Sometimes, funny things happen to a technology on the way to becoming the next big thing. Take UDDI. The Universal Description, Discovery and Integration standard, which hit the scene in September 2000 amid much hoopla, was created to solve the connectivity problems of big, public, business-to-business exchanges. But demand for those exchanges has been tepid, and, instead, UDDI has found a more comfortable role as a key building block in smaller, private, B2B exchanges.
UDDI is the brainchild of the UDDI Project, which is backed by IBM, Microsoft Corp. and 300 other companies. Version 1 is already in a handful of products, and Version 2 should be in products by midyear. UDDI Version 3-based offerings could be on the scene next year. The standard has two components. The first is a set of specifications that enables companies to expose information about their applications to key customers and trading partners. The second is a series of UDDI Global Business Registries, which offer quick, easy access to information about companies services. Its those features that were the initial impetus for UDDI, although the large, public, B2B exchanges built to take advantage of them have so far failed to catch on.
The need for a standard such as UDDI is clear to all companies conducting e-business. To support online data exchanges, corporations must share information about a range of internal business processes. The data could be simple—say, a companys e-mail address—or complex, such as a description of how a shipping companys Web-based user interface allows customers to track shipments.
Without UDDI, organizations may have to spend a great deal of effort making such information available to third parties. A midsize manufacturer, for example, often has online relationships with 400 to 500 suppliers; a conglomerate may have thousands. Each company has its own mix of e-commerce software, middleware, network protocols and hardware, so a corporation must collect data about how its systems work, link the systems to interested parties, establish the links and then maintain them.
Many companies rely on proprietary software to collect and store this information. Typically, they consolidate it in a central directory and then offer third parties access and searching capabilities. Since there is no standard way to move information into a directory, B2B participants cannot add new customers or suppliers as quickly as they would like. In addition, the information constantly changes, so maintaining the directory is a difficult, time-consuming process.
"Whenever we add a new customer, we spend about 12 programming months understanding how to get a simple exchange—say, a purchase order—to work," said Leo Massarani, senior vice president of strategy and chief technology officer at The Thread Inc., a New York company offering Internet supply chain products and services for the apparel, accessories, footwear and textile industries. The Thread runs the Global Trading Hub, where 1,100 Asian manufacturers exchange information with domestic suppliers.
"If there was a standard way to collect that information and then use it to link different systems, we could bring on new clients much faster," Massarani said.
The Thread is upgrading to the latest release of Bowstreet Web Factory, a development platform from Bowstreet Inc., in San Francisco.
Another private, industry-specific exchange has the same idea. E2Open Inc., in Belmont, Calif., operates a collaboration network that 65,000 electronics companies use to transfer information. E2Open stores data about its B2B connections in IBMs DB2 relational database management system. By replacing links from proprietary e-commerce platforms with UDDI-compliant connections and using them to move information in and out of the directory, the company said it expects to bring new customers online 50 percent faster and reduce its programming costs by 70 percent.
"Weve done a thorough analysis on UDDI, and the business case for adopting it was a no-brainer," said Lorenzo Martinelli, vice president of strategy and marketing at the company, which plans to add UDDI features to its services this spring, when IBMs WebSphere will include UDDI Version 2 technology.
The UDDI standard initially focused on public B2B exchanges because backers thought that corporations would want the same kind of Internet services as consumers—the ability to research, browse and shop online. So the emphasis was on helping companies that did not know one another to use the Internet to discover needed products or services and then complete transactions quickly.
But UDDI supporters have found differences between business-to-consumer and B2B interactions. "Typically, a consumer knows the type of product he is looking for and which companies offer it, and that makes finding it easier," said John Radko, chief architect at GE Global Exchange Services Inc., in Gaithersburg, Md. "Often, business products and services cannot be easily categorized."
The lack of acceptance of public B2B exchanges is one reason the second UDDI component, Global Business Registries, has been slow to take hold.
But convinced of the power of UDDI Global Registries, last May IBM and Microsoft began operating public registries, and Hewlett-Packard Co. brought up a third at the end of last year. SAP AG plans to add a fourth in a few months, and NTT Communications Corp., in Tokyo, has begun building the first Asian registry.
Supporters claim that 7,000 to 8,000 corporations have signed up to place items in the directories, but only a few thousand such items, ranging from e-mail addresses to package tracking information, are stored there now.
One reason for the slow acceptance has been the challenge of collecting necessary data. "We are a large international company, so it has taken time to determine what services we have now and which ones we want to make public," said Tom Gaskins, manager for UDDI at HP, in Palo Alto, Calif. HP is building a Global Business Registry and putting some of its own information in it.
Typically, an organization assigns a task group to lead an effort to collect information about its services. Next, it has to decide which items to place in a registry, and, last, the corporate legal department must check for possible trademark or copyright violations.
UDDI Global Business Registries were designed to grow one item at a time. Any company has the opportunity to create a new description for each Web service. If a description already exists for a Web service that a company wants to deliver, it should use that one. However, the process of linking registries and checking for redundant descriptions is still evolving.
After inputting data, a corporation wants to be sure interested parties see its services. "As the volume of data stored in the various registries rises, the need for tools like a registry search engine become clear," said Morten Olsen, director of research and development at SilverStream Software Inc., in Billerica, Mass. "While I view that as a useful product, I dont know any company building it yet."
Initially, UDDI backers expected the standard to automate many programming functions. They thought companies would design applications so they automatically run real-time queries to identify and then call on Web services as needed without human interaction. But human nature intervened. "We work with large companies, and they dont feel very comfortable with machines automatically making decisions about items such as a purchase order," said GE Globals Radko.
One reason is security. "If a company is buying $1 million worth of steel, it wants to know the supplier so it can be sure it makes a sound purchase," said Bob Sutor, director of e-business strategy at IBM, in Armonk, N.Y. Thats one reason the private B2B exchanges—where companies in an industry generally know one another—have done well so far.
Initial expectations about how widely the registries would be used have been tempered. "I can see companies using the registries to check on items, such as the progress of a product shipment or the status of a payment, but items like automatically initiating electronic commerce transactions seem far off in the future," Radko said.
"To understand how companies will deploy new technology, one should follow the money," said James Kobielus, an analyst at The Burton Group Corp., in Alexandria, Va. "It costs much less for a corporation to add UDDI-like features to a private B2B exchange than to build a public exchange with the standard, so that is the first step that companies are taking." Once these initiatives take root, companies may take more interest in UDDI Global Business Registries. But another 12 to 24 months may pass before companies begin to move in that direction.
"During the Internet boom, the industry got a bit ahead of itself and began touting technologies that firms were not ready to implement," said Tyler McDaniel, an analyst with Hurwitz Group Inc., in Framingham, Mass. "With the recent downturn, customers and vendors have been taking a step back and re-evaluating their needs. While many expect UDDI to have an impact on how companies conduct B2B transactions, its usage may not be as broad or happen as fast as initially envisioned."
Meanwhile, industry-specific B2B exchanges will be checking the upcoming products supporting UDDI Version 2, getting a fuller taste of the next big thing and what it can and cannot do.
Paul Korzeniowski, a free-lance writer based in Sudbury, Mass., specializes in networking technology issues. He can be reached at [email protected].