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Telecomm Industry Supply Chain Synchronized with XML


The early architects of XML in business wanted to use XML to replace electronic data interchange (EDI), a pre-Internet technology for trading partners to exchange business data without paper documents. With XML now built into so many Web functions, supply chain applications sometimes seem forgotten, when in fact they continue to perform services for companies sending and receiving these transactions.

A recent implementation of supply chain transactions in the telecommunications industry uses XML protocols for exchanging messages between a mobile phone company in Europe (name not disclosed) and its manufacturing contractor in China. Connectiv-IT, a French consulting firm, developed the system for the mobile phone company. The mobile phone industry is faced with constant, and often dramatic, technological change, which requires manufacturers to respond quickly to new technologies and customer demands.

Immediate and dramatic financial consequences

The mobile phone provider wanted to monitor its manufacturing contractor from long-distance, while still maintaining effective control. Anything less than tight coordination would have immediate and dramatic financial consequences, from missed deliveries or high storage costs, while inventory caught up with demand (or vice-versa). The mobile provider and contractor also needed to exchange messages and data with enormous economic and competitive implications, thus they needed security protocols supporting authentication, encryption, and electronic signatures.

The mobile phone provider wanted to monitor its manufacturing contractor from long-distance, while still maintaining effective control. Anything less than tight coordination would have immediate and dramatic financial consequences, from missed deliveries or high storage costs, while inventory caught up with demand (or vice-versa). The mobile provider and contractor also needed to exchange messages and data with enormous economic and competitive implications, thus they needed security protocols supporting authentication, encryption, and electronic signatures.

Translated into specific transactions, the system needed to exchange manufacturing orders, order changes, order confirmations, and ship notices -- messages indicating ordered inventory items were shipped. The data are also synchronized with the mobile phone company’s SAP production management system. And the system had to do all of this under aggressive time and budget constraints.

Connectiv-IT devised the solution with Hermes H2O, an open-source message handler that supports the Electronic Business XML (ebXML) messaging service and Applicability Statement 2 (AS2) protocol. Hermes H2O was developed and is offered by the Center for E-Commerce Infrastructure Development (CECID) at University of Hong Kong.

The ebXML messaging service is the most implemented part of the ebXML standards, developed by OASIS and UN/CEFACT in 1999-2001, and blessed by the International Organization of Standards in 2004 as ISO 15000. The messaging service, now in version 3.0,  is a variation of the Simple Object Access Protocol, with the ability to handle message payloads, add in extra security features (e.g., electronic signatures), and provide acknowledgments. When used with multi-part MIME envelopes, ebXML messages can support various payload formats and attachments.

Complex transaction choreographies

The message payloads -- the parts of the message with the business data -- are based on the RosettaNet standards that provide a wide range of electronic business transactions implemented in XML for the electronics and related industries. RosettaNet defines Partner Interface Processes or PIPs that, like many business-to-business specifications, cover transactions for the movement of goods. But RosettaNet PIPs also cover highly specialized business services, such as forecasts, sales reports, and warranty claims. As a result, RosettaNet can handle complex transaction choreographies, such as the kind needed by the mobile phone provider.

The system, says Connectiv-IT, handles 1,000 transactions a day. Messages are processed using Extensible Stylesheet (XSL) transformations, then aggregated and directed to the mobile phone company’s SAP production management system.

A criticism of EDI was its complexity and high cost that either shut out smaller companies completely, or forced them to implement expensive solutions to satisfy large-enterprise customers. But even with transactions based on XML, few (if any) small businesses can afford to hire consultants to build systems like the one devised for the mobile phone company.

To meet the needs of smaller enterprises, CECID offers open-source variations of its products on its freebxml.org site. Among the freebxml offerings is an-e-mail based message handler that supports ebXML messages, for trading partners with occasional transactions -- or at least less than the 1,000 messages a day sent and received by the mobile phone company.

Alan Kotok is editor and publisher of the Science Business news blog, and author, with David Webber, of ebXML: The New Global Standard for Doing Business on The Internet (New Riders, 2001).

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