and Web Services
|An Intimidating Task?
This article discusses the fundamentals
of Business to Business Integration (B2Bi), the need for companies to integrate
their systems, the challenges of B2Bi, the usefulness of Web Services in
B2Bi, and limitations in the current state of Web Services for their usage
What is B2B Integration (B2Bi)?
B2B integration or B2Bi is basically about the secured
coordination of information among businesses and their information systems.
It promises to dramatically transform the way business is conducted between
partners, suppliers and customers or buyers. All companies (large, medium,
small, or new) can experience increased growth and success through tightly
Companies, from across a variety of industries, are
embracing B2Bi and realizing the enormous competitive advantage it
provides, through faster time to market, reduced cycle times, and increased
customer service. Through integration of business and technical processes,
companies are able to strengthen relationships with partners and customers,
achieve seamless integration inside and outside the enterprise, gain
real-time views of customer accounts, increase operational efficiencies,
and reduce costs.
The market for B2Bi is huge. According to a recent
report published in the post dot com crash era from the International
Data Corporation group, by 2005 B2B e-commerce will be of the order
4.7 trillion US Dollars approximately. B2B integration is expected
to yield productivity gains of over a trillion USD by 2010.
An Intimidating Task
B2Bi is easier said than done - it is indeed a daunting
effort. Integration is a big challenge, especially for global corporations
that have hundreds to thousands of trading partners. It is an extremely
daunting effort to manage the integration of so many business processes
and can turn out to be a time consuming, complex, and expensive task.
With the advent of new technologies, the potential for disparity further
increases and makes the exchange of electronic information even more
Essential Features of a B2B Integration Solution
Without the right selection of B2Bi solution(s) that meet
your business and technical requirements, any integration implementation
will be doomed. Before a company selects any B2Bi solution, it has to
consider the following:
- Can the solution evolve with the company, with the
industry, and with the IT industry?
- Does it offer comprehensive functionality with the
flexibility to support third-party software vendors,
and connect existing and new systems in a common framework?
- Does it work within scalable environments to accommodate
customer and trading partner systems as well?
- Does it support open standards?
So, what are the key features that a company should look
for before investing in any B2Bi software solution?
Firstly, the integration solution should be able to enable
any transaction, any time - end-to-end and partner-to-partner. It should
be able to fully automate real-time exchange of data between disparate
Secondly, the solution should be able to conduct all transactions
securely, maintain audit logs, etc.
Thirdly, the solution should support diverse sets of file
formats, protocols, and security standards.
Fourthly, the solution should be based on open standards
that allow a company and its partners to send transactions using any
combination of applications and file formats, telecommunication pathways,
communication protocols and B2B protocols, and XML standards such as
RosettaNet, ebXML, OAG, Biztalk, OBI, etc. The solution should also provide
support for Web Services.
Lastly, the solution should be scalable, that is, companies
should be able to scale it horizontally and vertically. Further, it should
offer robust load balancing features, critical to the success of large
A few leading B2Bi solutions include: IBM MQSeries Integrator;
Extricity; BEA eLink; webMethods B2B Enterprise; NEON eBusiness Integration
Servers; Vitria BusinessWare; and Microsoft BizTalk Server.
The Role of Extensible Markup Language (XML) in B2Bi
XML has become the lingua franca of the B2B e-business
revolution. It has created a mechanism to publish, share, and exchange
data using open standards over the Internet. There is no doubt that in
the future XML will be used in each and every B2B application.
XML is not, however, an integration solution in itself
- it is just a data definition language. Without global XML standards
there can be no seamless business among companies spread out all over
the world. These standards are a common set of industry-specific definitions
representing business processes. For XML messages to be interpreted by
all companies participating in B2Bi they need to agree on a common XML-based
B2B standard, which will define the document formats, allowable information,
and process descriptions.
The need for industry-wide B2B e-commerce standards in
vertical industries is becoming increasingly critical and obvious. Several
organizations have been working to define these market-segment-specific
definitions. Standards and groups such as RosettaNet, CIDX, and OASIS
are making it possible for companies to share information with one another
without having to completely reengineer their internal applications.
These standards will automate the flow of information across all companies
within a given industry, independent of the underlying software or hardware
infrastructure supporting the activities related to these transactions.
Web Services and B2Bi
Web Services, which are based on XML standards, are a
boon to the world of B2B, as we discussed in the previous section that
XML-based standards hold the key for the success of dynamic B2Bi and
its wide spread adoption by companies of all sizes. Web Services are
based on the following open standards: Web Services Description Language
(WSDL - to describe), Universal Description, Discovery and Integration
(UDDI - to advertise and syndicate), Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP
- to communicate) and Web Services Flow Language (WSFL - to define work
Thus, Web Services use SOAP based messages to achieve
dynamic integration between two disparate applications. Companies use
WSDL, a Web Services standard, to describe their public and private Web
Services and publish their Web Services either to a private or public
repository and directory using UDDI.
Essential Features of B2B Applications and Web Services
Let's discuss how Web Services fit in with some of the
essential traits of B2B applications.
Distributed Transaction Management
It is very tough to maintain distributed transaction control
even within disparate systems and applications within an enterprise.
B2B transactions may be spread over disparate systems and applications
across different enterprises, making them several times more difficult
difficult to maintain and control.
In their current state, Web Services are not transactional
in nature and provide basic "request/response" functionality.
B2Bi requires two levels of security. Firstly, B2Bi necessitates
opening up corporate firewalls to enable cross boundary communication
between enterprises. Thus, whatever mode of integration is used, companies
have to secure their internal network against malicious attacks through
these open ports.
Secondly, the data transmitted over dedicated leased lines,
such as EDI, Internet, or any other mode, has to be secured. The data
may contain classified information, such as corporate information and
business transaction information, and thus cannot be left unguarded.
In their current state, Web Services lack broad support
and facilities for security. Thus, Web Services based B2Bi architecture
may potentially have big security loopholes.
For companies to participate in true dynamic business
with other companies, integration between the systems of the two companies
has to happen in real-time. Further, this integration is only possible
if B2Bi is done using open standards over the Internet.
Web Services do provide a dynamic approach to integration
by offering dynamic interfaces. Web Services are based on open standards
such as UDDI, SOAP, and HTTP, and this is probably the single most important
factor that would lead to the wide adoption of Web Services for B2Bi.
The integration mode or pattern is the most important
element of B2B integration. Is the B2Bi data-, business process-, application-,
function-, or portal-oriented? The answer to this question determines
a lot of answers involved in the modalities and technology used for B2Bi.
Typically in B2B integration, companies involved take a joint decision
based on the technology available in-house, budgets, and level of synchronization
needed to support business functionalities.
In this generation of Web Services, it is possible to
achieve only function level integration between applications (for details
on the difference between function level integration using API or RPC
and Web Services, please refer to my previous article Enterprise
Application Integration and Web Services).
The next generation of Web Services, however, will be
functionally and technologically advanced, offering user interface encapsulation
and security. They will be able to package an application and embed it
into another application.
Example of Web Services for B2Bi
The following diagram shows an example of using Web Services
in a B2Bi scenario. In this example, the corporate procurement application
running within an application server requests quotes from multiple vendors.
The procurement application of the buyer gets information about Web Services
offered by suppliers using a private UDDI registry and invokes these
services over the Internet to get quotes for a specific item.
The sequence of steps is as follows:
- The Buyer's procurement application, running within
an application server, has to generate a purchase order
for a specific item.
- The procurement application gets information about
Web Services of different suppliers for that specific
item by doing a look up in the private UDDI registry.
- The location of and WSDL binding information for the
Web Services is sent to the procurement application.
- The application invokes the Web Services published
by the suppliers to get quotes for that item. The communication
is based on SOAP over the Internet.
- The application receives quotes from different suppliers.
The communication is based on SOAP over the Internet.
- The information is then analyzed, leading to the creation
of the purchase order.
Web Services certainly have the potential of redefining
the whole paradigm of B2B integration by making it truly dynamic, easily
implemented in a modular fashion, and in the longer run being cheaper.
The application of Web Services for B2Bi, however, will be limited if
services for authentication, encryption, access control, and data integrity
are not available. Web Services intermediaries that provide services
such as UDDI repository hosting, security services, quality assurance
of Web Services, performance checks, etc., will have a big role to play
in the B2Bi space.