Let's talk business

E-commerce on the Web will rely heavily on Extensible Markup Language, but with many flavors of XML products being developed, there is no certainty that one will be easily compatible with another. The situation creates familiar headaches for agency information technology folks. But a standard in the making called Electronic Business XML (ebXML) could be the answer.

Although XML was developed to make it easier for systems to exchange all sorts of information, ebXML is being designed specifically for core business transactions associated with e-commerce.

By using ebXML, businesses and government entities will have a common method, or framework, for exchanging business messages, conducting trading relationships, sending data to one another, and for defining and registering business processes. That can translate into greater efficiency and lower cost because the organizations won't have to develop and maintain customized systems for lots of different trading partners.

And, because the goal is to reduce ebXML products to shrink-wrapped, plug-and-play software, smaller organizations that found the Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) world too expensive finally will be able to conduct full-blown e-commerce via the Web with trading partners of any size.

"The question now is how to [make the] transition from the world of the fax and written documents to one that makes better and smarter use of electronics," said David Webber, vice president for business development at software vendor XML Global Technologies. "We are near the brink of companies such as ourselves being able to bring out products based on ebXML that will be immediately compatible with other vendors' products. We are right on the bubble of that happening."

The first ebXML specifications were published in May at the end of an 18-month program conducted by the United Nations Centre for Trade Facilitation and Electronic Business — the U.N. body responsible for promoting global business processes — and the U.S.-based Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS). The groups jointly sponsored the ebXML program as a way of lowering the cost of entry to e-commerce for small and medium-sized enterprises and developing nations.

The specifications are now being implemented and refined as a prelude to proposing ebXML as a formal standard sanctioned by the International Standards Organization. In essence, ebXML describes a framework within which organizations can do business online with one another. The framework is defined by self-contained "modules" of specifications that can either be used as stand-alone or combined functions. The big advantage is that if they only use one of these modular specifications, they know that they can apply any of the others at any time and they will fit together.

"We've not heard of anyone applying all of them, so far," said Lynn Rosenthal, manager of the standards and conformance-testing group at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which has been asked to perform conformance testing of ebXML specifications. "When the formal process ended in May, some of the specifications were in a mature state, but others needed work," she said. "The good thing about them is that people can take what is there and wait to see what holes there are in other specifications and what needs to be done with them."

The idea that businesses and organizations can use "bits and pieces" of the ebXML specification as needed was one of the early drivers of the process, according to Simon Nicholson, a member of the OASIS board of directors and the chairman of its ebXML joint committee. Because ebXML is compatible with much of what organizations are already using for e-business — particularly systems based on EDI and MIME (Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions) — it complements those existing investments rather than requiring they be ripped out and replaced entirely.

"If it works as designed," Nicholson said, "ebXML will bleed into the e-commerce process rather than forcing its way in with a bang."

The most advanced part of ebXML is probably the messaging specification, which describes how various parties can get data electronically to one another. Formerly known as the transport, routing and packaging specification, it includes features of other widely used e-business standards, particularly those of the Simple Object Access Protocol. SOAP is the basis for emerging Web services schemes such as Microsoft Corp's .Net.

Another critical part of ebXML is the registry specifications. Registries are publicly accessible repositories where companies and organizations list their capabilities for doing business electronically. They contain the data objects, messages and business processes that organizations need to start doing business with one another.

One of the least developed — but most vital — parts of ebXML is a set of core components that defines the ideas and concepts that one industry uses in such a way that they can be readily compared with those of another industry.

In the travel industry, for example, people are labeled passengers when flying on a plane, renters when they touch down and rent a car, and guests when they book a hotel room. The core component specification will allow those three to be related to one another so that one person could be followed seamlessly throughout the whole transactional process.

"Core components are really what make ebXML unique," said Alan Kotok, director of education at the Data Interchange Standards Association. "They take things right down to the data element level, so such things as the date and time segments in EDI can be related to similar elements in the ebXML specification."

There are a number of competing XML specifications, but ebXML has already gained broad support from industry and government because it is the most open of these endeavors, said Brian Gibb, director of applied research for e-commerce vendor Sterling Commerce. It is also not based on "developing new wheels," but takes the best of the existing standards to create a framework for doing e-business.

"To that extent, ebXML can best be described as the middle ground between EDI and future Web services," he said.

Several government agencies are involved in the ebXML specifications process. Along with NIST, the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) has been active in helping define the specifications and has focused particularly on developing core components in order to make sure they contain the e-business exchange requirements needed for government procurement and material management.

Even though ebXML is still a work in progress, DISA has already been using the specifications as a reference for the development of e-business systems. Such things as the registry specifications have proven useful in developing the Defense Department Electronic Business Architecture, a DISA spokesperson said.

Nevertheless, it's by no means certain that ebXML will rule all of the roost in the future e-business universe.

"Some XML implementations may be operational before the final ebXML specifications are approved as standards," the spokesperson said. "Any conversions to ebXML standards must be justified by increased interoperability or efficiency."

And there's still cause for concern with the standards process, according to Marion Royal, chief architect in the e-government office at the General Services Administration. The work on enhancing the ebXML specifications has been split into separate activities under the sponsoring groups. OASIS will further develop infrastructure elements such as messaging and registries, while the U.N. group is responsible for such things as core components and business processes (see box).

"I think ebXML is at a critical juncture right now," Royal said. "If any differences emerge between the OASIS and U.N. work, that could cause the whole thing to stall, so it's critical that they continue to work closely together."

Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore. He can be reached at hullite@mindspring.com.

ebXML's To Do list

Work on ebXML specifications is split between the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) and the United Nations Centre for Trade Facilitation and Electronic Business (UN/CEFACT) as follows, with a joint committee coordinating the work of the two: OASIS

* Messaging services.

* Registries.

* Collaboration profile protocol and agreement.

* Implementation, interoperability and conformance.

UN/CEFACT

* Core component specification.

* Business process specifications.

* E-business architecture specifications.

* Unified Modeling Language to conform to XML design rules.

* XML business document library.

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