Two Approaches to Trading Partner Relationships

EXcelon Corp., which specializes in XML development products, recently announced a partnership with Extensibility Inc., a provider of XML development tools. The two companies are hoping to provide an all-in-one solution for XML developers to define and extend the mapping and interchangeability of business-to-business (B2B) dialects. This won't be smooth sailing. At about the same time, computing giant IBM Corp. ( weighed in with a similar technology.

Extensibility ( and eXcelon ( plan to package Extensibility's XML Authority development environment with eXcelon's Dynamic Application Platform, which consists of eXcelon 2.0 and eXcelon B2B Integration Server. The end result, both companies say, will be a solution that lets organizations create solutions that ensure interoperability between applications that leverage emerging and existing B2B standards.

In early February, IBM submitted plans for its Trading Partner Agreement Markup Language (tpaML) to OASIS (, the XML standards consortium. If it's approved, tpaML would use XML to define and implement the general terms and conditions for electronic contracts and participant roles. TpaML would also define common specifications for communication and security protocols, as well as for business processes. Because of its application in the field of electronic data interchange, tpaML can define how trading partners will interact at the transport, document exchange, and business protocol layers.

Both the eXcelon-Extensibility and IBM solutions are designed to help businesses establish relationships in the booming B2B electronic marketplace sector. "This partnership [provides an] opportunity to further define and extend how B2B dialects are interchanged and mapped ensuring that our current and future partners will be able to work seamlessly with their customers as B2B standards evolve," says Larry Alston, vice president of marketing at eXcelon. "As more and more of our customers demand solutions designed to change as their business expands, these same products have to be highly flexible, scalable, and leverage XML."

Likewise, the tpaML protocol automates what otherwise might be a tedious mapping process before exchanging data. "You get your programmers together, you figure out how you're going to communicate back and forth -- whether you're using the Web, HTTP, FTP, or some mail protocol," says Bob Suitor, chief strategy officer at OASIS and manager of IBM's XML strategy and technology group. "It's very time-consuming, and it's certainly not something that scales very well."

Despite the ostensible similarity of design goals, both the combined eXcelon-Extensibility and IBM solutions are sufficiently different, says Vittorio Viarengo, director of product management for eXcelon's B2B product line. As long as tpaML is defined according to the standards endorsed by OASIS, it should interoperate with an eXcelon-Extensibility combined solution, says Viarengo. "As long as these languages are defined using any of the formalisms supported by eXcelon and XML Authority -- and today these are usually done using DTDs (Document Type Definition) -- it does not matter."

Moreover, Viarengo says, as XML continues to cover so much ground so fast, companies will introduce new schemas in the absence of standards to drive the technology. "Schemas are going to play a very important role in the B2B integration arena, and currently there are several different flavors of schema without mentioning the upcoming XML Schema standard from the W3C," he observes. "By partnering with Extensibility and bundling their Authority product, we are going to provide our customers with the state of the art tool to design XML schemata using various formalisms -- such as DTDs and DCD (Document Content Description) -- and the ability to convert from any given flavor of schema into any other one."

Plus, there is another major difference: The eXcelon-Extensibility solution is out on the market; IBM's product is working its way through OASIS' approval process. IBM's tpaML will be mired in the depths of the standardization process for some time, according to Martin Marshall, director of research at Zona Research Inc. ( The combined eXcelon-Extensibility solution is actually shipping in the form of products. Eventually, however, the eXcelon-Extensibility solution will likely require changes to adopt tpaML if the would-be standard is finally approved, Marshall cautions.

"[TpaML] could truly become the way that workflow implements contractual arrangements in B2B automated interactions between companies," Marshall says.