For prospective e-businesses, the proliferation of industry consortia pushing different standards for business-to-business (B2B) Internet trading does not encourage confidence in the stability of the Web as a commerce platform.
While extensible mark-up language (XML) has emerged as the lingua franca for data exchange on the Web, the question of how to apply this programming vocabulary to draft a standard protocol for conducting e-business is being answered by many different voices.
The price of failing to agree a unitary system for conducting business on the Web is clear from the fragmented nature of electronic data integration (EDI) - the pre-Internet e-business platform. At least 14 EDI standards mean many global firms have to process transactions differently in different countries.
Migrating from EDI trading interfaces - based on closed private networks between trading partners - to an open trading community on the Web requires standardisation of the way firms swap data online and establishing universal e-commerce rules. This means software vendors must draw up XML blueprints, known as schema, to help vertical industries frame universally understood ways to describe traded goods, pricing data, credit checks, inventory status and other constituents of e-business.
Meanwhile, standards drafted by travel and insurance firms, for instance, must be interoperable with firms in other industries and across different computer platforms and applications.
The logistics of this task has demanded the creation of multiple consortia to represent the needs of all participants. Accordingly, groups such as Rosettanet and the Global Commerce Internet Protocol have sprung up to pin down e-business standards on behalf of firms in the electronics and retail industries.
Nevertheless, the squaring off of rival camps of IT vendors over XML schema threatens to place the whole standard-setting process in chaos. Microsoft has corralled most of the leading business automation software vendors, except Oracle, plus e-market infrastructure specialist Ariba and marquee end-user Boeing into its BizTalk initiative.
While, IBM, Sun Microsystems and Oracle have led other suppliers in rallying around the Organisation for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (Oasis), a non-profit group pushing a rival proposed standard, dubbed Electronic Business XML (ebXML).
Oasis is also backed by the United Nations and leading EDI users. The latter is important because of existing investment in EDI - an estimated 98% of Fortune 1,000 firms use EDI systems to trade with partners. The two sides also offer rival Web portals - BizTalk.org and XML.org respectively - as libraries of XML schema covering particular data-exchange transactions for e-business users to tap.
BizTalk and Oasis demonstrate contrasting approaches to the task of standardising the e-business landscape. With the release of its BizTalk server 2000 software in January, Microsoft has prioritised getting a product to market that encodes its XML schema and puts simple standards-based tools for conducting e-business into the hands of end-users as soon as possible. The company eschews what it sees as the smoke-filled committee room approach to drafting standards taken by Oasis.
James Utzschneider, who spearheaded BizTalk and is also a director of Web services and business applications at Microsoft, describes it as a "vehicle for working with leading-edge customers on how to use XML to replace existing electronic data interchange [EDI] frameworks." He contrasts its implementation-focused approach to a "bunch of vendors getting together to produce specifications, and then telling users to implement".
However, while Oasis will not finalise ebXML until March, let alone offer software based on the blueprint from participating vendors, its proposed standard is more ambitious than BizTalk.
Despite such differences, close inspection reveals the battle lines between the rival consortia to be hazy. Microsoft is actually a member of Oasis, albeit a passive one, and the two sides keep up a running dialog, with Microsoft executives not ruling out support for ebXML.
Meanwhile, if their differences harden into a protracted Cold War, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which has emerged as the de facto arbiter of Internet standards, is waiting in the wings as a peace envoy. In its final recommendation for XML schema, W3C will evaluate the respective merits of both proposed standards.
Commentators believe BizTalk may score points from adoption in the marketplace, while ebXML counts greater comprehensiveness in its favour in a final standard that may be a composite of both proposals.
Also boding well for a resolution of the standoff between BizTalk and ebXML is IT industry coalescence around XML-based e-business building blocks developed organically by vendors. Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP), developed by Microsoft, and Universal Description, Discovery and Integration business registry (UDDI), co-developed by Microsoft, IBM and Ariba, offer examples of once implacable opponents burying their differences to co-operate on standards.
SOAP, a proposal for specifying the way communications need to be addressed to be readable across different computing platforms, won the unlikely support of Microsoft adversary Sun last June after fellow Java proponent IBM took a hand in tweaking it. Both companies had balked at the original version of SOAP, based on proprietary Microsoft technology. However, IBM reversed its stance in April, saying the need for a common Internet messaging protocol outweighed competitive considerations, subsequently helping draft a new version and developing Java for SOAP software that overcame Sun's objections.
The unlikely bedfellows have submitted SOAP to the W3C as a proposed starting point in developing an XML messaging standard that straddles the dominant business software platforms, Microsoft's Windows operating system and the Java programming language. The IT industry has also rallied behind UDDI, intended as a Yellow Pages for the Web, offering a directory of businesses with online trading capabilities for would-be trading partners to consult.
The proposed Web standard now counts 130 signatories, including Dell, Intel, Nortel Networks, Sun, Andersen Consulting and Ford Motor, but the biggest coup was signing up Oracle at the end of November. Oracle and Hewlett-Packard joined after the founding partners relinquished their right of veto over suggestions from other members for UDDI.
A step in the right direction
IBM's director of e-business standards strategy, Bob Sutor, characterises grass roots standard-setting efforts like SOAP as bottom-up initiatives, while Oasis, of which he is also chief strategy officer, offers a more top-down approach with the more detailed specifications upcoming in ebXML.
But the fact that ebXML will also seek to encode a rival messaging standard to SOAP, with both initiatives counting common supporters in Sun and IBM, does nothing to clear the air of confusion surrounding XML standard-setting. "The process of coming up with a universal standard is a multistep one and we are in the first step," Sutor explains. "People are trying to do what is best, but [they are] coming from different backgrounds."
One flashpoint that XML experts agree needs to be addressed is how the business processes that make up intercompany transactions are mapped out. Sutor describes the task as "choreographing how information flows back and forth between businesses", defining, for instance, how firms field orders and communicate product availability to one another.
At least four coalitions - BPMI.org and the Workflow Management Coalition, alongside Microsoft's Orchestration module within its BizTalk Server software and Oasis's efforts within ebXML - are vying to frame the protocol for such business processes.
Problems may arise over the transportability of business process models between Java and Windows operating systems unless standard setting is co-ordinated between authors of the two platforms, says Martin Marshall, managing director at Internet analyst Zona Research.
XML protagonists could do worse than look askance at the storage area network (SAN) market to learn the importance of speaking with one voice. SANs offer a dedicated, high-speed network for pooling multiple storage devices addressing businesses' spiralling data storage requirements. However, despite this no-brainer, adoption is snarled in interoperability problems, while vendors bicker over standards for fibre channel, a technology capable of connecting up devices on a SAN.
IBM's NUMA-Q group resigned from the EMC-led Fibre Alliance last June, accusing the storage systems leader of hijacking the consortium to push its own products. Meanwhile, a recent poll of 160 US IT managers by US magazine Computerworld found that more than 30% considered interoperability the biggest headache in SAN implementations. While more than 80% of 301 IT professionals surveyed by market researcher IDC rated open standards as key.
Nevertheless, while such shortcomings are as glaring as the many overlaps between e-business consortia, the progress of these groups towards fostering co-operation between firms accustomed to pursuing their own interests at each other's expense is not inconsiderable. Setting standards is often compared to making sausages - they are two things you do not want to see being made. While the work of the consortia may be messy and clumsy as they struggle toward lofty goals, they appear at least to be travelling in the right direction.
The tangled Web: E-business consortia family tree
World Wide Web Consortium
The de facto arbiter of Web protocols, set to ratify standard XML vocabulary (schema) to encode all data-exchange transactions required to conduct e-business, based on submission from BizTalk, Oasis (below).
Consortium led by IBM, Sun, Oracle and the UN. Its proposed standard for XML schema - electronic business XML (ebXML) - is more detailed than BizTalk, but specifications, let alone a product, will not be released until March 2001.
Microsoft's proposal for B2B messaging standard within XML schema, won support from IBM and Sun last year, after being tweaked to be less reliant on proprietary Microsoft technology.
It faces rival standard being proposed by Oasis.
Microsoft-led consortium. Its proposed blueprint for XML schema is already encoded in BizTalk Server software, released January 2001.
Proposed standard for a Yellow Pages for e-business, developed by Microsoft, IBM and Ariba. It garnered support from Oracle and Hewlett-Packard after creators relinquished controlling powers.