B2B – Confusion over Data Formats and Protocols
Business-to-Business (B2B) eCommerce terms such as EDI, XML, AS2, SFTP, and so on can get very confusing.
What is really needed for two businesses to exchange electronic documents between each other? Most businesses see the value of establishing a B2B eCommerce interface in order to transfer electronic documents. What is confusing is that there are several technical methodologies needed to establish a B2B eCommerce interface to transfer the electronic documents. First, there is the data standard to be used when formatting the data within the electronic document. Second, there is the communications method or protocol to transport the electronic document over data communications lines or the internet. Thirdly, there is the method of integration in to and from all connected parties in the supply chain.
Data Standards - B2B eCommerce electronic documents can be electronically transferred using a variety of different data formats such as Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) X12, EDIFACT, or Extended Markup Language (XML). These formats define the data and layout so that the data within the electronic document can be easily integrated into dissimilar business systems.
Data Format Example - Take for example an electronic purchase order document. Depending on specificity, the data standard may define the purchase order field in such terms as field name, data type, field length, and allowable content.
Note: There is a lot of debate in B2B eCommerce circles over the use of EDI Versus XML. Both will work, but in our opinion EDI / EDIFACT data standards are superior in supporting B2B eCommerce. This is because EDI has mature data specifications (XML is designed for minimum data specifications) and the file sizes of EDI documents are much smaller to transport over communications lines or the internet (i.e. XML is a bandwidth hog).
Communications Protocol - Electronic documents can be transferred over communications lines using a variety of different communications protocols. Now-a-days, more and more businesses are using the internet versus private communications lines to conduct B2B eCommerce. Additionally due to hackers and SOX-compliance, it is now becoming a necessity to encrypt most, if not all, electronic documents to protect them from unauthorized use. Common communications protocols for B2B eCommece include File Transfer Protocol (FTP), Secure FTP using SSH, FTPS (FTP over SSL), AS2 (HTTPS), Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) / AS1, and so on.
Note: Many businesses are challenged by B2B eCommerce because there are so many EDI-type standards and so many proprietary integration applications that can support B2B eCommerce. They may all work, but which one and which one works with what? For solutions to problems like these, a new breed of B2B supplier is emerging, whose solutions are capable of translating any manner of file format, connecting to any transport protocol and presenting the files to recipients computer systems in a “ready to integrate” format.