EbXML partners show off EDI for the rest of us

Ten vendors Tuesday joined forces to demonstrate business transactions over ebXML (electronic business Extensible Markup Language), a specification designed to make electronic trading possible for small and medium-sized businesses around the world.

Sun Microsystems Inc., Cisco Systems Inc., IBM Corp. and other vendors participated in the demonstration, in which simulated buyers and sellers found each other, sealed a contract for supplies and exchanged information about materials being transported.

The specification is intended to provide a framework for companies to exchange all information necessary for e-commerce without the need for relatively expensive and complicated EDI (electronic data interchange) software. A PC and an Internet connection may be all that is needed to participate in online commerce using ebXML, event organizers said.

Sponsored by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Systems (OASIS), ebXML also is backed by the United Nations Center for Trade Facilitation and Electronic Commerce (UN/CEFACT), the body that created the current international standard for EDI.

Tuesday's demonstration here marked the completion of the core of ebXML's messaging (transport, routing and packaging) service, which OASIS officials said was finished ahead of schedule. That part of the specification has been agreed to by representatives of development groups worldwide and is unlikely to change significantly, so vendors can start to write it into products, said Bill Smith, president of OASIS and an employee of Sun's XML Technology Center.

The overall specification has not yet received final approval. The other key parts of ebXML -- repository registration and CPA (collaborative partner agreement) -- will be essentially complete by a February meeting of OASIS in Vancouver, Canada, Smith said. At that date, ebXML will be ready for vendors to confidently implement it, two months earlier than had been projected.

About 2,000 developers at 100 companies on six continents are working on ebXML, he said. OASIS also is working with the retail industry's Global Commerce Initiative and the Automobile Industry Action Group on developing the standard.

Among the other companies participating in the event were XMLSolutions Corp., Sterling Commerce Inc., Fujitsu Corp., NTT Communications, Savvion Inc., Viquity Corp. and TIE Holding NV subsidiary TIE Commerce.

The specification is not intended to compete against traditional EDI or against the UDDI (universal description, discovery and integration) standard, but to complement them, according to Sun's Smith and other participants. Whereas UDDI acts simply as a Yellow Pages-type directory, ebXML will include strong provisions for reliability and security, Smith said. For example, UDDI might be adequate for finding a babysitter, ebXML meets the requirements of $100 million deals, he explained.

For instance, when a company agrees to import a ship full of auto parts from South Korea, "you want to make sure that only one shipment is made," Smith said.

The ebXML standard can even be extended to include information governments need for customs processing, he added, though Smith acknowledged it will take time before importing and exporting can be carried out without a physical form or signature.

In one of Tuesday's demonstration here, a buyer searched an ebXML repository for a seller based on a set of qualifications. The search tool brought up a list of vendors, from which the buyer picked one and sent a proposed contract. The seller checked the proposal and clicked an "Accept" button and the deal was approved.

In another demonstration, an auto maker and an auto dealer automatically exchanged messages about the status of a shipment of cars.

The specification is intended for companies with fewer than 1,000 employees, and as small as one-person companies, and will be implemented in ERP (enterprise resource planning) applications, middleware and Internet-based exchanges, developers at the event said.

"We expect to bring the benefits of EDI to the vast majority of the world's businesses," Smith said.

Vendors at the event said ebXML will make it easier to provide lightweight, inexpensive software and online commerce systems to small businesses even in developing countries.

"They may not have an ERP system, but they can receive a purchase order over the Internet and respond to it," said Philippe De Smedt , an architect at e-business software vendor Viquity.

As long as a company can use HTTP (hypertext transport protocol) and SMTP (simple mail transfer protocol), they could participate in e-commerce through a Web browser interface, said Jacques Durand, vice president of Savvion, in an interview following the demonstration. Savvion plans to include an ebXML adapter in the next version of its business process management software, due out in February, Durand added.

The specification may help TIE Commerce's Hong Kong unit provide online commerce capabilities to small and medium-sized businesses, the vast majority of businesses in that territory.

With existing ERP software, "it's very challenging to get a small PC-based application put on a floppy so they can just put it in their PCs," and especially to integrate such software with existing ERP rules and terminology, said Joe Dalman, chief operating officer at TIE, in an interview following the demonstration.

While ebXML may represent a boon to small businesses that can now do business with the big boys, it also holds promise for large companies that want to eliminate expensive paper-based systems they now need for doing business with small suppliers, said Dale Moberg, manager of Internet strategy at Sterling Commerce's Commerce Services Group.

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