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SOA-Powered B2B: A Long-Term Strategy

Accuracy, efficiency, and speed in interacting with trading partners have never been more important

If you are in IT, there is good chance that you are maintaining multiple B2B integration systems for data exchange and translation. Every IT leader has considered consolidating these products into a single B2B suite to reduce costs and improve supply chain agility. Historically, each B2B system has acted like a "black box," providing little visibility and integration into the IT governance tools.

This article outlines the benefits of a service-oriented architecture (SOA)-enabled approach to B2B and why it's a better long-term strategy.

As more and more companies adopt SOA and realize the importance of governance, it's becoming critical to include the B2B suites into the SOA fabric and govern them as any other IT system. A well-thought-out SOA-based approach to B2B not only reduces the B2B expense but also provides SOA benefits such as improved governance, compliance, reuse and the ability to extend B2B processes to other IT applications.

As supply chains become more complex, the B2B complexity and volumes grow every year and meeting Service Level Agreements (SLAs) is becoming increasingly important. At the same time, the security, audit and compliance needs from B2B systems have increased. To meet all these challenges and minimize disruptions to their supply chain, companies typically plan on a B2B gateway implementation with the aim of consolidating all of their B2B projects into one application.

The focus of consolidation into one B2B application typically revolves around enabling the protocols and EDI/XML standards in use, as well as the ability to process the data volumes. The other factors such as visibility, extensibility, architectural fit and the product in question's ability to fit in the IT governance model are largely ignored, resulting in the continuance of B2B systems being their own islands of functionality with little visibility from the outside world.

Today's B2B Challenge
For years B2B software has been delivering on its promise to help organizations reduce the cost of doing business. B2B solutions have been used to automate transactions between customers, suppliers, partners and marketplaces, and to reduce costly overhead, improve transaction reliability and improve the efficiency of business-to-business processes.

But as IT complexities and the business demands made on IT have increased, a whole new set of expectations has emerged. Organizations increasingly realize that their B2B operations cannot be kept separate from their internal processes. They want to integrate B2B interaction with their business processes to enhance productivity and improve reliability both in IT and for the business users who own the B2B processes. They not only want the lower costs that this higher level of integration enables, but also to capture the significant business value of increased operational and competitive agility.

Unfortunately, B2B solutions have not all evolved quickly enough to meet these higher expectations. Common problems include the following for many organizations:

  • The solution does not allow reuse of existing IT intelligence and assets, severely limiting its business value. Further, this inflexibility forces a point-to-point solution in an increasingly heterogeneous IT environment.
  • The current B2B solution lacks flexibility, leading to higher costs and an inability to respond to business demands. For example, a legacy translation/mapping product might not integrate well with other B2B or IT initiatives, leading to higher costs in mapping and translation and greatly hampering business agility.
  • The current solution cannot provide visibility into B2B transactions. In essence, the solution is a black box, keeping IT operations and the business from accessing and leveraging B2B data. The result: increased operations costs, lower customer/partner satisfaction and higher barriers to supporting business initiatives.
  • The current solution is a point-to-point solution that fits poorly into the overall architectural vision and requires a dedicated set of skills and expertise to manage. The organization then faces the ongoing challenge of maintaining these proprietary, inefficient point-to-point systems.
  • The current solution might be going out of support soon, forcing the organization to make an upgrade decision.

As a result, many CIOs, directors and VPs of supply chain now find themselves at a crossroads. What's the best path forward? How should they address obstacles that their current B2B solutions put in the way of attaining the ultimate promise of B2B: comprehensive end-to-end integration of internal operations with customers, partners and suppliers? Increasingly, they are finding that the answer lies in B2B gateway software built on a foundation of service-oriented architecture.

The Power of Service-Based Integration
SOA delivers what organizations need to support the integration of heterogeneous B2B environments with many internal applications, trading partner applications and databases and can enable fast, accurate information exchange with those trading partners. Unlike traditional point-to-point integration approaches, SOA lets you service-enable disparate applications and orchestrate the services across the enterprise and the trading network. By surfacing functionality from existing systems and applications as services, you can avoid a dangerous ‘rip and replace' approach. Organizations can also build new services as needed and manage them across stakeholders and for their entire lifecycle.

With this comprehensive approach to SOA-enabled B2B, users can:

  • Leverage SOA to align overall IT processes with the needs of today's increasingly partner-centric business world.
  • Quickly and efficiently develop new solutions while extending existing IT investments by reusing or replacing as many or as few parts of legacy B2B services as needed. For example, building a new visibility service on top of an existing translation service.
  • Govern B2B systems using an SOA infrastructure and obtain a single view of business across all system and information silos both inside and outside the enterprise.
  • Take advantage of the various options for connecting B2B services to different parts of an organization, including service-oriented, event-driven or enterprise application integration.

In addition to addressing those relatively rare cases in which an organization is creating a new B2B environment from the ground up, SOA-enabled B2B solutions can help organizations convert the IT challenges of their existing B2B technologies into significant business benefits.

For example, such solutions are ideal for organizations that want to:

  • Modernize legacy B2B systems, including mainframe Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) systems, EDI translators, point-to-point integration solutions, and dependencies on Value Added Networks, which can be expensive because they charge by message volume.
  • Replace legacy EDI systems such as mainframe EDI connectors and older standalone implementations that now require a complex and costly upgrade.
  • Consolidate and standardize multiple B2B projects (often resulting from silo organizations or M&A) across the enterprise into a single B2B platform, enabling re-use and reducing cost.
  • Incorporate SOA architectural approaches into existing B2B infrastructures.

From a Cost Center to a Profit Center
Too often, IT has been seen as a cost center rather than as a powerful engine of efficiency and a source of significant business advantage. B2B operations that do not provide full integration of internal business processes and data with external interactions only perpetuate that view of IT. SOA-enabled integration helps IT shake off that undeserved reputation and further evolve from a cost center to a profit center by:

  • On boarding trading partners more efficiently and connecting them with relevant internal processes.
  • Improving the accuracy and efficiency of interactions with suppliers, distributors, trading partners and customers - eliminating costly errors and delays.
  • Reducing the cost of ownership by reducing the need for point-to-point integrations.
  • Leveraging existing IT investments by service-enabling them and reusing services.
  • Providing real-time information exchange, increasing the speed at which the organization can do business.

Further, trading partners now expect "frictionless" interactions that don't require manual intervention or cumbersome rework every time changes are made in transaction documents or the like. SOA-enabled B2B gives IT the business the ability to stay ahead of those ever-rising expectations, which bring CIOs, directors of IT, VPs of supply chain, and B2B architects who have recognized the need for SOA-enabled integration to another crossroads: which product to choose.

The Right B2B Solution
The right B2B is built on an integrated SOA suite, seamlessly providing access to enterprise service bus capabilities, as well as to business process management, monitoring, analytics, governance, composite applications, legacy applications and databases.

This foundation provides:

  • A single, centralized gateway for all B2B integration, spanning EDI, XML and Flat File document formats, enabling the organization to integrate 100% of its trading partners with a single solution.
  • Support for all major B2B standards and protocols such as AS2, ebXML, X12, and EDIFACT, and vertical industry standards such as Rosettanet, SWIFT, CIDX, PIDX and HIPAA.
  • A proven platform for even the largest, most complex B2B integrations, supporting transaction levels in the billions and connections to tens of thousands of partners and suppliers.
  • Integration with a governance platform, which combines a standards-based registry and repository with policy management, simplifying the reuse of services and the automation of SOA processes, as well as helping with the complexities and interdependencies of the organization's SOA and B2B networks.
  • Best-of-breed back-end integration, business process management, SOA governance, monitoring and business activity monitoring.

Whether an organization is modernizing legacy systems, seeking to replace a previous standalone solution, or consolidating and standardizing multiple B2B projects across the enterprise, the right software solution can help IT deliver the business benefits of next-generation integration now.

Adding Value in Tough Times - and Beyond
Like all decision-makers today, IT leaders face an additional dilemma: how to respond to some of the most difficult economic conditions in memory. Many organizations are trying to cut costs but also know that they need to grow incremental revenue to get through the current difficulty. SOA-enabled B2B integration addresses both sides of that complex equation. On the one hand, the best solution addresses costs through reuse of services, the retirement of inefficient and unwieldy patchwork systems and the ability to do more with less. On the other hand, the same solution addresses the revenue side with its unrivalled ability to rapidly support critical business initiatives. As the economy gains momentum, those companies that are already equipped with state-of-the-art SOA-enabled B2B integration capabilities will quickly outdistance their less agile competitors.

Accuracy, efficiency, and speed in interacting with trading partners have never been more important. The key to achieving those goals lies in SOA enablement, with its ability to make possible the integration of B2B processes with internal processes and help improve visibility of partner transactions across the entire supply chain.

More Stories By Navdeep Sidhu

Navdeep Sidhu is Director of Product Marketing for Software AG. He works closely with customers to solve their B2B problems.

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