IBM targets B2B systems integration software

IBM Corp. has announced its forthcoming business-to-business (B2B) application-integration software, which is aimed at helping companies connect their internal applications to their business partners’ systems.

Called WebSphere Business Connection, the new software provides a flexible, Internet-based alternative to proprietary electronic data interchange systems, says Scott Cosby, manager of WebSphere business process integration at IBM. At its most basic, Business Connection is a Web services gateway for sending and receiving documents using XML and Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP). It was developed in response to customer requests for an easier, more affordable way to collaborate electronically with trading partners, Cosby says.

IBM has an established line of enterprise application integration (EAI) products, built around its MQ message broker. But whereas IBM’s existing EAI software, WebSphere Business Integration, is focused on linking internal applications and systems, Business Connection is about linking to systems outside the firewall, he says.

“Business Connection is what enables you to get across the firewall and deal with your partners in the seamless way that you’d want to deal internally – handling security, handling partner management and handling transaction issues,” Cosby says.

IBM is not the first vendor to offer B2B integration products – companies such as Ariba Inc. and Commerce One Inc. were conceived around the idea of connecting trading partner networks, says Tim Sloane, director of Internet infrastructure at Aberdeen Group Inc. In addition, companies such as ADX and Global eXchange Services offer hosted services for creating ties to business partners’ systems.

IBM’s offering is different from the others because of its ties to IBM’s Web-Sphere Application Server, he says. Instead of having separate tools for B2B collaboration, IBM has built its B2B toolkit around the established WebSphere development platform and runtime engine.

“This market used to be considered distinct and separate from application servers. It was about B2B, and it was sold to companies that were trying to figure out at a business level how to move to a B2B environment and do e-commerce,” Sloane says. “This is a sign that the market – B2B connectivity – is really moving back into the corporate IT department and is going to be bundled into the app server and development environments that major vendors like IBM are bringing to market.”

AMR Research Inc. analyst Kimberly Knickle says that since IBM acquired business-process management vendor CrossWorlds last fall, IBM has been re-organizing its product line to take a stronger leadership role in the integration market.

“As IBM strengthens its position on the B2B side, we expect B2B veterans such as GE Global eXchange Services and Sterling Commerce to take notice,” Knickle wrote in a research brief last week. “For end users, it means more pressure on the vendors to provide simpler Internet-based options at lower prices.”

Business Connection is intended to complement IBM’s EAI tools and its Portal Server software – but these are not prerequisites, Cosby says. It can exchange documents with any application that supports XML and Web services standards, he says.

The new software comes in three versions tailored for varying degrees of integration complexity:

– Business Connection Express is a simple Web services gateway for exchanging XML-based information. Pricing starts at US$5,000, which covers up to 10 partner connections. Express supports the exchange of SOAP messages over HTTP.

– Business Connection Standard starts at US$28,000. Users can connect to up to 50 partners through its Web services gateway or build a single connection to one business partner via more traditional channels, such as over FTP, EDI or RosettaNet Inc.

– Business Connection Enterprise builds on the Standard edition and adds transformation, or processing, capabilities. Instead of simply sending and receiving EDI messages, for example, the Enterprise edition can trigger a message in response, such as send a purchase-order acknowledgement. Its US$87,000 starting price covers up to 100 Web services connections or a single connection to one business partner via FTP, EDI or RosettaNet.

WebSphere Business Connection runs on Windows 2000, Solaris and IBM AIX. It will be available next month.

“IBM did a good job of getting the entry [price] down so that companies can do pilots and see the benefits,” Sloane says. Instead of estimating the benefits of B2B collaboration with trading partners, a company can try it out and measure actual gains, he says.

“This pricing allows companies to go out and pick one partner, implement it, and see what the benefits are, how it all works, how much the infrastructure costs and how much it takes to keep it all running.”