Electronic business is an all-encompassing term. It could mean online shopping, electronic marketplaces, electronic banking or even emailing your business partners! What about marketing web site or eBay, isn't that electronic business?
Well, not for ebXML. ebXML concentrates mostly on so-called back-end operations, business-to-business transactions. ebXML is not so much concerned with the online store (business-to-consumer operations) but with what happens behind the storefront. ebXML aims to streamline buying, transporting, invoicing of the goods but it also covers all the legal fillings, the insurance, and more. Essentially any activity needed to fill the warehouse, ship the goods or keep the factory busy are relevant to ebXML.
One of the visible difference between business-to-business operations, in the context of ebXML, and more consumer-oriented activities is the role of human.
When shopping online, the shopper sits in front of its computer and clicks its way through. This is not necessarily the case for back-office operations. Indeed it is common for a business management system (SAP, Peoplesoft and the like) to re-order automatically when the stock reaches a certain level. Shipping, ordering, invoicing, and even payments can be largely automated. They may take place with little or even no human intervention.
ebXML aims to automate as much of the commercial and administrative operations as possible.
To compare ebXML with other standards, it is essential to understand its lineage. There are many technical similarities between ebXML, SOAP, the Semantic Web and Web Services. At time the similarities between those projects can be confusing unless you keep in mind who is in charge of what.
OASIS is the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards. It is an international consortium of vendors and users of markup languages. OASIS was formerly known as SGML Open (XML was derived from SGML) which reflects on its experience with markup languages.
The UN/CEFACT is the United Nations Center for Trade Facilitation and Electronic Business. I find the acronym confusing but it reflects the former name of UN/CEFACT (United Nations Centre for the Facilitation of Procedures & Practices for Administration, Commerce & Transport). Anyway the UN/CEFACT is an international body, supported by the United Nations, that aims to simplify international trade, notably through electronic means.
The UN/CEFACT is best known for the development of UN/EDIFACT, a legacy EDI standard. EDI, which stands for Electronic Data Interchange, is a set of standards to exchange of business and administrative information between business management systems. UN/EDIFACT was originally developed in the 1986.
In 1999, the two groups joined on the development of a next-generation standard for electronic business. OASIS brought the technical expertise with XML (and markup languages in general). The UN/CEFACT brought its experience in developing solutions for electronic business. The partner skills were largely complimentary.
For the next 18 months they worked to develop a complete solution for electronic business. If you visit the ebXML web site at www.ebxml.org, you will be surprised by the size of the effort. There are ebXML specifications covering technical infrastructure, business processes, registries, analysis, security, communication (transport) and more. The aim clearly is to offer a one-stop solution for every aspect of electronic business.
Bear its legacy in mind when you compare ebXML to other specifications, such as web services. Although, at time, it seems that ebXML overlaps with other specifications (for example, ebXML transport is based on SOAP, the registry mechanism is very similar to UDDI), ebXML is unique because of its special focus on business-to-business transactions.
More to Come
In the next articles, we will review a typical ebXML transaction as well as an overview of technical specifications themselves.
Benoît Marchal is a Belgian developer. He is the author of XML by Example and other XML books. Benoît is available to help you with your projects.
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