Aerospace group backs new EDI-to-XML bridge

As technical standards bodies attempt to harmonize data-sharing specifications in the Balkanized world of XML, an aerospace industry group is adopting a new approach that converts existing electronic data interchange (EDI) data formats and definitions into XML.

Announced last week by Vitria Technology Inc. in Sunnyvale, Calif., the Value Chain Markup Language (VCML) retains the structure, business terms and industry specifications of the x12 and Electronic Data Interchange for Administration, Commerce and Transport (EDIFACT) standards and translates them into formats that can be understood by XML-based systems.

The Aerospace Industry Association of America Inc. (AIA) in Washington said it plans next month to publish business-to-business collaboration specifications based on VCML for use by its members in exchanging documents such as purchase orders and invoices.

“It means that we don’t have to throw out 30 years of development on the EDI side,” said Bob Moore, co-chairman of the AIA’s Electronic Enterprise Working Group and an e-commerce executive at Goodrich Corp. in Charlotte, N.C.

XML resolved the problem of the value-added network and connectivity charges associated with EDI, but it “didn’t solve the problems of back-end integration,” Moore added. “In fact, it exacerbated the problem because there’s so many XML dialects out there.”

Tom Warner, a member of Moore’s working group and an e-commerce initiatives manager at The Boeing Co. in Chicago, said standards bodies need to better leverage what users have in place, which is what he likes about VCML.

“The standards guys are building the future, and I’m always looking for the ability to get from where I’m at to where they’re going,” he said. “I’m not after the perfect XML solution. I want a business solution.”

Vitria executive Daryn Walters said the application integration software vendor has developed iterations of VCML for 11 different vertical industries. It also plans to make VCML available to all XML standards bodies, he said.

During the past two weeks, the major standards groups that back x12, EDIFACT and electronic business XML (ebXML) have been trying to define a common set of core technology components. And VCML last week was accepted by a joint ebXML/EDIFACT committee for use in creating transitional XML standards.

“We all agree a final state is not here now, and we have to do something transitional,” said Ralph Berwanger, a member of the joint standards committee and executive at Irving, Tex.-based e-commerce network provider bTrade Inc. “We need to give users something in the next months that they can actually use.”

The joint committee also accepted submissions from the Open Applications Group Inc., a Marietta, Ga.-based nonprofit consortium, and from ebXML’s own core components committee.

Berwanger said VCML has been criticized for “perpetuating some of the problems that we know exist in [EDI],” such as variations between the specifications for different industries.

But firms that use VCML “may find out that it works, and that might be what counts most at the end of the day,” he added.

According to Joanne Friedman, an analyst at Stamford, Conn.-based Meta Group Inc., VCML-based systems should be relatively inexpensive and uncomplicated to implement and maintain.

“It’s something people can get their heads around,” she said. “XML remains esoteric to many [users].”

VCML Joins Crowded XML Standards Field

VCML may offer a potential migration path to XML for EDI users, but the new specification is just one entry in a crowded standards field.

Numerous companies have already invested significant time, effort and money in attempts to create common XML semantics for corporate users. For example, Commerce One Inc., SAP AG and Sun Microsystems Inc. are working to modify a specification developed by Pleasanton, Calif.-based Commerce One so it can function as a universal XML business library.

SAP and Sun signed on with Commerce One earlier this year. However, analysts said a possible drawback for Commerce One’s XML Common Business Library is that it was built in the early days of business-to-business applications and focuses on simple purchase orders, leaving it wanting for dealing with complex orders between supply chain partners.

The Open Applications Group Inc. consortium submitted its Business Object Documents (BOD) specification to the joint EDIFACT/ebXML committee that’s trying to develop transitional XML standards. The BOD approach, which, like VCML, was accepted for possible use, is another method of converting business documents to different data formats.

Companies can use BODs to create virtual object wrappers around their systems so purchase orders and other documents can be reimplemented in different formats. But the downside of BODs is that they don’t allow for one-time conversions and require too much maintenance, analysts said.

Also vying for attention is RosettaNet, a Santa Ana, Calif.-based consortium of technology vendors that has developed an XML-based e-business language for high-tech companies. But the RosettaNet specification was built for companies with more technical savvy than most users have, and analysts remain skeptical that what works in the high-tech industry can be translated to other markets.