XML: Plugging into Standard Hybrids

Some standards reach acceptance, but the struggle against fragmentation continues.

It was supposed to be so simple. XML would enable companies to move beyond paper-, e-mail- and electronic data interchange-based commerce to the world of Internet transactions.

Having such an open platform was supposed to provide a lower-cost way for developing applications that would be universally accessible to all of a companys business partners.

Now, more than three years after XMLs introduction, IT shops implementing industry-specific variants find themselves looking at multiyear, multimillion-dollar projects that leave two fundamental obstacles unchallenged: how to shift partners from trading through traditional means to trading with XML and how to interoperate with other industries.

These vertical-industry XML flavors for many companies have created walls around their Internet trading software that require more code to be written and more expense incurred to make sure that some potential buyers or suppliers can take part in business-to- business e-commerce.

Whats needed now, in the view of IT managers, software vendors and analysts, is a horizontal XML blueprint of sorts to describe a syntax and vocabulary that vertical industries can use to interoperate with B2B trading software from other verticals. ebXML (electronic business XML) is being touted as one solution—not just another XML variation but an architecture that provides a horizontal messaging framework.

Other cross-industry standards in the works include UBL (Universal Business Language) and XSL (Extensible Stylesheet Language).

However, until a universal standard or set of standards is agreed upon, vertical industries will continue to support individual XML standards that do not interoperate.

Auto industry electronic trading hub Covisint LLC provides an example of why a horizontal XML standard is needed. The Southfield, Mich., company is endorsing ebXML, but a huge chunk of its supplier base—companies in the chemicals and plastics industries—are backing a different vertical-industry XML flavor called CIDX, the Chemical Industry Data Exchange standard.

The Dow Chemical Co., of Midland, Mich., is implementing CIDX while integrating its back-end systems with Elemica Ltd., a chemical industry trading hub analogous to Covisint.

So a supplier of chemicals wanting to trade electronically with an automaker using Covisint and with Dow using Elemica, for example, would have to install adapters in its B2B software so that it would understand both ebXML and CIDX. The number of deployments would proliferate if that supplier wanted to trade with other vertical hubs, such as the food industrys Transora Inc. or the ForestExpress LLC forest products hub.

"One of the issues we have at Dow Chemical is, youve got Covisint out there, Transora, Forest Express—all these different trading hubs," said Andy DuPont, director of electronic market channels at Dow. "Weve said [to Covisint], We want to support you, but you have to do that through Elemica. Well support the other hubs that are out there, but well do it through our hub [using CIDX]."

Implementing XML or one of its flavors is time-consuming. Dow is in the midst of a multiyear effort to deploy nine types of CIDX messages.

BASF Corp. is also backing the CIDX standard and connecting to Elemica. The wrestling match among the Elemica hub and others boils down to size, according to Eric Greenfeder, manager of research and development at BASF.

"It would be nice for us to say to Covisint, Youre going to do it this way! But whats the chance of that happening? It all depends on what your bargaining position is with that entity." Its when BASF has trading partners that have selected standards other than CIDX that a struggle ensues over whos going to support which standard, according to Greenfeder.

"The problem is, if the communication layer isnt the same, you have to implement this whole document security and transport enveloping, which gets pretty costly," said Greenfeder, in Mount Olive, N.J. "You have to encode HTTP headers, have certain certificates placed in an envelope a certain way. So if some of the standards bodies can decouple that [process] and standardize, at least you can get messages in, parse that, and its pretty much a mapping effort from there."

Message in a bottle

XML was adopted as a standard by the World Wide Web Consortium in 1998. Coupled with an integration solution, XML serves as an interface layer or wrapper for data being passed among data sources, making it possible for a wide variety of applications, legacy systems and databases to exchange information. Variants of XML leverage that basic technology to create transactions for specific industries.

In 2000, with a head of steam behind B2B, leading companies in a number of vertical industries banded to set up their own industry-specific standards. Despite politics and infighting among overlapping standards bodies and the arrival of proprietary offerings from software vendors, some XML-based standards have emerged as successful. Some leaders include CIDX and IFX, or International Financial Exchange, in the financial industry.

But RosettaNet, a standard for the electronics industry developed by a consortium of major IT, electronic-components and semiconductor manufacturing companies, has enjoyed the most success to date. Some software vendors, including Microsoft Corp., have either built RosettaNet adapters into their B2B e-commerce offerings or integrated the standard into their software.

On the user side, companies like Intel Corp., Arrow Electronics Inc. and Sharp Electronics Corp. have implemented RosettaNet PIPs--Partner Interface Processes. A PIP is a specialized system-to-system XML-based dialog that allows a businesss B2B infrastructure to respond appropriately to e-commerce messages.

Faced with the proliferation of these XML variants, standards bodies OASIS, or the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards, and the United Nations Centre for Trade Facilitation and Electronic Business sponsored development of ebXML as a cross-industry electronic glue.

ebXML is a modular suite of specifications that provides a messaging and enveloping standard for companies to exchange e-business messages, communicate data in common terms, and define and register business processes. It encompasses five areas: Messaging, a TPP (Trading Partner Profile), a Registry/Repository, a Core Component and a Business Process component.

The TPP is a way to represent electronically the parameters that describe a business in XML. The Registry/Repository houses a companys TPP and allows for XML-based queries on specific types of businesses. The Core Component draws from data elements that are within EDI--name, address, dollar amount of transaction--as well as XML standards to construct new data elements without having to define lower-level XML. The Business Process component allows users to define business scenarios between trading partners that are independent of the underlying technology.

However, filling out the technical details of ebXML has not all been smooth sailing. The work on ebXML is split between two organizations that are suffering from political infighting, according to Jeff Eck, vice chair of the OASIS ebXML Implementation, Interoperability & Compliance group, as well as the global product manager for GE Global Exchange Services.

"Some groups [at OASIS] made some very good progress quickly," said Eck, in Gaithersburg, Md.

However, the Core Component group did not make as much progress as the others. Realizing this, several members outside that group formed a technical committee to speed things, according to Eck. From that effort was born the UBL group, which met in October.

With UBL, OASIS is beginning to look at B2B at the vocabulary level, according to Rita Knox, an analyst at Gartner Inc., in Stamford, Conn.

"What theyve said is, Lets work on a common basic vocabulary, and well put it out there and people can reuse it as they drill down [into vertical areas]. That core will be reusable, like a dictionary," Knox said.

The UBL committee is taking as its starting point Commerce One Inc.s XML Common Business Library. It is not expected to come out with a working document for at least another year, according to Eck.

The W3C is taking an even more aggressive approach to solving the cross-industry e-commerce communications dilemma. Its XSL effort not only defines data but also takes the extra step of defining how data behaves, which is a big step, according to P.G. Bartlett, vice president of marketing at content management software developer Arbortext Inc. and a founding member of the W3C.

"XML lets you declare what something is; XSL gives you a way of saying, Heres how the title should be displayed, heres how its supposed to look," said Bartlett, in Ann Arbor, Mich.

The W3C is also working on an XML schema specification that provides a way to determine whether the content of an XML document is valid and an XML Query specification that provides a language for searching data repositories.

"The big thing were seeing now-–and we always figured this would come-–is using XML on formally unstructured data," said Bartlett. "Going from structured to unstructured is huge."

Meanwhile, RosettaNet is working on a business process document as well as a technical document to define a vocabulary that will help members interoperate with members of other vertical markets, according to Pamela Webber, senior manager of application development at Arrow.

Arrow was one of the first companies to implement a RosettaNet PIP when it deployed the purchase order PIP with Intel in February 2000. The Melville, N.Y., company uses 15 to 20 PIPs now.

Webber plans eventually to use RosettaNets business process and technical documents as a basis for connecting to outside verticals. But for now, her priority is to implement RosettaNet globally and integrate its PIPs more deeply.

Webber believes 2002 will be a seminal year for RosettaNet, with more global companies implementing and using the standard.

"A lot of companies put their toe in the water in 2001," said Webber. "You have to build a good infrastructure first and also get the business managers to focus on PIPs."

But some RosettaNet users are not so optimistic. A lot of things have to happen before RosettaNet--or B2B integration in general--takes off, according to Don LaVallee, director of strategic business operations and IT at Sharp Micro Electronics of the Americas in Camus, Wash.

"[RosettaNet] seems to be losing momentum," LaVallee said. "More PIPs need to be developed, and there needs to be some marketing and some kind of effort getting people that have tools and the ability to use RosettaNet to use them more.

"And Im thinking there might be some other standard, some other happenings that would make RosettaNet peter away," said LaVallee.

Covisint, for its part, is working with the Open Applications Group Inc. standards body to create an XML schema for the auto industry (see "Covisint Crafts XML Schema").

Theres no question Covisint will have considerable sway in the auto industry in driving ebXML. Jeffrey Cripps, director of industry relations for Covisint, plans to provide financial incentives to suppliers that adhere to the standard.

"When we move forward, there will be push-back when people dont understand that the ultimate deliverable will be true open standards to use for no charge," Cripps said. "The industry is waiting for someone to say, Were creating a product; were creating a deliverable. We are, and we have that responsibility to move forward."