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«Abstract Communication processes in the commercial sectors are more and more using the services offered by the telecommunication industry. This is ...»

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Modelling functional agreements in

EDIFACT environments

C. Huemer*, G. Quirchmayr*, A M. Tjoa**

*Institute of Applied Computer Science and Information Systems.

University of Vienna, Austria, e-mail: {ch,gq}@ifs.univie.ac.at

**Institute of Software Technology, Vienna University of Technology.

Austria, e-mail: tjoa@ifs.tuwien.ac.at

Abstract

Communication processes in the commercial sectors are more and more using the services

offered by the telecommunication industry. This is also due for the electronic data interchange (EDI) of business data which represents one of the most recent teleservices. This trend leads to the standardization of the data exchange, where EDIFACT (Electronic Data Interchange For Administration, Commerce and Transport) seams to be the global standard for the forseeable future. However, the EDIFACT standard approach includes a number of shortcomings that keep many firms and organizations from participating in this area of electronic commerce. One of the worst shortcomings is that in order to be generally valid EDIFACT is too complex in its structure and consequently too hard to read and navigate. The ‘real’ data interchange between two business partners is usually based on a very small subset of the generally valid standard.

Therefore, a detailed functional interchange agreement to define the format of the ‘real’ data is necessary before two partners start the interchange for the first time. This agreement is usually done through conventional communication methods, e.g. via telephone or fax, which results in a serious backdraw. Our paper presents a concept for interchanging the functional interchange agreements between the business partners via EDI itself.

Keywords Electronic Data Interchange (EDI), EDIFACT, communication standards

1 INTRODUCTION

Since communicating with other organizations becomes more and more important, efficient communication processes are one of the most important factors of success for a company.

Therefore, many firms already take advantage of the services offered by the telecommunication industry, like faxes or e-mail. Using faxes and e-mail reduces the transportation time for a business document, but is still slow and expensive, because someone has to interpret and rekey the exchanged information. In addition, rekeying also increases the error rate. A solution to speed, cost and error problems would be the electronic movement of business data between or within firms in a structured, computer processable data format that permits data to be transferred without rekeying from a computer supported business application in one location to a computer supported business application in another location. This movement is defined as Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) in (Hill, 1989). A precondition for EDI is that both business partners agree on the representation of information to be sent from one computer application to the other (Berge, 1989). In addition to the format, what items and how they are individually structured and put together, both partners must also have the same understanding of the semantics of the interchanged data.

In the past decade various different standards have been proposed, but they are either limited to a certain branch of industry (e.g. ODETTE for the automobile industry) or build just a national solution (e.g. ANSI X.12 in the USA). Since 1988 the United Nations (UN) are developing the EDIFACT (electronic data interchange for administration, commerce and transport) standard to meet the requirements of an internationally valid general business standard. This international standard (EDIFACT, 1989) includes the rules on the application level for the structuring of user data and of associated service data in the interchange of messages in an open environment. Beside the syntax the EDIFACT standard also covers the definition of data elements (= the data information as basic component for message types), segments (= a functionally related set of data elements) and message types (structured representation of the full information on an electronic business transaction).

Since new message types are developed and definitions of existing message types are changing in the course of time, EDIFACT can be considered a dynamic standard. The complete documentation of the EDIFACT guidelines of a period of time is included in an UN/ EDIFACT directory which comprises the message type directory, the segment type directory, the composite data element type directory, the simple data element type directory and the code list directory. At the moment EDIFACT directories are published by the UN either on paper or in ASCII format. In order to express any business transaction of a real-world situation, the consequence is a rather long and complex structure of the EDIFACT standards. Thus, in order to be generally valid the various directories are quite inflated compared to the elements actually used in a single transaction between two business partners. Therefore, it is hard to read and browse the paper documents which describe the standard directories to implement a business transaction.

Owing to the complexity of the standard it is impossible to implement a standard-to-application converter which can handle all semantics that can be included in any incoming standard message. Thus, two business partners willing to exchange business transactions via EDIFACT must agree on the subset of elements of the standard message which they really want to exchange. Such a functional agreement is usually done through conventional communication methods, e.g. via telephone or fax, which results in a serious drawback. But this is at the moment the only way to specify an interchange format including limited as well as sufficient semantics to implement a standard-to-application converter. Our paper presents a concept for interchanging the functional interchange agreements between the business partners via EDI itself. The proposed method is based on the EDIFACT Directory Definition Message (DIRDEF) which will allow the transmission of an EDIFACT Directory set or parts thereof in EDIFACT syntax. The DIRDEF message only has draft status, but already includes the semantics needed for our project.





The first main component of our method comprises a tool for building subsets of existing messages and for creating wild subset which manipulate the messages in a non standard conform way. This enables the adoption of a message design to the real business needs of the user's company. The self-created revisions can be translated into the DIRDEF format which allows electronic transmission to the partner company. Furthermore, the message definition in DIRDEF format is a valid input format to the second main component - the EDI translator, which is used to map an instantiated EDI message carrying business data to the input format of the business application. If the business partner also uses an EDI translator that is able to accept DIRDEF as input format, he will be able to handle messages in the format created by the initiating company. This means a consequent extension of the basic idea of EDI, because the agreement between two companies on the interchange structure will be based on EDIFACT.

The subsequent sections of the paper are organized as follows. Section 2 describes the DIRDEF message which is needed for a complete understanding of our method. In section 3 we present our standard browsing tool which enables the establishment of subsets or wild subsets. The concept of exchanging functional agreements is shown in Section 4. In Section 5 we describe our approach by means of an order message as practical example. We conclude with a short summary and future perspectives.

–  –  –

3 SPECIFICATION OF THE BROWSER AND EDITOR TOOL

The EDIFACT browser tool is designed to navigate through the EDIFACT standard directories and self-created subsets or versions in a very flexible and clearly arranged manner. It allows access at each level of the EDIFACT type directories (messages, segments, composite data elements and single data elements) and offers links between these levels. This means that the user need not read the whole paper-written standard to get an answer to a very specific question. The functional specification of the browser is depicted in Figure 2. The browser component for its own is a tool for the newcomer to EDIFACT who wants to get an overview of the possibilities of electronic data interchange in the commercial sector.

–  –  –

Figure 2 Functionality of the browser tool In order to browse through an EDIFACT standard directory it first has to be included into the database of the browser tool. According to the basic idea of EDI it is desirable to receive the EDIFACT standard directory description on-line from the various EDIFACT reference databases (e.g. UN/EDIFACT reference database in Geneva, reference database of DIN in Germany) via a DIRDEF message. Then the browser tool is able to convert DIRDEF into an adequate format for database import. Since until now one cannot yet receive DIRDEF messages on-line from the reference databases, one has to work with discs. Furthermore, the organizations are not willing to provide all standard directories in DIRDEF format even on discs. Therefore the browser tool is also equipped with a converter, which is able to translate ASCII transcripts of the standard directory into the database input format.

Having performed the input procedure, the standard directory is not only ready to be browsed, but also serves as a starting point for creating subsets and wild subsets. The preferred way of building subsets is a top-down method. First the user selects those messages of the standard which should be included in the subset or in other words those he wants to interchange with the business partner. By activating a synchronisation method the subset is also reduced to the segments, composite and single data elements which are used in these messages. The segments and data elements not used in the messages are automatically deleted from the standard. The next step is to manipulate the message type directory by selecting only those segments of the segment structure in a message, which might actually be used in a data interchange and deleting the rest from the segment structure. The synchronisation method again deletes the unused data elements which have been deleted from all messages in this step. The two following steps of manipulating the segment, composite and simple data element type directory are also similar. Only those components (data elements of segments, simple data elements of composite ones) which might be candidates for the exchange of messages are selected and the rest is removed. An invocation of the synchronisation method deletes the unused components down the EDIFACT hierarchy. Since simple data elements have no components, the simple data element directory is just adapted automatically by the synchronisation method. But the code list and their codes for a coded simple data elements can be reduced to the one codelist and to its codes which are used in the business transaction, reflecting on the code list directory. Please note, that it is sufficient to apply the synchronisation method at the end of the whole procedure, but its invocation after each step increases the transparence and clearness of the process, because the user can concentrate on the actually remaining components.

The described procedure is the preferred way of adapting a standard directory to the business needs of a company leading to an EDIFACT conform subset. But usually the company wants to report on the implemented changes, so that the partner company also knows why and where the changes have been made. This is usually done in the textual information referring to a message, segment, segment usage within a segment, and so on. Therefore, the editing tool allows changes and add-ons to the unstructured text information which are provided for each component. Since the text adoptions do not reflect on the defined functionality of the interchange format, this is an allowed operation also for pure subsets.

More complex is the establishment of wild subsets, which change (the order) or add new functionality to the existing standard definition of EDIFACT. Furthermore, wild subsets are only useful, if both partners practice the whole process of modelling functional agreements or have at least a converter which accepts DIRDEF messages as input format for modelling the wild subset-to-application translation. To create wild subsets we propose to first apply the topdown method to define an EDIFACT-conform subset and then to implement the ‘wild’ manipulations bottom-up from simple data elements. We do not start from the real ‘bottom’ of codes, because codes must be assigned to a specific coded simple data element. Therefore, a coded simple data element must be established before its codes can be manipulated. This means that first a completely new coded simple data element has to be created or a former uncoded one has to be defined as coded before codes are added to it. In the case of manipulating the codes of a simple data element already defined as coded, the process starts at the code list type directory level. There, new codes might be added or the semantics of a code might be changed. Of course, it is also possible to define new uncoded simple data elements, which might - as the coded ones - be completely new or versions of an existing one with a different identifier. Up from the composite data element type directory, three kinds of manipulations are possible.

First, the order of the component structure might be changed. Second, in the former step selfcreated components can be added to the component structure. Last, new types or versions of existing types can be created covering EDIFACT-conform as well as self-created components.

These changes might be applied to all composite data elements, segments, and messages.

Equivalent to pure subsets, the documentation of all the changes will all be made in corresponding text elements.



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