New Standard Tames Paperwork Beast

For years, traditional electronic data interchange (EDI) agreements were forged on paper. Companies signed off on agreed upon specifications for connections, protocols, and types of documents to be passed back and forth.

With the Web opening up electronic trading relationships to tens of thousands of new companies, the stacks of agreements going back and forth could wipe out entire forests. Now, a proposed new standard may help companies cement Web trading relationships online, before they start online transactions.

IBM Corp. (, which originated the proposal, calls the XML-based initiative Trading Partner Agreement Markup Language (tpaML). Recently, IBM submitted tpaML specs to the XML standards consortium OASIS (

Developed at IBM's Advanced Commerce Institute, the tpaML specification uses XML to define and implement electronic contracts, such as general contract terms and conditions, participant roles, communication and security protocols, and business processes. The tpaML standard defines how trading partners will interact at the transport, document exchange, and business protocol layers.

"Right now, a lot of what goes on to link trading partners is by hand," says Bob Suitor, chief strategy officer of OASIS and manager of IBM's XML Strategy & Technology Group. "You have to get your programmers together, figure out how you're going to communicate back and forth, and decide whether you're using the Web, HTTP, or FTP, or some mail protocol. It's very time-consuming, and it's certainly not something that scales very well." Add to that the fact that every business has its own platforms and system configurations that have to be dealt with.

"Wouldn't it be great to be able to automatically configure your systems to do the trade automatically?" he asks. TpaML is a complementary technology to ebXML, the Electronic Business XML initiative, which is a joint effort of the United Nations/CEFACT and OASIS to establish a global framework for the exchange of electronic business data.

Vendors that have endorsed tpaML for potential use with their customers include CommerceQuest, DataChannel, Extricity, Geac/JBA, Harbinger, JDA, Infinium, Intelisys, Mincom, PeopleSoft, Sterling Commerce, and Synquest. It is unclear whether Microsoft -- also a member of OASIS -- will buy into the standard or adopt its own variation.

"If this spec flies through OASIS -- and if it is adopted by some of IBM's major competitors -- this could be as fundamental as defining the way a spring works inside of a cuckoo clock," says Martin Marshall, director of Zona Research Inc. (, in a bulletin issued by the firm. The specification "could truly become the way that workflow implements contractual arrangements in B2B automated interactions between companies."

But if Microsoft or another major vendor doesn't buy in, fragmentation of the market could occur, Marshall warns. Microsoft has not committed to the standard, and did not comment.

Marshall also expressed concern about companies that are bringing XML-based solutions to the market, such as eXcelon (, webMethods (, and OnDisplay ( For example, he notes eXcelon's XML-based B2B Integration Server would require changes to adopt tpaML. The difficulty, he says, is that the IBM spec is still theory, while eXcelon is introducing actual product.

IBM's Suitor also cautions that tpaML is not finalized, and is based on preliminary work by IBM. "It's a start," he says. "While we feel what we have is pretty good, it's not complete by any means." At this stage, IBM and OASIS are soliciting partner involvement to further develop the specification, working in conjunction with an OASIS technical committee.