Kulakowski said, the new WebSphere release promised by IBM will let Honeywell start pushing out to its suppliers and customers the Java-based objects it has been building internally for the past three years. Honeywell now has Java components on everything from safety reports on its shop floor to tool design needs and tracking.

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