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Explaining Integration V: Partner management

In this continuation of a series of articles, Peter Abrahams of addresses integration with partners.

Market Analysis

Explaining Integration V: Partner management
In a previous article in this series Explaining Integration III I defined five areas of integration. Integration with partners, also known as Business-to-business (B2B), is one of the five I have not discussed in detail, and therefore my text for today.

This area shares some technology with the application services area (EAI) in that it is in general connecting computer to computer just in this case one of them is outside the firewall. It also shares some function with portals because the partner may connect via a browser for access and small volumes of updates.

The first aspect that makes this area unique is the specialised formats and protocols that have been developed to support specific industries or types of interaction these include EDI. Rosettanet, SWIFT, FIX, HIPAA and AS2.Each one of these needs its own adapters or connectors. Over time there will be more cross industry standards and the protocols will come together. The formats of the messages will obviously retain some industry specific flavours but even there, there will a standardisation around XML, ebXML and UBL.

Another difference is that in an EAI environment there maybe hundreds of application interconnected but the number connecting to any one application is relatively small, connections change over months and years as the systems evolve, and being within the same enterprise and firewall are trusted. With B2B the number of partners can run into the thousands, they can all connect to the same applications, they can change rapidly and unpredictably as the business changes, and they can only be trusted once a suitable protocol has been followed.

Therefore B2B solutions require suitable partner management functions to register, deregister, define protocols to be used and create trust with the partner.

The final difference between EAI and B2B is that the B2B partners vary greatly in the sophistication of their connection. At the top end will be partners sending tens of thousands of messages a day on a continually basis and expecting speedy responses to all of them, they will do this over private high speed lines or secure internet connections. At the low end will be a partner who connects from a browser over a low speed internet connection, once a week and transmit a file containing a few hundred records.

Most B2B solution providers provide good support for the first two differences. However Sterling Commerce appears to have raised the bar on supporting heterogeneous partners with their announcement of Mailbox in Sterling Integrator 3.1.

Sterling has sold their Connect product for many years to support the bulk transfer of data around the financial services and it has become a de facto standard for this. They have taken a significant chunk of this function rewritten it and incorporated it into their Integrator product.

Sterling's Mailbox functions in an analogous to mailboxes in a mail server but holds messages rather than emails. So that:

  • Each user can have one or more mailboxes
  • Mailboxes can be functional, rather than user related
  • A user can be continually connected to the mailbox and process messages on a continuous basis
  • Users can leave message in the mailbox and then process them on mass
  • Rules can be applied to the messages as they come in to a mailbox to decide how they should be processed (some messages should be dealt with urgently while others should wait for a batched process)
Over and above these email analogous functions Sterling Integrator provides the ability to connect to the mailboxes using various protocols so the messages could arrive:
  • Over a message protocol such as JMS or MQ
  • As a Web service
  • As a file transfer initiated from a browser
  • Directly from a form on a browser so that a small user would not need any special technology at their end to send or receive B2B messages
Because everything goes through a mailbox the applications do not have to be aware of the widely differing partners. This gives a great flexibility to the partner connections without needing any changes in the applications.

Copyright 2004. Originally published by, reprinted with permission. provides IT decision makers with free daily e-mails containing news analysis, member-only discussion forums, free research, technology spotlights and free on-line consultancy. To register for a free e-mail subscription, click here.

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