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ebXML: The road ahead

ebXML looks to be the unified standard we’ve been looking for. 5/22 Enterprise Pursuits hed: XML: The Road Ahead Dek: ebXML looks to be the unified standard we’ve been looking for. By Nelson King

In some ways the proclamation of a new standard protocol, even as a specification, is one of the key signposts to the march of Internet progress. Unlike many other areas of computing where standards are proclaimed and quickly become the butt of jokes, most Internet standards–especially those emanating from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)–tend to stick. Let us hope that the recently ratified electronic business XML (ebXML) specification is one of them.

ebXML, however, doesn’t come from the W3C. It’s partly a United Nations project (say what?), the work of an organization called the United Nations body for Trade Facilitation and Electronic Business (UN/CEFACT) and partly the missionary work of the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Systems (OASIS). I’m not making these up. Electronic business Extensible Markup language will include protocols to handle transport routing, trading partner agreements, security, document construction, naming conventions, and business process integration. The goal is to allow businesses to “encounter” data on the Web that can be instantly identified, negotiated, converted (if necessary), and used–without resorting to human intervention, much less the services of a programmer. Nice goal.

The introduction to the official “white paper” states the purpose of ebXML quite well:

The vision of ebXML is to create a single global electronic marketplace where enterprises of any size and in any geographical location can meet and conduct business with each other through the exchange of XML-based messages. ebXML enables anyone, anywhere, to do business with anyone else over the Internet. ebXML is a set of specifications that together enable a modular, yet complete electronic business framework. If the Internet is the information highway for electronic business, then ebXML can be thought of as providing the on-ramps, off-ramps, and the rules of the road.

Even if the goal isn’t attainable (at least not on automatic pilot) the ebXML specification should provide something that is definitely needed if e-commerce stands a chance of not only replacing EDI, but also of preventing the world of Web transactions from becoming a digital tower of Babel.

Not to take any credit (hand me that ol’ backslapper, will ya … ), but two years ago I pointed out that while XML held out great promise for solving some of the meanest, nastiest data interchange problems–not only for the Net but business in general–it was also vulnerable to conflicting data interchange specifications, especially within industry groups. Unfortunately, the conflicts happened with disconcerting, almost dysfunctional regularity. Seeing the situation deteriorate–and with it, the viability of XML in general–most of the computer industry and many highly interested corporate parties banded together in various clumps to attempt standardization.

Yes, I know that standards for standards are, if not an oxymoron, at least somewhat contradictory. However, XML has needed this specification-within-specifications as a kind of fix (some would say Band-Aid). I don’t know if the original intent of XML is being stretched beyond reasonable elasticity, or if this is just a natural evolution of a desperately needed body of protocols–or maybe both. I do know that a lot of important movers and shakers (IBM, Microsoft, Sun, HP, etc.) are willing to put the hatchets behind their backs long enough to work out some compromises for these specifications. They believe in them.

The pudding’s proof is in SOAP, Simple Object Access Protocol, which has been accepted into the ebXML specification. This was something of a political hurdle, because Microsoft champions SOAP most vociferously. However, the need for SOAP to provide a framework for objects using ebXML was apparently great enough to overcome the turf wars. It was a sign that the demand for a viable e-commerce exchange of data is far greater than any company’s enmity to another.

Not that lions are bedding down with the lambs. Even these specifications will no doubt be bent and “interpreted” by competition as they are rushed into implementation over the next year or two. However, for a corporate IT operation wishing to do data interchange using the Internet and XML, the road ahead may only be filled with potholes, not washouts and the occasional cliff.

Editor at Large Nelson King also writes Pursuits monthly for ComputerUser magazine.

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