The recent announcement of Auto-xchange, which will allow the motor giants Ford, GM and Daimler-Chrysler to procure supplies from their partners across the Net, demonstrated two things unequivocally. First, that the Internet is now big business - the combined value of the supplies that will flow through Auto-xchange will be in excess of $200 billion - and that's just the start
The other important signal the deal sends is that when it comes to e-commerce, business-to-business is already vastly more important than the interesting but still rather marginal business-to-consumer.
Full-blown global projects like Auto-xchange are not the only way for an enterprise to use B2B to increase sales and decrease costs. For example, another approach would be to integrate a company's processes more closely with those of its major customers and suppliers in a more local venture.
Two of the technologies needed to do this are well-established. The wiring for the exchange of data between partners is provided by an extranet. This is simply the application of standard Internet technologies - e-mail, the Web, Usenet discussion groups - in the context of a private and secure network, accessible only to members of the mini business-to-business exchange.
Similarly, it is quite clear that the best format for transmitting information between the different and possibily disparate information systems employed by members of such an extranet is XML (eXtensible Markup Language). XML is a kind of generalised, do-it-yourself version of the HTML that underlies all Web pages.
It allows the easy exchange of information between arbitrary proprietary formats - between Oracle and Microsoft databases, for example.
XML-formatted files flowing across extranets solve the problem of getting information to and from partners, but not what to do with it once it arrives. What is needed is something to glue the results of all these business processes together. And what could be better than a glue language, also known as a scripting language?
There are several options here, including things like Perl and Python. But an increasingly popular solution is to employ Tcl - pronounced "tickle". Alongside some design strengths that make it particularly suitable for business-to-business applications, Tcl has the enormous advantage that its creator, John Ousterhout, has set up a company to sell products based on it.
Chief among these is Scriptics Connect, which is nothing less than a complete XML-based business-to-business solution with the language at its core.
Copyright 1999 Glyn Moody