App Conflicts Cleaned Up

Messaging protocols ebXML and SOAP consolidate, making it simpler, easier for developers

The convergence of two overlapping messaging protocols will be a boon for developers in their quest to get applications to interoperate over the Internet.

At issue are two specifications, ebXML (electronic business Extensible Markup Language) and SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol), which at times have worked at cross-purposes in trying to set a standard for how messages are wrapped and packaged when sent from one place to another.

That was solved late last month when the ebXML group, which is overseen by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards, or OASIS, and the e-business arm of the United Nations, agreed to scrap a portion of its work on ebXML in favor of SOAP.

The ebXML group, which focuses on developing standards for doing business over the Internet, will incorporate and build on top of SOAP 1.1 as the underlying messaging layer. More than 100 vendors are involved with ebXML, including Sun Microsystems Inc. and IBM. IBM also joined Microsoft Corp. and others on the 1.1 version of SOAP, and a working group at the World Wide Web Consortium is looking at the messaging protocol.

The two will remain separate, but now ebXML-developed applications and SOAP applications will understand each other; SOAP is generally considered more suitable for lightweight applications, while ebXML was designed more for heavy-duty applications. Either way, developers said the consolidation will simplify their jobs.

"As fast as things are changing, its a headache" to keep up with competing standards, said Dennis Wellington, an independent developer in Shell Point, Fla., who has already started working with SOAP, which Wellington said appears to require less training than other emerging technologies.

"It doesnt mean that this is guaranteed to work, but it does remove an important obstacle," said Tim Bray, co-author of XML and CEO of Systems Inc., in Vancouver, British Columbia. "The people who are involved in ebXML have been involved in this world a long time; theyre the people who built EDI [electronic data interchange] systems. [Their decision] is a very, very powerful vote in favor of SOAP having real-world impact."

David Winer, CEO of UserLand Software Inc., in Millbrae, Calif., and one of the SOAP authors, said, "The smaller the number of ways of communication over the Internet between applications, the more likely it is to work."

Developers who worked on ebXML said that, technically, the integration was easy but that the issue went beyond technology. Microsoft had not really been involved in the ebXML effort, and some people were leery about SOAP initially because of Microsofts involvement.

"This was obviously a political issue. It wasnt a technical one," said Klaus-Diter Naujok, chairman of the ebXML group and chief technology officer of Netfish Technologies Inc., in Santa Clara, Calif. "[Now] if you want to do BizTalk or ebXML, the underlying infrastructure is pretty much aligned."

Microsoft is helping the ebXML group incorporate SOAP but hasnt committed to working with the group beyond that, said David Turner, Microsofts senior program manager for XML technology, in Redmond, Wash.

"Certainly, this is going to make the adoption or development of ebXML implementations more straightforward," said Turner, who expects the W3C to have a refined specification ready by fall.

But the move to incorporate SOAP into ebXML may have been a savvy one as well. SOAP has a lot more traction than ebXML, users said.

Larry Zucker, executive director of application development for Dollar Rent A Car Systems Inc., in Tulsa, Okla., said the company has been recoding its applications for various partners.

"This allows us to put one thing out there that anybody can talk to," said Zucker, whose company is releasing its first SOAP-based application for booking reservations this week. "Another big draw is [SOAP] is exceedingly simple."