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Butting heads over B2B

ebXML battles Web services over which will become the e-business platform of choice.

By Paul Desmond, Network World
December 22, 2003 12:10 AM ET

Network World - Companies looking to conduct complex business transactions might expect Web services to enable those efforts. But along the way, they might find some business partners adamant about using another technology for the same purpose, electronic business with XML.

Under development since the late 1990s, ebXML is a multifunction e-business framework that includes a secure document-messaging component and a methodology for constructing those documents. Web services, of course, fits a similar description, although the degree to which they help businesses conduct more than the simplest of online transactions is one subject of the Web services vs. ebXML debate. Another topic is whether a debate is needed at all. A number of experts say the two technologies are complementary, because ebXML can, and does, employ Web services underpinnings such as Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP).

"People are seeing they can use these things in combination," says David Webber, an independent consultant who chairs the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards' (OASIS) Content Assembly for ebXML technical committee and co-authored the book, ebXML: The New Global Standard for Doing Business. He argues that Web services are king for informational sorts of transactions, such as checking stock with a business partner. But the purchasing act requires systems that can communicate on a more meaningful level, with proper security. All of which ebXML provides, he says.

"People think of ebXML as a holistic framework rather than having multiple aspects that can be adopted independently," says Joseph Chiusano, senior consultant with Booz Allen Hamilton in McLean, Va., and a member of the OASIS ebXML technical committee. While Web services didn't really exist when ebXML was conceived, OASIS and UN/CEFACT, an international standards body that also plays a role in ebXML development, have since made multiple efforts to incorporate Web services components in ebXML. Those include an interface that enables ebXML messages to be carried via SOAP, and the ability to register and discover Web Services Description Language (WSDL) documents.

But John Radko, chief architect of global technology operations at e-business service provider Global eXchange Services, sees the power struggle as quite real. "The conflict is simply this: If you use one, you're not using the other." While it's true that the same company might employ ebXML and Web services for different applications, the two don't interoperate. If you want to send a trading partner a message using ebXML, the partner has to support ebXML, he says. The same is true for Web services.

Radko says he sits in on numerous meetings in which the ebXML vs. Web services debate rages on. Members of the auto industry, for example, are debating whether to use ebXML document formats or those that are more closely aligned with Web services, such as WS-Attachments. This Microsoft-developed specification is at least the third attempt at defining how to send files back and forth in a Web services environment.

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