Integration vendors extend EDI with EAI

Looking to capitalize on users' desire to trim EDI network charges and exploit emerging standards, EAI (enterprise application integration) vendors are increasingly touting their tools as a way to extend or replace existing EDI infrastructures.

According to many of the EAI companies, their integration middleware can unshackle rigid, batch-oriented EDI infrastructures to fuel real-time Internet transactions that tie into back-end systems and processes. Several EAI vendors are promoting their tools, for instance, as a way to incorporate EDI documents such as purchase orders into the overall flow of more complicated business processes that touch several internal enterprise systems before being delivered out to a partner.

"EDI VANs [value-added networks] are not those providing robust capabilities such as business process management or application integration," said Rick Clements, director of product marketing at SeeBeyond Technology Corp., in Monrovia, Calif. "One benefit of using EAI to extend EDI is getting a seamless infrastructure."

SeeBeyond, Tibco, webMethods, IBM, Microsoft, Vitria, and Iona are among the players who hope to cash in on the push by large customers such as Wal-Mart to migrate its network of suppliers to EDI over the Internet.

A new IT spending forecast for 20003 from analyst firm AMR Research, in Boston, found that enterprises are undergoing a flip-flop of sorts, with a greater percentage of users beginning to opt for Internet-based EDI. Interestingly, however, the total percentage of EDI implementations is not decreasing, according to Kimberly Knickle, research director at AMR.

The Wal-Marts of the world savor the cost-savings associated with moving off an EDI VAN and feel they have leverage to ask partners to join them now that standards such as AS2 have emerged to add security to EDI traffic running over HTTPS. Consequently, many EAI vendors are building AS2 compliance directly into their integration platforms and adapters as one means of enticing the EDI faithful.

"The application integration vendors have finally figured out that EDI isn't going anywhere, so they're trying to find ways to support it," said Ken Vollmer, an industry analyst with Giga Information Group, based in Cambridge, Mass.

Support sounds good to many businesses that want to leverage their hefty EDI investments while also taking advantage of the cost savings that using the Internet can afford.

Vollmer added, however, that because EDI is not a one-size-fit-all proposition, it is highly unlikely that any one market segment or e-trading approach will prevail. For example, smaller companies with a limited number of partners and EDI transactions are better off sticking with their VAN provider -- and those monthly, usage-based charges -- while behemoths that sport myriad suppliers should go the Internet route.

In addition, many of the traditional EDI providers such as Sterling Commerce and Harbinger are beginning to offer their own back-end integration and process automation features, becoming what AMR Research analyst Bob Parker called the "dark horses" in the race to extend EDI into the broader enterprise infrastructure.

And there are hidden costs with EAI that go beyond the outlay for the expensive software itself. EAI tools provide redundant qualities of service offered by a VAN, such as data transformation, secure messaging and non-repudiation, but unlike a VAN, EAI systems require in-house IT specialists and support staff to manage it all.

"When an organization decides to replace a VAN solution, they are making a commitment to 'insource' the functionality that they previously received from the VAN," Vollmer said, adding that the cost savings, in the end, may not be as significant as one might think.

And then there are the competitors already positioned to focus purely on connecting external trading partners for EDI over the Internet or a VAN. Cyclone Commerce, for one, has nabbed 30 of the 40 biggest suppliers of consumer packaged goods among its installed base. For instance, 10 of Wal-Mart's top 12 suppliers are standardized on Cyclone either through directs sales or via OEM relationships for IBM's WebSphere or Sterling Commerce's Direct Connect.

Jeff Kukowsi, Cyclone's vice president of marketing, said the majority of its customers already have existing EAI solutions for integrating internal applications. But solving the problem of linking external partners rapidly for data exchange requires an open platform with support for a slew of standards, he asserts. In addition to supporting the AS2 Internet EDI standard that Wal-Mart is pushing its suppliers to use, Cyclone also supports the earlier version of that standard -- As1 -- and ebXML, while many of the EAI vendors do not, he added.

"None of these vendors really takes the perspective that they need to do all of these because many customers want flexibility," Kukowski said. "They have come up with simple, rudimentary programming-driven options to connect with trading partners. If they had to do more than two or three connections, just making simple changes could take days. It's expensive."

Cyclone's Interchange product is a prepackaged trading hub solution designed to quickly create Internet trading communities without writing custom code. Its unifying architecture manages individual company preferences so partners can connect and communicate using almost all data types and business protocols.

"Cyclone technology...automates the change management via this central profile repository," Kukowski said. "That is a huge deal if b-to-b is ever going to scale."

Do it Best, a Fort Wayne, Ind.-based retail cooperative of lumber, hardware, and building materials, leverages Cyclone for EDI with its supplier partners, said James McLauchlin, Do it Best EDI coordinator.

The company tapped Cyclone to leverage its ability to interoperate with the wide variety of systems deployed by its 4,300 members, McLauchlin said.

"The Cyclone product has been very configurable, and it's pretty open standards-based, less proprietary than other one-off solutions we have done before," McLauchlin said.

In addition, the cooperative utilizes features such as non-repudiation of messages and adjustable security levels from Cyclone, he added.

McLauchlin has only one partner utilizing EDI via an EAI platform, but establishing that connection was temporarily hampered by interoperability problems, he explained.

In the end, EAI will have a role to play but predominantly among companies that have the wherewithal to integrate all of their internal systems and extend it to their partners -- with EDI transactions in the mix, AMR's Knickle said.

" EAI's approach is valid if you want to centralize all of your integration," Knickle said. "But that can be tricky, because you have people in-house that manage your EDI, some who manage your B2BI [business-to-business integration] and one who does internal EAI. These groups are getting closer, but they still don't talk all that much."

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