B2B standard targets integration

A standards effort that aims to do for business-to-business documents what the Dewey Decimal System does for library collections is gaining momentum.

The proposed standard is called Universal Data Element Framework (UDEF). Its charter is to simplify messaging among partners, suppliers and customers, and reduce the work required to build interfaces between systems.

The developers behind UDEF are trying to spread the word and attract standards bodies and users to their way of thinking. Although winning support for a new standard is never easy, UDEF has the backing of key standards players within Lockheed Martin Corp. and General Motors Corp.

The problem UDEF is trying to solve is the lack of consistency among different electronic business document formats. Today there is no common way to identify the “semantic equivalency” of data elements contained in the various XML standards and back-office systems that communicate with each other, says John Hardin, chief architect for ebXML at GM.

For example, documents that adhere to standards such as Open Applications Group (OAG), CIDX for the chemical industry, Electronic Data Interchange and RosettaNet — as well as document formats supported by vendors such as Oracle Corp., PeopleSoft Inc. and SAP AG — might all contain the same data elements, but those elements are named differently, Hardin says.

“The same data element concept, such as ‘purchase order document date,’ has a different name in every single one of these formats,” Hardin says. “So users have to create mapping code to bridge the gap and to match up these differently named but exactly alike data element concepts.”

Relying on a person to match the data element concepts in each format and create translations for every systems connection is unsustainable. “When you think about Web services, you think about messages and transactions flying across the Web in an automated way,” Hardin says. “We can’t have a human in the middle of that process and get anything done with any speed.”

Industry experts acknowledge the problem.

“If I structure my purchase order one way and you structure your purchase order a totally different way, even if we use the same terminology, a computer is not going to know that it’s the same thing,” says Ron Schmelzer, a senior analyst at research firm ZapThink.

UDEF is aimed at addressing this translation gap with a rules-based naming convention.

Like the Dewey library-classification system, UDEF assigns alphanumeric tags. The intent is to provide a mechanism for creating alphanumeric UDEF IDs for each data element in an electronic document. In a business-to-business transaction, if UDEF IDs are embedded in the documents from both parties, then the task of transforming a message into another format can be handled automatically.

For large organizations that deal with hundreds or thousands of suppliers, UDEF is intended to allow all involved parties to use systems that best fit their specific needs and at the same time enable communication with business partners, says Mark Gibbs, consultant and Network World columnist. Whereas most XML translations are simply one-to-one solutions that lack robustness, UDEF could enable one-to-any translations.

“The need for UDEF is massive and inescapable, and the bigger the enterprise, the greater the need,” Gibbs says.

While the mission of UDEF is clear, its implementation is a challenge.

Hardin and company have been working to gain the support of major standards bodies, international government agencies and software vendors. The group plans to submit the UDEF proposal to the World Wide Web Consortium for standards consideration.

So far UDEF has locked up support from the aerospace industry, where the effort originated. UDEF was conceived 15 years ago by Ron Schuldt, a senior staff systems architect at Lockheed Martin and co-lead — with Hardin — of a working group within the Aerospace Industry Association (AIA) responsible for defining e-business data standards. (AIA is one of the intellectual property owners of UDEF.)

Despite having the support of big, influential companies like Lockheed Martin and General Motors, it won’t be easy to widen UDEF beyond industries that revolve around government and government contractors, ZapThink’s Schmelzer says. Additionally, the chore of maintaining a central UDEF registry for managing data element identifiers will be significant, he says.

To that end, UDEF backers expect in the near future to announce that a standards body will take over responsibility for hosting a global online UDEF registry.

UDEF isn’t expected to wipe out the need for enterprise application integration (EAI) software or existing e-business standards. “We will still need EAI vendors, and we will still need business document formats such as OAG and SAP IDocs, but this will make it easier to translate between the two,” he says. “Hopefully when we get enough of these business document formats embedded with UDEF IDs, we can approach something that might look like automated integration.”

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