Front-end Alignment

[From iSource Business, July 2001] B2B e-commerce software providers have a vision of the perfect front-end system and many claim to provide it. Market research analysts have their opinions. And supply chain executives have a dream of 100 percent Internet integration with trading partners and all the benefits that flow from those relationships.

The term front-end loosely applies to automation elements that directly impact end users, though access to back-end data and processes ( like enterprise resource planning (ERP) and legacy systems) figures prominently in front-end requirements.

In light of the myriad products available in today's B2B domain, iSource Business is wading through the hype and find consensus for the most powerful elements of front-end systems.

After dozens of interviews with industry experts and business executives, and perusing countless research reports and news articles, a few traits surface repeatedly. For the most part, though, responses vary widely, reflecting the industry's increasing segmentation as content management providers, integrators, application service providers, value added networks, auctions and e-marketplaces tout their own products as the key to B2B success.

There are also words of caution against focusing on front-end e-tools at the expense of the big picture or long-term business strategy and against taking analysts' savings expectations to heart. Substantial benefits are expected, but not until the dream of 100 percent supply-chain participation is achieved, and this has yet to occur for most companies.

In a November 2000 Hurwitz Group study of e-procurement trends, the Framingham, Mass.-based consulting firm found that, while Fortune 500 companies may partner with hundreds and even thousands of suppliers, in many cases, only five to 10 of their largest suppliers are electronically linked to their systems.

With the above in mind, the most powerful features lie within two general categories: 1.) integration, as the backbone; and 2.) content, as the meat.

No. 1: The Is Have It

Integration, interoperability, interaction: Pick your buzz word of choice, but the idea remains the same. Without proper network linkages, all other e-tools are useless.

Integration is a multi-layer process, but from the front-end perspective it's the ability to Web-enable your back end, making sensitive information available to end users, as well as to connect with your trading partner's back-end systems, says Elizabeth Sara, vice president of marketing for SpaceWorks, the Rockville, Md. firm that specializes in B2B e-commerce application solutions.

Rick Hofmann, director of product management at another e-business solution provider, Cyclone Commerce of Scottsdale, Ariz., further differentiates between connectivity, the B2B architecture responsible for establishing data types and security protocols; and integration, the mapping of business processes to these supply chain connections.

However, he says, the connectivity platform should be transparent to the end user, enabling a seamless enterprise-wide and partner-to-partner flow of information, whether via Extensible Markup Language (XML)-based documents, binary files, or traditional transactions that are performed using electronic data interchange (EDI).

Within this category lie other technical considerations such as scalability, reliability and tunability, says Peter Blair, who is the vice president of information technology for Somera Communications in Santa Barbara, Calif.

The system must accommodate present and future users, and it must plan for hardware failures with back-up servers. It must also remain, according to Blair, tunable, or agile, so that the Web site can be quickly adjusted to meet the unending demands of users who want speed, flexibility and options.

If there is a break in the cycle of round-trip data movement, then your supply chain falters and customers may take their business elsewhere. The prevailing terms for data movement within your company and between trading partners are EAI, or enterprise application integration; and B2BI, or B2B integration. According to Jeff Ernst, director of industry marketing at Open Market in Burlington, Mass., these two processes form the book-ends for the second front-end category: content management.

No 2: Content Drives Commerce

Not surprisingly, Ernst's company makes content-driven e-business applications, and, apparently, does it well. In 2000, and 2001, Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research named the company No. 1 in its Content Management eBusiness TechRankings.

The company says content comprises the digital assets of the firm. They include information about product and service offerings, such as feature lists, brochures, technical specifications and images. They also include information about how to select and service the goods, such as selection guides, buyer reviews, user manuals and safety sheets.