Appliance enables e-business exchange

One of the ongoing nightmares for enterprise IT managers is the laborious work needed to exchange data between applications. But one electronics manufacturer has been using a specialized server that dramatically simplifies this work for e-business.

Eldec Corp. has cut electronic order processing from a couple of days to less than an hour by using the Syncx Integration Appliance from CommerceRoute Inc. The device reads a data source, converts the format into XML and lets a user map the XML format into one of many target data formats. The box combines CommerceRoute software (based on data integration work by several of the company's co-founders while at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory), one or more Intel processors, and a couple of IP network interfaces. The box, designed for the data center, can be clustered, and the processing load shared among them.

The appliance readily handled the tough translation work between an electronic data interchange (EDI) protocol used by Eldec's main customers, and Eldec's Oracle-based manufacturing and financial applications.

"One of the reasons we're excited about the CommerceRoute appliance, is we could see beyond the [immediate issue] of inputting orders and outputting invoices," says Michael Oleson, director of IT for Eldec, a Lynnwood, Wash., unit of Crane. "It's a means to integrate [any] two different data systems. We'll be able to say to customers who don't have electronic data interchange, 'Give us whatever [data format] you can and we'll handle it.'"Syncx includes a discovery program that uses HTTPS to connect to and then "read" the data source, such as an Oracle database. This program deciphers the Oracle data model and separates out the various elements of the model. Then a Syncx "transform" program translates the Oracle data to an XML dialect. The XML data can be fed directly into an XML processor or converted into yet another data format.

There is no database tuning, no operating system with which to tinker. "This is a locked-down box," says Ted Colton, a vice president with CommerceRoute, a privately held start-up that began selling the device last December. The box can process XML and HTML documents, flat files, X12 and other EDI protocols, and a range of popular relational databases.

But it has limitations, Colton says. Syncx doesn't yet work with legacy data formats such as CICS or mainframe data formats such as IMS. Nor is it a workflow engine - it can't juggle the back-and-forth sequence of steps that form complex business processes.

But the device has done all that Eldec wanted it to do, Oleson says. Airlines electronically submit about 200 to 300 orders per month for Eldec's electronic sensing equipment or for spare parts, using the Spec2000 protocol developed by the airline industry. But in the past, once orders arrived, the order entry staff had to print out the data from them and manually rekey it. The process was time-consuming, complex and prone to errors, and it took about two days to get a final order into the Oracle database. Trying to translate Spec2000 for use by the Oracle database used by Eldec's Oracle Financial and Manufacturing applications was unexpectedly complicated, Oleson says.

In mid-January, Eldec brought in a Syncx appliance. CommerceRoute engineers developed a software preprocessor to convert the Spec2000 protocol into XML. Using the Syncx graphical interface, Oleson's team then put the XML data into Oracle database tables.

Now Spec2000 orders are funneled into the Oracle database, while other Spec2000 data, such as quote requests and order changes, are automatically formatted into e-mail and routed to the appropriate people. Before using Syncx, this data was printed out and manually distributed.

The Syncx price starts at US$25,000. "Our alternative was going to be a lot of custom development, at contract [pay] rates," Oleson says.


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