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BPEL & B2B Synergies Reduce Supplier Enablement Costs

Helena Chemical Company Deploys New Technology & Techniques

(SYS-CON Media) - Although organizations use multiple technologies to solve myriad business problems, integrating two or more of these technologies to derive new business benefits presents additional challenges. This is especially true when the collaboration extends beyond an organization's own systems to include those of its business partners.

This article describes one such customer scenario in which Helena Chemical Company, a leading U.S. agricultural products specialist, used BPEL (Business Process Execution Language) and B2B technologies together to automate better and more productive supplier/distributor relationships. Put together, these technologies enabled a process-centric hub that provided significant business cost savings, faster supplier ramp-up, more responsive customer relations, and better process visibility both inside and outside the enterprise.

Traditionally, the alignment of information and processes has proven challenging for Helena because of the vast differences in its partners' systems and the content they produce and consume. The challenge for Helena (see Figure 1) was to meet its XML and electronic data interchange (EDI) needs by balancing the right enterprise components across diverse supplier systems and to remove the administrative overhead of manual approvals, support, and data entry to streamline its seasonal order process, which processes tens of thousands of supplier interactions per partner in a four-month period. Helena also needed fault-tolerant exception handling and controlled manual intervention to resolve business decisions and needs.

Faced with the need to manage supply partners and handle ordering and production details ahead of farmers' seasonal crop-planting cycles, Helena chose a process-based approach in which its internal order processing seamlessly integrated with partner B2B processes. The end result was an integrated solution that smoothly bridged the disparities between the diverse supplier systems by using standards-based information exchanges in tandem with process alignment techniques.

Solving the Business Needs
Although Helena's existing EDI systems provided some measure of automation, it had an extended support infrastructure of paper, fax, and telephone-based coordination that needed to be replaced with the modern business process capabilities provided by BPEL and B2B solutions. These modern tools provide exceptionally greater levels of information agility, process control, and exception handling than traditional EDI-based systems.

When companies integrate with partners and suppliers, the initial focus is on automating the exchange of XML documents. This exchange can be handled by modern B2B protocols such as ebXML, RosettaNet, and EDI over the Internet (AS/2). But once the XML business documents are exchanged, they are often processed internally using traditional techniques such as batch-oriented transfer, human data entry into multiple systems, and traditional manual approval processes - leaving the information fragmented across multiple systems. This mismatch between slow manual internal processes and automated external processing can wipe out the gains achieved from supplier partner automation. Staff resources and time continue to be needed to manage customer relationships and resolve delivery and order tracking and coordination issues. The reverse scenario can also occur: internal processes are streamlined, but are saddled with archaic external B2B transactions that use FTP, fax, e-mail, and human interaction.

The ebXML standard solution stack provides a B2B toolkit that allows implementers to resolve these partner integration issues. This toolkit includes formal XML-enabled mechanisms that capture collaboration protocol agreements (CPAs) between participants - which define their actions, roles, and the transactions that will be carried out between them - and couple them into discrete send/receive binary collaborations. These XML mechanisms also provide end-point addressing to server messaging systems, as well as secure and reliable message delivery. Each partner then uses its own ebXML message envelopes to convey its partner ID, business actions, and the transaction data needed for each step of the business process. A rule- and event-driven business process engine - such as BPEL provides - can then key off these XML exchanges and control the state transitions and exceptions, along with the integration into back-end enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems.

The Helena case study shows how traditional B2B interchanges can be rapidly upgraded and fully automated with modern business process management (BPM) technology using open standards-based software with graphical and visual configuration tools that set up each partner and control the exchanges needed. These tools allow fine-grained control using standards-based XML formats for everything from partner profiles to collaborative message mappings to process flow details and rules, thus allowing delivery of a complete event-driven solution (Figure 2) that doesn't require custom low-level coding.

Developing Process-Centric B2B Hubs
To move from traditional B2B hubs that integrate data with internal systems, to process-centric hubs, organizations are integrating B2B with internal processes using XML-aware BPEL scripting technology. These internal processes are not simple data-handling receive/respond integration processes, but the actual end-to-end, event-driven business processes that run the organization.

For example, in the past, a purchase order (PO) received over RosettaNet would typically be input into an ERP or customer relationship management (CRM) system and any further processing would reside in the ERP or CRM system. With BPEL, processes - such as "Order to Cash" and "Procure to Pay" - are executed in the business process engine, with subsequent orchestrations into ERP, CRM, and other internal applications. Thus, B2B business interactions can be integrated into the larger BPEL processes and become reusable and extensible as BPEL process components rather than static low-level coding done at various downstream points in traditional legacy systems. This approach - which leverages XML transactions, Xpath, and BPEL rules - creates a more agile solution that can deal with a wider range of disparity in the XML transaction formatting and data point details received from the external partners' systems. It also brings together data, rules, and process decisions into one coherent solution rather than dispersing them across systems.

This approach presents significant benefits (see Figure 3). First, the direct integration leads to fewer conflicts of rules and triggers across software components. Second, monitoring and management at the process level provide a view of not only the status of the process but also the status of the B2B engine, allowing for an integrated view of the overall process. Third, BPM technologies such as BPEL allow for the inclusion of human-directed workflow components, which are the critical elements of any true B2B integration, thus allowing for complete process integration.

Figure 3 shows a summary of the handoff and process flow between the B2B and BPEL components in the solution architecture. Each component performs a discrete role, such as steps five, six, and seven, which are responsible for correctly routing each message to the partner based on the collaboration protocol agreement (CPA) and the transaction type, and securely and reliably delivering the message. Similarly, in the BPEL processing section, steps three and 14 ensure that the message content is correctly transformed based on business rules, partner, and transaction type. Most importantly, BPEL provides the correlation and state management between inbound and outbound transactions (steps four and 13) based on the unique partner IDs and transaction IDs contained in the message envelopes. Steps one and 15 provide the integration to the back-end applications through standard APIs.

To deliver the full production environment at Helena, the IT consulting team implemented the new technology using an incremental approach. Building on the existing database foundation at Helena, the team added the Oracle XML gateway, along with ebXML messaging support for the partners' chemical industry transaction exchanges. Then the team prototyped integration into the back-end processing systems via BPEL and schema transformations and refined the workflow.

This incremental approach let Helena step from a simple EDI-based legacy environment to a sophisticated workflow process with B2B XML exchanges, ERP integration, and alerting. Particularly impressive was Helena's own design approach, which uses BPEL/human workflow processes in its B2B interactions and BPEL for IT task automation. By using BPEL for error analysis during the IT task mode, and then quickly switching to BPEL/human workflow orchestration to pass the error details to the appropriate e-commerce support specialist for resolution, Helena was able to rapidly evolve and adapt its business solution.

The Solution - The Technology Details
The seamless integration of the ebXML message service (ebMS), message transformation and BPEL tools inside the Oracle XML gateway was the key to rapidly configuring the business solution that Helena Chemical Company required (see Figure 3). Helena's own staff was involved in every step of the development process and was able to immediately assimilate the new technologies due to the transparency of the tools and the XML-enabled mechanisms. Stress testing was also done before going live to simulate seasonal peak production volumes and ensure that the supporting hardware configuration was sufficient.

Helena chose not to add complex lookup and transformation capabilities using the optional Oracle XML Publisher data transformation toolset and instead achieved better control in BPEL itself by combining mapping as an external e-commerce function and customizing it by extending BPEL's own XML-handling capabilities. This approach will allow Helena to support future enhancements such as business activity monitoring (BAM) by creating triggers and rules based around the XML content and transaction flows, and Helena is actively investigating such future options.

Helena chose to use the Oracle solution set after carefully evaluating its existing tools and available options. (Although Helena's choice of solution gave it significant advantages, it's important to realize that comparable standards-based solution stacks can deliver equivalent levels of integration between the B2B ebXML standards approach and the BPEL approach.) The ebXML editor used to create each partner's collaboration protocol profile (CPP) is integrated with the Oracle messaging and partner registry and the BPEL workflow manager. This visual editing tool allows partner templates to be quickly created and then used to add new partners. The template ensures that the CPA generated for each partner can be validated against the transactions received, and also against the actions in the BPEL business process definitions. Similarly, the ebXML message envelopes link to the partner CPAs via the unique partner IDs and the business actions assigned to the XML message handling and the BPEL processing scripts. Each partner therefore has its own private, secure CPA definition between it and Helena that controls the B2B actions its system can perform and how Helena handles those exchanges internally.

Next, we consider the messaging transaction standards and the handling logic. While Helena's process was inherently more complex and involved a number of collaborating processes and human worklist interactions, let us look at the components and interactions of a generic process flow. The main control logic is typically implemented using the BPEL process definition editor as a series of BPEL actions, conditions, rules, and workflow steps. The B2B/XML interactions used by the agricultural chemical industry are a result of collaboration between the Chemical Industry Data Exchange (CIDX), Petroleum Industry Data Exchange (PIDX), and a nonprofit trade association representing the agricultural industry.

CIDX previously built the XML-based Chem standards that defined 52 business messages required by chemical companies to carry out highly secure transactions with suppliers and customers over the Internet. This work was enhanced and extended in collaboration with PIDX, and then the ebXML messaging standards were selected as the preferred secure transport mechanisms via the Internet.

Between the B2B interactions, the BPEL processes, and the back-end ERP system, the XML content acts as the integration glue. To achieve this result, the BPEL - along with the Oracle XML handling tools - retains the values of the content as variables in memory, along with the state of the particular process handling. This means that content does not need to be unmarshaled from the XML into traditional tables and columns in the SQL database. Delaying that handling to a point as late in the process as possible adds agility and greatly reduces the overhead of continually repackaging information and maintaining the associated programming of code logic.

Once the information is committed into the back-end ERP system, the Oracle AQ adapter in conjunction with XML Gateway, an eBusiness Suite component, handles the manipulation of the XML content into the appropriate ERP formats and data. Again, this reduces the amount of custom coding required.

Open Standards, Open Solutions
The Helena case study shows that combining open standards and leveraging the flexibility inherent in XML can allow organizations to produce an innovative solution that elegantly solves a complex set of business needs. The ability of BPEL (in combination with B2B) to support this blend of technologies in an open way-quickly and easily-is crucial. For Helena, having these robust capabilities supported by graphical and visual development tools dramatically reduced the learning curve and setup times for its staff and delivered speed to market. These were critical business success criteria for Helena, because its cyclical business required quick delivery of the new system prior to its peak business period.

The technology combination used by Helena shows great flexibility to meet a wide range of operational needs, and the successful working model implemented at the company can clearly be duplicated by other companies with similar industry B2B and enterprise application integration (EAI) needs. By providing direct support for event management, the BPEL component also makes it possible to support additional enterprise-level process management solutions - such as BAM and ERP management reporting - that are designed to give greater visibility into processes, milestones, and intervals in delivery of services and products to the customers.

Summary of the Benefits and Lessons Learned
In bringing together the power of traditional B2B processing and the RAPID messaging standards defined for the chemical industry, along with the business process management tools developed in the BPEL specifications, the Helena Chemical project demonstrates the future pathway for Web Services and the business solutions built around them.

The B2B approach leverages years of solid formal business experience, while the Web Service approach and BPEL provide agile adoption strategies and technologies. Clearly these tools can be combined into a solution that offers customers effective business tools that don't require extended programming and development efforts to implement, and can therefore be implemented and deployed in weeks rather than months.

This scenario illustrates that the future of B2B is based on the formal business process and transaction models that have always been its strengths, and their adoption across a whole industry. Rather than diminishing the importance of B2B, the continued and accelerating adoption of Web Service technologies is likely to create more need for formal B2B-based business processes to reduce the cost of adoption and implementation across industry groups.

Resources

More Stories By David Webber

David Webber is an industry consultant for applications of XML and ebXML. Previously vice president of business development for XML Global Technologies, Inc., and cofounder of the XML/edi Group, he is now working with OASIS XML standards committees. David’s current project team just received a special recognition award for its leading SOA work from the SOA/CoP Second Conference in Washington, D.C. David holds two U.S. patents on advanced information transformation with EDI and holds a degree in physics with computing from Kent University, England.

More Stories By Nishit Rao

Nishit Rao is director of product management for Oracle Fusion Middleware. He is focusing on enhancing and evangelizing the middleware platform to meet the demanding needs of Oracle customers. He has more than 15 years experience in engineering and product management for messaging, Common Object Requesting Broker Architecture, J2EE, integration, and SOA products. He also has experience rolling out middleware solutions as an architect for a large global logistics company. He holds an MBA from the University of California, Berkeley, and a BS in electrical engineering.

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