This article presents a B2B integration scenario with a case study. Various approaches for integration are considered in the case study before a final solution is presented. The article does not intend to give an overview of the B2B initiative. The intended audience must have an understanding of the B2B paradigm.
Brief Introduction to B2B
Business-to-Business (B2B) e-commerce is a subject that has reached front-page status in the popular press. Although there is confusion between the B2B and B2C integration paradigms, there are differences that go much deeper than the differences between retail and wholesale purchasing. B2B integration is fundamentally about coordinating information among businesses and their information systems.
In today's world with companies operating in a global business environment, B2B integration is a pre-requisite for them to remain competitive. They need to come out of their shell and interact with their suppliers, partners, and customers distributed throughout the world. B2B integration enables a company to focus on its core competencies and offload other services to partners to gain efficiency and reduce cost.
After a decade of spending on expensive ERP systems, Customer Relationship Management, and e-Commerce applications in a departmental manner, companies are turning their attention to integrating these information silos. However, if this integration is done on a point-to-point basis, these companies end up spending up to 35% of their software maintenance budgets on simply maintaining these connections. Simply connecting applications on a point-to-point basis is not enough. Without a thoroughly integrated internal infrastructure, B2B initiatives are sure to provide little value in the best-case scenario, or no value in the worst.
Business Case Introduction
Royal Wallace is a UK-based energy company that has been operating for the last 60 years. Its business model is based on supply chain management. It has disparate business processes within the organization that need to be seamlessly integrated with its Business Associates (BA) as well as the internal users. But, the network bandwidth that is available for this integration scenario is only 64 Kbps. Also, the company wants a synchronous mode of integration rather than an asynchronous one. This is to enable a request-response type of interaction with the company's associates and partners over the network. Because there are hundreds of connection points (target applications at the BA's end) in this scenario, the company wants minimal overhead of installing and maintaining the infrastructure and the software required. And, last but not the least, the company wants a low-cost integration solution.
- Integration between an enterprise and Business Associates (BAs)—Shippers
- Connectivity over low band-width network (64 kbps)
- A programmatic exchange of information
- A request-response type of interaction
- Additional infrastructure/software at the BA's end to be minimal
- Additional support requirements to be minimal
- Low cost
Figure 1: Business Model of Royal Wallace Company
Enterprise Application Integration (EAI)
EAI (enterprise application integration) is a business computing term for the plans, methods, and tools aimed at modernizing, consolidating, and coordinating the computer applications in an enterprise. Typically, an enterprise has existing legacy applications and databases and wants to continue to use them while adding or migrating to a new set of applications that exploit the Internet, e-commerce, extranet, and other new technologies. EAI may involve developing a new total view of an enterprise's business and its applications, seeing how existing applications fit into the new view, and then devising ways to efficiently reuse what already exists while adding new applications and data. In the simplest terms, EAI is the process of coordinating the operation of various applications across an enterprise so that it can perform as an integrated enterprise-wide system.
Several EAI tools by leading vendors are available in the market today—TIBCO, Seebeyond, Vitria, and MQ Series to name a few. The underlying architecture in these tools is generally a 'Hub and Spoke' model or 'Integration bus architecture.' These tools work on the control broker-adapter model wherein an application-specific adapter sits in the client end and interacts with the control broker to pass the messages/events to the target applications.
Figure 2 shows a typical integration scenario in one of the most popular EAI tools, called Seebeyond.
Figure 2: EAI integration using Seebeyond (For more information on Seebeyond, visit the link www.seebeyond.com).
Royal Wallace Company tried the EAI approach for integrating with its internal users. This approach was not quite successful because of the high cost of licensing the software and support that was involved thereafter. Although the approach offered features such as security and guaranteed delivery as part of the product, the hidden costs made it a less viable solution.
- Relatively less bespoken development on Enterprise and its Business Associates side.
- Transfer of data across different protocols, using different message formats and semantics.
- Offers certain features such as Security and Guaranteed delivery out of the box.
- High cost of licensing and supporting.
- Need to install sophisticated third-party S/W at Business Associates sites.
- High hidden costs: in-house EAI specialists, support staff, etc.
Electronic Data Interchange (EDI)
Electronic Data Interchange is a subset of Electronic Commerce. It is a set of standardized electronic business documents that are exchanged in agreed-upon formats. It is about doing business and carrying out transactions with your trading partners electronically.
EDI covers most things that are traditionally done using paper-based communication. It is not a new concept or a new practice. EDI has existed for more than two decades in Europe and North America. Early electronic interchanges used proprietary formats agreed upon between two trading partners requiring new programs each time a new partner was added to the existing system. Later on, some industry groups began a cooperative effort to develop industry EDI standards for purchasing, transportation, and financial applications. Many of these standards supported only intra-industry trading, which led to a large number of EDI formats.
Figure 3 depicts an integration scenario with EDI.
Figure 3: EDI enabled integration over a value added network (VAN)
The major problem that the Royal Wallace Company faced with the EDI approach was to describe the rules and semantics for each piece of information to be exchanged with the BAs. Also, the VAN (Value Added Network) bandwidth requirement was more than that available for the integration scenario (64 kbps). Moreover, the EDI approach is more suited for batch processing rather than a request-reply mode of interaction. The Royal Wallace Company had to do away with the EDI approach.
- Messaging Standards such as EDIGas could be used.
- Offers security, non-repudiation, and guaranteed delivery.
- High cost of software and support
- Not suited for real-time processing. The VAN is a store-and-forward network and is more suited to batch processing
- Rules, grammar, and semantics for each piece of information need to be provided to the BAs