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Will businesses buy into ebXML?

by David Longworth
February 6th, 2003

2003 is being touted as the year in which the various XML business process standards coalesce into something that is meaningful and of practical benefit.

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The UN-backed standard ebXML is promoted as a platform for automating business-to-business (B2B) process integration. But businesses remain wary:
  • There are some early adopter case studies
  • It builds on an EDI pedigree
  • Other XML-based systems have greater market punch but less cohesion
  • Standards bodies are still discussing convergence

Glossary terms: ebXML, business process, OASIS, W3C, EDI, lookup tool

It will not be before time: the market is growing short of patience with divergent standards camps. The lack of direction has raised the issue of when it is judicious for businesses to adopt a new specification — and led some to question whether standardizers are being too ambitious in their goals.

"There are currently four or five business process standards and that doesn't make sense because they are all doing the same thing. There should only be one," admits David Webber, co-chair of the OASIS UN/CEFACT joint marketing team for ebXML, a series of specifications for XML business processes first published in May 2001.

Other standards bodies have been active with their own initiatives, including the completion of the X12 XML reference model by the US national standards body ANSI last October, and the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) own attempts to flesh out its basic web services standards, to which several vendors have added business process proposals of their own. Meanwhile, OASIS itself has just launched Universal Business Language (UBL), which can be used with ebXML but is yet again a separate specification.

Faced with so many choices, businesses will look for evidence of concrete benefits and will shy away from investing in anything that might take them down a blind alley, like so often in the history of IT. Webber says: "At the end of the day, they are looking at the bottom line. They don't want to be exposed to a cost sink. They want solid returns and known entities."

Adoption report
The joint marketing team unveiled its first adoption report for ebXML in November last year. The report, to be updated quarterly, highlights individual ground-breaking projects which conform to the specifications. The US Center for Disease Control, for example, is using ebXML Messaging for transporting public health surveillance data, while in the UK, supply chain body e.centre is conducting an interoperability trial that includes supermarket chain Tesco and food manufacturers Kraft Foods and Nestle.

Much of this work is building on what has already been achieved with electronic data interchange (EDI) standards and extending it into other areas. Developed back in the 1980s, EDI became prevalent within supply chains, providing a means of electronic trading primarily for the FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) sector. However, the cost and complexity of implementation proved too much for many businesses. e.centre itself admits that the UN EDI For Administration, Commerce and Transport (UN/EDIFACT) is "too large a standard for most organizations to consider implementing; the Invoice Message alone consisting of 182 segments, within 53 segment groups".

The problem has always been developing a specification which is generic enough to be widely applicable but specific enough to be of value. "One of the tough things is to design a standard that is elegant and simple yet has power and sophistication," agrees Webber. In the EDI world this led to a fragmentation of the global EDIFACT standard into others such as Simpl-EDI and various industry-specific versions.

The XML industry has seem similar divergences, with basic entry-level web services specifications based on XML gaining serious market momentum, whereas ebXML, although considered much more sophisticated and robust, has yet to gain widespread adoption and support. Some participants fear that the uptake of web services, while ensuring that XML is ubiquitous, will not be robust enough to deliver concrete business benefits unless it is bolstered by ebXML's more comprehensive business process model. "If you're going to sell the big players into web services, you've got to have a secure, robust model," says Webber. "The pieces are there, but it's not fully integrated as an end-to-end model."

Market scepticism
Others fear that ebXML carries too much baggage to offer the agility and universal adaptability that will be necessary for broad adoption. The specification certainly still has its work cut out before it can make the transition from a de jure standard, handed down by decree, to a de facto one that has been accepted by the market. Despite having been around since 1999 and having, in UN/CEFACT, one of the top four global standards bodies as its sponsor, ebXML still induces scepticism from many quarters.

The UK government, for example, has a mission to XML-enable all its e-business transactions by mandating the use of its electronic government infrastructure framework (eGIF) specification. Its recently released version 2 contains no mention of ebXML and while officials are considering it for version 3, they remain sceptical.

John Borras, from the eEnvoy's Office, recently told a conference: "We've now got the dialogue going. But one of our tests for whether we recommend a standard is whether it is fully supported in the marketplace with products. We don't see where this fits in with all the other XMLs. We need to see it properly defined."

Wait and see
It is the lack of clarity that raises the biggest warning flag. While businesses will mix and match standards depending on their needs, when there are two or three stories to buy into, the best advice is probably to wait and see. Standards makers are a finite resource, and after 2,000 of them contributed to the initial ebXML effort, it would surely be better to see them continuing to share a single direction.

Webber, however, does see room for optimism. OASIS, the co-sponsor of ebXML, has begun talking to the W3C with a view to bringing rival specifications together. "There are already signs of things coming together. Everybody sees that the technology story is a good one. It's creating the product mix that buyers feel comfortable with that's important. And there has to be a [practical benefit] because they've been listening to this [standards story] for the past ten-to-twenty years."

More on this topic


The language gap
If only we could connect, then what? Would we understand each other?


ebXML Joint Marketing Team
Official home page of the JMT and its quarterly ebXML Adoption Update

ebXML - Enabling a Global Electronic Market
Official ebXML website, maintained by OASIS


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