UBL Raising E-Com Hopes

 
 
By John Taschek  |  Posted 2003-02-17
 
 
 

Since the advent of e-commerce, standards bodies have been seeking a lingua franca for business communication. Unfortunately, early efforts such as EDI had a high barrier to entry in terms of cost and complexity. However, a new specification—Universal Business Language—may deliver on the common-language promise.

More recently, XML and the public Internet were thought to be likely candidates to succeed electronic data interchange. XML, however, is so open that it fragmented into various schemas. Although these schemas are technically compatible with one another, they are next to useless for organizations trying to conduct e-commerce—just because the alphabets of various languages share the same characters does not mean that everyone is speaking the same language.

Still, four of the major XML schemas are widely used: cXML, or commerce XML, is used for automated order receipt and fulfillment and was spearheaded by Ariba Inc. and Sterling Commerce Inc., among others. xCBL (XML Common Business Library), which was developed by Veo Systems Inc. (purchased by Commerce One Operations Inc.) and was funded in part by the Department of Commerce, is widely used by Commerce One customers and their suppliers. RosettaNet and OAGIS (Open Application Group Integration Specification), meanwhile, are two of the more mature standards for business-to-business interoperability.

UBL, built on xCBL and governed by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards, is meant to be exactly what its name implies: a universal standard for B2B communication. The UBL technical committee released its first draft of the specification last week. eWeek Labs Director John Taschek recently spoke with Sun Microsystems Inc. XML Architect Jon Bosak—UBLs leading proponent, a founding member of OASIS and the former chair of the World Wide Web XML Coordination Group—about how UBL can play a part in enterprises now.

eWeek: Can UBL be summarized in a pithy statement as an early attempt to standardize EDI as XML?

Bosak: That would be a good characterization of ebXML [electronic business XML], which basically is an XML or Web services realization of EDI. The UBL effort actually started as a program to complete part of the ebXML stack by providing specifi- cations for the standard documents corresponding to the EDI "transaction sets" from X12 and UN/ EDIFACT. [Editors note: The Accredited Standards Committees X12 was the first cross-industry standard for e-commerce. The governing body of the UN/ EDIFACT (United Nations Electronic Data Interchange for Administration, Commerce and Trade) and ASC jointly developed core components for e-business with ebXML.] So from that angle, yes, the UBL schemas are the XML versions of EDI message specifications. But its equally correct to view UBL messages as the electronic versions of the traditional paper and fax documents upon which most trade is actually based. So one view of UBL is as the way well get EDI onto Web services. But its also the way well get traditional business into electronic commerce.

eWeek: Is the UBL announcement too preliminary to matter to most organizations?

Bosak: No, I dont think so. The schemas weve just released for review are sufficient to implement the basic buy/sell relationship that accounts for most actual trade. They will need further customization for the specialized versions used in certain industries, but I believe that those specialized versions will be based on the generic documents and data components instantiated in this release.

The UBL component library has been developed in close coordination with [UN/EDIFACT] guidelines and is slated for contribution to the U.N. business semantic registry. So what youre seeing now is quite likely very close to what the world will use for XML-based B2B for the next few years.

If I were in a business organization considering a move to XML, Id want to take a good, hard look at this review package to make sure that it meets my business requirements before it moves on to standardization.

eWeek: Siebel [Systems Inc.] has developed a bet-the-company strategy called UAN—or Universal Application Network. Does this announcement affect Siebels vision of what will happen with UAN? What does it mean for other companies trying to build universal application networks and how business processes fit into them?

Bosak: I dont believe that any of the players in this space have really thought through what theyre going to do with business messages outside the enterprise. Microsoft [Corp.] had a try at this with its .Net registry of XML schemas, but that died quietly a while ago, and I havent seen them propose anything to replace it.

eWeek: How will UBL tie into BPEL [Business Process Execution Language] and WSFL [Web Services Flow Language]?

Bosak: UBL is the XML expression of the documents we use for international trade. I leave it to the designers of BPEL and WSFL to figure out how theyre going to deal with that. UBL is just about standard messages; it assumes that choreography and business process modeling is taken care of at a different layer.

eWeek: What products will Sun make that will take advantage of this standard?

Bosak: No comment.

eWeek: In the future, does this somehow indicate that packaged applications will become unnecessary?

Bosak: No, not at all. But it should make packaged applications a lot easier to write. Processing a fixed XML tag set is vastly simpler than processing arbitrary XML. So I do think that well see the application space opening up to a much larger number of companies than the handful that dominate business software today.

eWeek: What tools will immediately make use of these schemas?

Bosak: Well, any generic XML tool can of course process the XML schemas. For example, in the UBL design work, weve been using some copies of XML Spy donated by Altova [GmbH] for this purpose.

I think the first specialized tools for UBL will probably be UBL page formatters and forms input programs because you can create functional versions of these just by configuring existing XML input and output tools.

A Java program that can display UBL documents on a PDA became available from Ambrosoft [Inc.] two days after we announced the schemas. I think youll see a lot of action in this area as independent implementers start to figure out what they can do with a standard XML markup for business.

eWeek: What are RosettaNet and others doing with this?

Bosak: RosettaNet is one of the data exchange organizations that has appointed liaisons to provide guidance and input to UBL. [See oasis-open.org/ committees/ubl/lsc.] Im sure they are taking a close look at what weve just released.

eWeek: How do DocBooks and ebXML tie in?

Bosak: DocBooks is an XML standard for books and articles, especially technical publications. Its a great example of a specific XML tag set developed by a whole industry to meet a specific need.

You might say that UBL is to business documents what DocBooks is to printed documents, but, of course, weve learned a lot about document design in the 10 years since DocBooks was originally developed.

With regard to ebXML, as I said earlier, ebXML is the initiative from which UBL came, so there is a perfect fit there. UBL assumes the kind of infrastructure that ebXML provides, and since ebXML is currently the only nonproprietary infrastructure for B2B, we think thats pretty important.

But theres no reason that UBL cant be used in a wide variety of other Web services frameworks, as well. They all need something to fit the slot labeled "message payload" in order to work for B2B, and Im not seeing anything else as well-thought-out as UBL to play that role.

eWeek: What happens to xCBL—does UBL affect it?

Bosak: Youre referring to the fact that UBL took xCBL as its starting point.

Starting with something that already had three years of e-commerce marketing experience built into it certainly gave UBL a big leg up on a credible solution, but the specification has evolved so much beyond xCBL at this point that it cant really be considered a direct replacement. You cant switch over from xCBL to UBL just by replacing the schemas—the vocabulary is different, and the use of W3C Schema technology has received another year and a half of development. So it should be fairly easy for xCBL users to map to UBL, but I dont know how quickly theyll be able to make the change. You should ask the people responsible for xCBL about that.

eWeek: Any other comments?

Bosak: I think its time for us to face the fact that electronic commerce is a form of commerce, not a form of electronics. People seem to forget that were not inventing a worldwide system of trade; weve already got one of those, and its taken about 4,000 years to put it in place. Its got its own methods, its own laws, its own systems of customs and taxation. Its unrealistic to think that well transform traditional business and legal systems overnight.

What we need are technologies like UBL and ebXML that allow businesses of every size to make the transition to electronic commerce incrementally, to upgrade pieces of their infrastructure in place so that they can achieve maximum [return on investment] within their particular context and with a minimum of disruption to their existing business. By providing standard XML versions of EDI messages and paper documents, UBL is designed to enable this incremental transition to electronic commerce.

eWeek Labs Director John Taschek is at john_taschek@ziffdavis.com.

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