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Integration languages make B2B communication more effective

When used correctly, tagging languages can help make it increasingly efficient to communicate with customers, suppliers and others throughout even a far-flung corporate ecosystem.

Chances are good that your industry has already adopted a variant of XML, the tagging language, as its lingua franca of choice. When used correctly, these types of integration languages can help make it increasingly efficient to communicate with customers, suppliers and others throughout even a far-flung corporate ecosystem.

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 Dozens of industry-specific XML vocabularies and schema are already in use throughout various sectors, from manufacturers to Wall Street and beyond. Usually, these XML systems are created by consortia of companies in any given vertical market that are trying to solve the problem of a common information exchange for their industry. These include: the Real Estate Transaction Markup Language, the Extensible Business Reporting Language to help standardize financial reporting over the Internet, an XML derivative from the Mortgage Industry Standards Maintenance Organization, and FinXML, a framework for data interchange across capital markets.

Then there are XML variants that cut across different functional areas, including eBIS-XML for procurement, HR-XML for human resources, the Business Process Modeling Language for business process improvement and ebXML to allow for a standard method to exchange business messages, conduct trading relationships, communicate data in common terms, and define and register business processes.

Granted, it's early going, according to experts, and adopting these kinds of B2B communication protocols is anything but a quick-and-dirty kind of project. It can take years for systems to be built and for customers and partners to be brought fully into the loop.

But that's not stopping the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. The federal watchdog organization over flu, hepatitis and other health threats has based the messaging portion of its new Public Health Information Network (PHIN) on ebXML. The protocol will act as the standard means for exchanging messages among all 50 states and the CDC. Other users -- including clinical facilities and medical laboratories around the country -- will be brought in as well, said Barry Rhodes, associate director for public health systems development.

At this point, PHIN has been implemented in about 15 state health departments, with the rest to be rolled out over the next three years, Rhodes said. PHIN, based on a bevy of computing and other standards, is about the secure and reliable exchange of information. It's envisioned to be a unifying framework built on top of existing standards whenever possible; for instance, Secure Sockets Layer and some Java technologies are included in the system as well.

For its part, ebXML is "the envelope into which we put messages," Rhodes explained. "Some are XML messages and some are not."

The CDC chose ebXML as the underlying message transport because it liked its approach. "The developers of ebXML looked at the business need of interactions between business partners, of how that could happen." Rhodes said. "We needed that business process modeling perspective that ebXML provides. [In comparison,] Web services tools take a bottoms-up approach -- that approach is more of a solution to a technical issue, of how to distribute functionality across servers and the Internet."

So far, ebXML at the CDC has been a "success story," because it has allowed much greater interoperability than what previously occurred among the states, Rhodes said. "Our ROI is about communication and getting more information to and from the CDC."

Rhodes was not able to share specific data, but he talked about one application -- in operation for years -- that gathers information about notifiable public health threats, including E. coli bacteria and the chickenpox.

"We look at the data and analyze it for things like latency and the amount of data received -- and we have compared those to what was happening pre-PHIN," Rhodes explained. "We've seen a demonstrable increase in the amount of data and a decrease in information latency."

The biggest threat to ebXML adoption, he said, is that it's early enough in the technology's lifecycle that it's not yet a sure bet that all the major computing vendors will support it. "It's one thing to put forth a standard," he said, "but if Microsoft and IBM choose not to implement it, that makes it very difficult. Predicting the future is a hard thing."

Still, it can be a worthwhile gamble. Kimberly Harris, an analyst at Gartner Inc. who specializes in the insurance industry, said different types of insurers have already begun to identify different business benefits of XML and integration languages. Within the property and casualty group, the largest XML benefit is speed of information exchange. For life and health firms, it's ease of application integration. Interestingly, both groups identify cost savings as the least important issue; the use of XML is more about providing better customer service and fewer human errors when processing forms.

Harris said there are a couple of points to consider. First, the biggest benefit of XML is achieved when a company makes widespread use of the technology. Using XML in a relatively large business group isn't enough; it needs to be a format that's incorporated in all the major corporate applications. That requires the buy-in of the CIO and the person who heads up data architecture, and it brings up the usual related issues of who owns what and where the major XML initiatives sit within a company's power structure.

The discussions at most shops are focused on where to go next with the technology, which version of an industry-standard XML vocabulary to support -- the latest and greatest or some earlier version -- and how to build or buy whatever XML pieces are needed that may not be part of the industry standard.

Johanna Ambrosio is a freelance writer based in Marlborough, Mass. She can be reached at

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