Magazine Article | August 24, 2006

Standardize Message Formats

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

Using a universal adapter can help your company communicate internally and with business partners by standardizing message formats.

Integrated Solutions, September 2006

EDI (electronic data interchange) promised widespread standardization of message formats and protocols for business-to-business applications. The benefits of an agreed standard were envisioned to be reduced maintenance efforts, elimination of manual labor to handle exceptions, minimization of manual data entry, a reduction of human data entry, and expedited operations. A single, global, cross-industry EDI standard was never a possibility, so industry-level standards were created. However, history showed us that, even at this level, there was no such thing as a standard because too many exceptions had to be made by participants in order to use the standard. This diluted the benefits promised by EDI, especially for SMBs that had to accept the messaging variations from their larger business partners. As a result, manual processes to handle messaging exceptions became the rule.

In today’s hectic business environment, companies need to resolve the conflict of adopting rigid standards while maintaining maximum flexibility. Is there a solution that achieves both of these goals? The short answer is yes. Instead of seeking agreement among all your business partners — a very time-consuming approach that reduces everyone’s flexibility — the solution could be to adopt an internal set of standard message formats. This achieves the goal of adopting a single standard.

To address the goal of maximizing flexibility, find a set of technology tools that dynamically transform and repurpose messages before they are delivered to, and after they are received from, your business partners. These tools are commonly referred to as universal adapter technologies. These technologies can also be used to integrate incompatible applications in your IT infrastructure.

The universal adapter technology you choose should have the following features:
  • An easy-to-use interface — The universal adapter should have a straightforward interface for mapping message formats — one that reduces, or eliminates, the need to develop scripts or write code. This allows a business analyst to map message formats among your applications and those of your partners, limiting your reliance on expensive development resources. The interface should allow for complex mapping with built-in functions for arithmetic, data validation, and database access, for example, while still providing the ability to define custom logic easily.
  • Support for standards — The universal adapter should understand and have dictionaries for common business-to-business message formats such as ANSI X12, EDIFACT, XML, AL3, and HL7. It should also have the ability to handle off-standard versions of these messages and formats that you use internally.
  • Exception handling — The universal adapter should allow you to handle unexpected messaging exceptions in a nonintrusive way.
  • Batch and real-time modes — The universal adapter should support large batches of data and individual transactions as they occur in real time.
  • High performance — The universal adapter should scale to handle your current and expected future message volumes, within the time windows your service-level agreements require.
  • No changes to your applications — Look for a universal adapter that requires minimal or no changes to your current applications. This preserves your investment in your application suite and gives you maximum flexibility to acquire and develop new applications.
  • Security — The universal adapter should provide encryption and other security facilities where required.
  • Guaranteed delivery — The universal adapter should provide you with the means of guaranteeing that all your messages get through. The definition of reliability will vary among your business partners, so having the flexibility to configure delivery options is a must.

If you use a universal adapter, it does not matter if you and your business partners agree on a single standard or not. You will realize the benefits from using a single standard internally among your applications and maintain the maximum flexibility to adjust to your business partner’s changes, implement new applications, and connect to new business partners.