ebXML Book Excerpts
Excerpts from the Introduction to ebXML: The New Global Standard for Doing Business on the Internet, by Alan Kotok and David R.R. Webber, New Riders Publishing, August 2001, ISBN: 0735711178, 384 pp, $US 34.99
Doing business electronically became quite the vogue in the late 1990s, as the idea captured the attention and imaginations of everyone from business and political leaders to individual consumers. To most people, the term electronic business (or just e-business) meant having to develop a presence on the web, sometimes with a sound business strategy and execution, but many times just to keep up with consumer expectations and competitors. In 1999, Time Magazine named Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, as its Man of the Year, joining such notables as Charles Lindberg and Martin Luther King, Jr. The technology dazzled and the possibilities seemed endless.
By the year 2001, however, a new sense of realism replaced the initial hype as the dot.com bubble deflated. With the sharp drop in value of technology stock prices, and closing or consolidation of hundreds of web-based businesses that had seemed so promising just a few months earlier, it became increasingly clear that using the Internet for business required as much good business sense as new technology.
E-Business Is Business First
This book is about a worldwide project built on good business sense and experience that takes advantage of these new technological innovations. The Electronic Business XML (ebXML) initiative brought together business as well as technology experts to craft a common set of specifications to make e-business possible anywhere on the globe, for any company, in any industry, of any size.
E-business is of course based on technology, but the experience of the dot.com boom and bust shows that successful e-business starts with good business. This book describes how the ebXML specifications can open new markets and higher productivity for all businesses, using the significant improvements and innovations that result from the intelligent use of these technologies.
This book also talks about a process that brought together representatives of hundreds of companies, industry organizations, vendors of software and services, and standards bodies for 18 months from November 1999 through May 2001. The ebXML specifications developed as a result of a total worldwide volunteer effort, and a completely open and transparent process, where anyone with a computer, Internet connection, and email address could take part. ebXML is a testament to the open standards process and the quality of its results. ebXML is also a credit to the foresight and dedication of the two organizations that made it all happen: the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) and the United Nations Centre for Trade Facilitation and Electronic Business (which uses the acronym UN/CEFACT).
The Goal: Enable Businesses of Any Size to Do Business Electronically with Anyone Else
The international consortium that developed ebXML made it clear from the outset that the only way this effort could succeed is to address the needs of businesses large and small[md]smaller enterprises up to now having largely been left out of the e-business boom. The participation of UN/CEFACT also made it imperative that the specifications encourage e-business anywhere in the world. As a result, the goal of ebXML is a standard that makes e-business almost as ubiquitous as the telephone and as interoperable as a fax transmission.
At this stage, ebXML is a set of documents, with several prototypes completed, but with many companies now building systems to support it. To show how ebXML can work, we need to introduce you to some real people and organizations that hope to benefit from it.
Alexander and Yelena Vilshinetskaya are painters in Moscow. Alexander is also a physician and Yelena a physicist. They both love their art, but because of deflated professional salaries in modern Russia, they need to sell their works in order to survive. Alexander and Yelena, while both talented, found they needed a way to distinguish their work from other painters. As a result, Yelena paints delicate designs on mother-of-pearl brooches that she sells through PEOPLink, a not-for-profit organization that connects artisans with buyers worldwide over the web.
PEOPLink partners with development organizations that organize local artisans such as the Vilshinetskayas and teaches them business skills. They provide the basic technology to capture digital photographs of the merchandise, which they then post for sale on the PEOPLink web site.
One of PEOPLink's partner organizations, in Guatemala, has the improbable name of Out of the Dump. In 1991, a photojournalist named Nancy McGirr began photographing children living in abject poverty in the central garbage dump of Guatemala City. Families living in the dump scavenge for food and scrap materials to sell; as you might expect, this existence represents their last hope for survival. McGirr found that children in the dump were fascinated with her camera, and she got the idea of letting the children there photograph themselves.
McGirr acquired eight cameras. Returning to Guatemala, she gave the cameras to the children living in the dump, to shoot pictures of their world. The results startled everyone who saw these prints. The children's photographs captured the daily life of the dump, offering gripping images of children playing among grinding poverty, drug abuse, and random violence.
As word of this unusual project grew, Nancy was able to line up sponsors to provide cameras, film, paper, and batteries. The donations enabled the children to take more photos for note cards and prints, sold first through UNICEF and now PEOPLink. Revenues from sales pay for basic schooling for the children, as well as more advanced skills in English, creative writing, and computer systems.
PEOPLink sells the items of these and hundreds of other artisans and organizations directly, as well as through auctions on e-Bay. But they want to be able to open other distribution channels, using existing networks of resellers and galleries, not just the web. PEOPLink is developing a combination of web-based service and software called Catgen that would give small businesses a way of developing catalogs and offering their goods to potential buyers worldwide.
Marc Beneteau, the chief technology officer of PEOPLink, expressed an interest in ebXML as a way of helping meet this objective. ebXML can supplement Catgen by providing the ability for trading partners to exchange standard electronic business messages such as orders, delivery schedules, receipts, and invoices. With ebXML, these small businesses, just like their larger counterparts, can concentrate on production and marketing, and devote less of their precious resources to administration.You don't have to be a big business to worry about overhead and opportunity costs.
Another business cataloging system plans to use the ebXML specifications, but this one can serve the needs of larger, more sophisticated vendors as well as smaller businesses. The U.S. Department of Defense sponsored an early business application of Extensible Markup Language (XML) to create a single requisitioning system for the four military services - Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines - designed for common non-weapons supplies and spare parts. The system integrates with the services' established back-end systems, using a simple web form that the smallest businesses can handle.
The developer of the system has since generalized this work into a more comprehensive CatXML specification that uses cataloging interchange formats from the Open Applications Group and the connectivity specifications from ebXML. CatXML allows for simple query and purchase operations for small businesses but also for more complex and integrated supply-chain relationships among trading partners. Designing these applications around open standards and specifications such as ebXML allows for such scalability.
ebXML created a specification that makes possible these kinds of business innovations in order to face a new business environment with a technology that meets these needs. We outline both the business needs and the technology in the following sections, and detail them later in the book.
The ebXML Technology
The ebXML technology is based on a set of building blocks designed to meet common business requirements and conditions. The ebXML technical architecture makes use of existing standards wherever possible, building on the experience of EDI while taking advantage of the increased flexibility of XML and ubiquity of the Internet. Because the architecture is modular, industries or companies can choose to implement parts of the ebXML technology rather than trying to do everything all at once.
Most companies interested in ebXML will probably start with the messaging functions that enable companies to send and receive business data in a standard envelope-and-message format. The ebXML messages use a specification called the Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP). SOAP is an XML application that defines a message format with headers to indicate sender, receiver, routing, and security details. A recent enhancement to SOAP allows for the attachment of any digitized content, which enables ebXML messages to send engineering drawings or patient X-rays, as well as business data.
A basic feature of the ebXML architecture, and one that separates it from other XML frameworks, is its emphasis on business processes. The use of modeling languages and charting tools such as the Unified Modeling Language (UML) offer ways of systematically capturing the flow of business data among trading partners and representing this business knowledge in a standard format, down to a fine level of detail and independent of technical implementation. Business processes that are defined systematically can be used as the basis for defining common message sequences across industry boundaries, and offer a basis for achieving interoperability.
Trading Partner Profiles and Agreements
Another important feature of ebXML is the systematic representation of company capabilities to conduct e-business in what ebXML calls the collaboration protocol profile (CPP). With CPPs, companies can use a common XML format to list the industries, business processes, messages, and data-exchange technologies that they support. Companies then use CPPs to agree upon the business processes, messages, and technologies used to exchange business messages, in a collaborative protocol agreement (CPA), also an XML document. Companies still may need a trading partner agreement (TPA) to cover non-technical business or legal issues, but the CPA provides the technical features of the agreement in an automated form.
Registries and Repositories
The part of ebXML with which most companies will have contact early on are the registries, which contain the industry processes, messages, and vocabularies used to define the transactions exchanged with trading partners. Companies also will use ebXML registries to register the CPPs that list their e-business capabilities for inspection by potential trading partners, as well as search the registries for companies with the capabilities desired in trading partners. Registries index these items, but they're actually stored in corresponding repositories. Because these functions are critical for companies new to ebXML or those seeking to expand into new industries or find new trading partners, registries and repositories are considered the key to making ebXML work successfully.
As well as business processes, ebXML relies on core components to provide interoperability among industries and business functions, but core components work at the individual data-element level. Core components identify the data items that businesses use most often and across industries, assigning them neutral names and unique identifiers. With core components, companies can relate data used in one industry to counterparts in another industry, or from an XML vocabulary to previously defined EDI transactions. Core components, as of the time of this writing, are still a work in progress. While the ebXML team responsible for core components has identified some of these key data items, much work still remains. However, the EDI standards bodies have agreed to relate their data dictionaries to the ebXML core components. Once completed, core components will have a welcome reception.
What ebXML Is Not
It's important to note the limitations of ebXML. This effort will produce a set of specifications for software and services - but not the software and services themselves, which will be generated by technology vendors. Also, at least as of spring 2001, ebXML will not produce standard message formats, say for purchase orders or invoices. The ebXML specifications will provide the building blocks and infrastructure to write those messages, but the actual development of standard messages will generally fall to industry groups and standards bodies.