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Until the emerging XML standard matures, IT managers will need a patchwork of tools and services to find their way from EDI to XML and back.

By Emily Kay

When advanced Marketing Services Inc. distributes its books to membership warehouse clubs, the company and its customers exchange purchase order data using electronic data interchange (EDI) technology. But when Advanced Marketing wanted to work online with SamsClub.com, it had to figure out how to send its EDI messages over the Internet using SamsClub's proprietary XML format.

XML is an emerging data-description standard designed to simplify Web-based e-commerce transactions among supply-chain partners. EDI is the de facto legacy standard for automating order processing and document interchange among intracompany or intercompany applications. It enables highly secure document exchanges in a compressed, machine-readable form over private value-added networks (VANs).

To compete in e-commerce, electronic businesses need to support EDI-to-XML interoperability with supply-chain partners. The problem lies in getting EDI and XML data to interoperate seamlessly -- and in translating EDI data into the many XML languages. "The biggest challenge is trying to choose an XML standard," says Peter O'Neill, technology vice president at ECOutlook.com, a software and services supplier in Houston. "There is no one XML standard right now."

Despite these challenges, some tools and services are available today to smooth EDI-to-XML integration. But the selection is limited. "The whole XML world is so new, there really are not many tools that support XML, period," says Philip Russom, director of business intelligence at Hurwitz Group Inc. in Framingham, Mass.

EDI to XML: Why Make the Trip?

EDI offers substantial order processing benefits. It eliminates manual operations by facilitating the electronic transfer of information between different organizations' internal applications. Its private network transport also guarantees a robust level of security.

But EDI is a difficult technology. It enables machine-to-machine communication, but presents data in such an arcane way that humans can't read it. Only a trained eye can find a purchase order number in an EDI-formatted message, but the same element in an XML document reads purchase order.

Adding trading partners under traditional EDI requires customized mapping of each new partner's document format, says Debra Cameron, president of Cameron Consulting in Gaithersburg, Md. In addition, EDI runs on VANs, which charge $1 to $20 for each message. Because VAN bandwidth is expensive, EDI compresses messages. That makes the messages difficult to decipher and debug, which in turn makes it expensive to train and retrain EDI programmers.

Dedicated Servers Required

EDI also requires dedicated servers that cost from $10,000 to $100,000, says Russom. And that's not all. "It's common for vendors to spend $250,000 per month keeping up the connection to the EDI network and keeping the servers up and running," he adds.

Despite such complexities, EDI isn't going away anytime soon. EDI-based transactions over proprietary private networks accounted for "the bulk" of the $500 million worth of goods and services that businesses exchanged electronically last year, according to a recent report from The Yankee Group in Boston.

Even with the entrenched investment in EDI, companies haven't adopted the technology widely enough for it to transform the way businesses conduct e-commerce. Operational costs and intricacies have limited EDI's use to about 300,000 companies worldwide -- and to about 20% of their suppliers, says Cameron.

Nonetheless, large companies aren't about to scrap their EDI investments. "There are a variety of issues that need to be addressed and satisfied before people become comfortable doing this (new) type of (XML) communication," says Kyle Rossler, senior marketing vice president at Williamsburg, Va.-based Huntsman Packaging Corp., an $800 million manufacturer of thin-gauge plastic film used for products such as cereal box liners.

Because it's less complex than EDI, XML is cheaper to operate and support. For one thing, XML messages present data in a human-readable format, so it's easier to train and keep programmers. Companies can also run XML applications on inexpensive Web servers over existing Internet connections, says Russom.

Those reasons, plus the rising popularity of the Internet to facilitate business-to-business e-commerce, have spurred a broad interest in XML.

XML Tools Emerge

Huntsman Packaging wanted to automate its global supply-chain process to let customers use the Web to transmit purchase orders, shipping notices and invoices quickly and easily to the company. But the technological capabilities of Huntsman's thousands of customers are all over the map.

"Many have homegrown computing systems, others have Oracle, SAP and other ERP systems," says Rossler. Faxed or EDI-transmitted orders from Huntsman's international customers are often difficult to interpret because of language differences and poor telephone connections. A common, automated format will let customers transmit orders from any time zone, obtain immediate order-receipt notification, track order status online and "eliminate the potential for errors and misunderstandings," says Rossler.

Huntsman uses ECOutlook.com's data transformation service to translate customers' order data from any format into EDI for its internal order entry system. Huntsman's homegrown EDI-based system running on an IBM AS/400 has no compatibility with customers' enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems and other software packages, Rossler notes.

ECOutlook takes data from one company, transforms it into standard digital formats in XML and presents it so that other companies' systems and employees can read it. ECOutlook hosts Huntsman's data transformation application on a Microsoft Corp. SQL Server 7.x database and Microsoft Internet Information Server running on a Windows 2000 Server system at its Houston data center. The application translates data into a common XML format viewable by trading partners through Web browsers. It can also integrate data directly into trading partners' back-end or legacy systems.

Advanced Marketing took a different route to EDI-to-XML interoperability. The company turned to XMLSolutions Corp.'s XEDI Translator 1.0 middleware to translate its EDI documents to XML, and vice versa.

The Java-based software, which runs on Windows NT Server, translates all ANSI X12 and EDIFACT standard EDI messages to XML and maps them to emerging XML standards such as the RosettaNet consortium's RosettaNet Partner Interface Process or Ariba Inc.'s Commerce XML.

Using XEDI, Advanced Marketing can extend its investment in Atlanta-based Harbinger Corp.'s TrustedLink EDI mapping software, which runs on NT Server, without having to change the back-end software. Here's how it works: Inbound XML documents from customers go through XEDI Translator, which decodes them into EDI documents and maps them to a flat text file. From there, homegrown middleware sends the text file to Advanced Marketing's Oracle Corp. 10.7 ERP software running on a Compaq Computer Corp. VAX AlphaServer. XEDI will also translate Advanced Marketing's EDI data into SamsClub.com's unique XML format.

"We didn't have to plug in another translator and interface with our legacy system," says Bob Gawel, application development manager at Advanced Marketing in San Diego. "We just stuck XEDI in front of our current EDI mapping system (and) we don't have to duplicate a lot of code to deal with XML documents."

Gawel says he considered other products, including Harbinger's e-commerce portal, Harbinger.net, an "on-network" data-transformation service that automatically translates EDI documents to XML. TrustedLink also provides EDI-to-XML data conversion and integration capabilities and in the future will include XML-to-EDI conversion, XML mapping and style sheets for document styling and manipulation, according to Harbinger.

XEDI provided translation support for a wider range of documents, says Gawel. "There are hundreds of different (EDI) documents, and XEDI will translate them all into XML," he adds.

Other Tools and Services

Other tools and services are emerging. Sterling Commerce Inc.'s Gentran:Server, in conjunction with WebMethods Inc.'s WebMethods B2B Integration Server, can handle both XML and traditional EDI, says Cameron. Gentran:Server's XML translation option provides "native XML syntax support" in the same way it supports flat files, EDI and databases, the company says.

"It can process and translate any business document regardless of syntax into any other syntax in a single pass of the translator," says Cameron.

Sterling provides implementation and outsourcing services based on Gentran:Server, says Tom Crable, product management director for the Gentran group at Sterling Commerce Inc. in Dublin, Ohio. "We provide an environment where companies can exchange business documents in XML, EDI or any other syntax and have one management and development environment. We are syntax agnostic."

CommerceQuest Inc.'s EnableNet is an outsourced service for electronic businesses using "a variety of data formats including XML, EDI and unstructured data content," according to the company. EnableNet uses IBM MQSeries middleware as the transport for message delivery, and its own e-Adapter software for application-to-application integration, says Colin Osborne, CommerceQuest's chairman in Tampa, Fla.

The company processes transactions on IBM S/390 mainframes housed at Exodus Communications Inc.'s Internet data center in Santa Clara, Calif.

XML and EDI will clearly coexist for some time, and EDI-to-XML interoperability is fast becoming a competitive necessity for companies doing business on the Web. "We wouldn't get (SamsClub.com's) business without doing this," says Gawel.

Kay writes about technology as a principal at Choice Communications, an editorial consulting firm in Chelmsford, Mass.

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