Konstantin Emelyanov - Fotolia
About five years ago, IT pros started to realize that microservices offer a better approach to B2B integration. Rather than argue over what electronic data interchange protocol to use, users could instead use microservices to make an entire supply or distribution chain look more like a single, integrated flow without losing essential security and compliance activities.
Microservices open up two possibilities. The first is customization of current EDI processes to both streamline trading partner relationships and account for partner-specific requirements. Secondly, microservices can form the basis for bilateral and multilateral exchanges of functionality, either within or outside a formal EDI setting.
One of the first uses of microservices for B2B was to reduce the exploding number of separate EDI networks and interfaces created by the need to apply special transactional rules to select trading partners. With the creation of multiple implementations of specific EDI handling features, companies could reduce the number of specialized interfaces needed and simplify their EDI connectivity requirements.
For this application, EDI features can abstract behind a broker that selects the proper microservices sequence based on the partner identity. A single decision can then drive a whole string of microservices executions, some generalized for all partners and some that are partner-specific. This process limits the scope of the partner-specific customization needed for each feature and enables a company to create a complete set of handling instructions for each partner in its commercial exchanges.
A second microservices benefit is the outpost microservices application, which is used to achieve more extensive process integration with partners. One example of this can be found in just-in-time (JIT) delivery scheduling. By integrating a partner microservice into inventory management, a consumer can alter JIT ordering practices to match the inventory level of its suppliers. If supplier inventory levels are falling, ordering might advance to prevent a shortage.
For this application, the important microservices feature is token-based security, which ensures that a microservice placed in another business's transaction flow doesn't create security or compliance problems. Microservices can apply ridged security to their APIs and can also create an audit trail, both of which are essential to survive an internal audit by all the businesses involved. Microservices can also enable look-only or selective query restrictions that constrain accessed information to that which actually supports the partner relationships.
Moving away from EDI
These EDI-enhancing applications of microservices helped organizations step away from formal EDI specifications. EDI processes depend on complex sets of data models, designed to support generalized exchanges of business information. For many B2B applications, it's easier, cheaper and more convenient to use outpost microservices that provide a direct portal between business partners.
Order management and shipment make up a big part of B2B, and businesses that have a significant trading relationship with a partner could use microservices to integrate their order processes directly with their partner's. It's fairly easy to adapt data formats using microservices, and the key information exchanged should be consistent because of the partner relationship. This consistency eliminates the extra steps of formatting an EDI request, transporting the request, decomposing it and having a partner enter it.
It's this movement beyond emulating commercial paper that generated the most interest in the use of microservices for B2B enhancement. Generalized B2B driven by microservices is based on the exchange of microservices APIs among partners. Today, there are exchanges where partners expose microservices APIs to promote tighter business processes integration. These types of exchanges create a third model of microservices support for B2B: an API-based exchange that replaces the older EDI exchanges.
Per-partner integration strategies
Microservices exchanges are a natural extension of per-partner strategies, which aim to reduce the customization burden on trading partners by establishing a fixed set of APIs and services that then serve as the basis for direct process integration -- rather than the EDI strategy of data-coupled integration. Where these exchanges are available, developers in the partner organizations can treat the exchanges as a set of available, reusable microservices so that the impact on software development is minimal.
Any of these deep integration approaches can bring risks to security, compliance and even to performance, so it's essential that the APIs and microservices implementations take these into account. Stateless, scalable microservices are critical here, and formal API brokerage with access tokens are also important. In addition, it's necessary for the shared microservices and APIs to be available for all parties, which may mean it's best to host them in the cloud. Because of this, we see microservices-integrated B2B as a cloud-hosted function.
Tools and APIs to help
Companies like Software AG provide commercial packages that provide the basis for bilateral or multilateral B2B exchanges that use APIs and microservices instead of traditional EDI processes. While these products aren't essential to build microservices-based B2B, they can save you considerable time if you have multiple trading partners.
You can also use microservices and APIs to facilitate the integration of exception handling and other partner collaboration processes. Furthermore, many B2B users share the viewpoint that the next critical step in microservices support for B2B is to use microservices to integrate business processes -- not just applications. Work in this area is nascent, with applications and approaches currently more specialized to a specific partner relationship than generalized across the B2B space, but this is changing. There's great promise that microservices -- not EDI -- will ultimately form the basis of B2B going forward.