Federal group asks industry for help on EC

CommerceNet, a consortium of systems companies and Internet service providers, got the
go-ahead from the Federal Electronic Commerce Program to study making online catalogs

If the results are promising, a four-month test by vendors and federal agencies will

The group will explore the use of registries and examine metadata tagging as a way to
make catalogs accessible across platforms.

"We thought it was important to come up with something industry wanted," said
Ron Parsons, director of CommerceNet Northeast, the Washington-area chapter.

This industry-first approach is a switch for federal EC programs, which until now have
been largely government-designed. Presidential policy called for federal buyers to be
ready to go electronic by 1997, but they missed the deadline.

The primary federal EC vehicle has been the Federal Acquisition Network, which uses the
American National Standards Institute's X12 electronic data interchange transaction set.
FACNET failed to attract a following among either buyers or sellers, however.

"FACNET is being phased out very quickly," said Paul Grant, co-chair of the
Federal Electronic Commerce Program. Grant said it was inflexible and oversold,
"which has left some residual feeling" against EC.

Poised to take the place of FACNET and other proprietary networks is a toolbox of
technologies, including EDI, running over IP networks. Another move in this direction is
the formation of Open Buying on the Internet, a consortium of Fortune 500 companies that
is developing an Internet EC protocol.

OBI has support from the federal Electronic Processes Initiative Committee, or EPIC.

The CommerceNet pilot is a good first step toward interoperable catalogs, said Jerry
Williams, director of EPIC's Buying and Paying Task Force. The task force is developing
its own interoperability plan, set for June 30 release.

"We tried to do the single, one-size-fits-all" architecture for FACNET, and
it did not work, Grant said.

But Grant said he does not blame EDI for FACNET's failure. "EDI is an excellent
tool for purchases, not a panacea," he said. "The only thing that made any sense
was EDI via FACNET" back in 1994 when its design was under way.

In those days, there was no World Wide Web, and smart cards were entering the scene and
companies were creating new ways to use credit cards.

The small to midsize companies responsible for most federal transactions saw dedicated
EDI networks and software as too expensive or too complex for them.

Vendor reluctance to move toward a single EC system produced what Parsons called
digital anarchy. The Web grew up without standards for describing content. Its Hypertext
Markup Language tagging describes only how to display information.

"To search for something, we have to use our eyeballs," Parsons said.

CommerceNet's answer to this is eCo System, an object-oriented framework for treating
Web resources as business objects. If each object is described in an open system according
to content, catalogs could be searchable regardless of platform.

CommerceNet, in partnership with three Palo Alto, Calif., start-ups--CNgroup, Tessarae
Information Systems Inc. and BusinessBots--received a $5 million grant last October from
the Commerce Department's Advanced Technology Program to develop eCo System.

Parsons said the interoperability study and pilot will be funded primarily by industry.
The study phase will be over by the end of February, the pilot proposal by April. The
pilot itself will last an estimated four months.

Two more industry initiatives are improving security and reliability.

The Automotive Industry Action Group, representing big-three U.S. automakers Ford,
General Motors and Chrysler, is developing the Automotive Network Exchange (ANX). The
managed EDI-over-IP network will link as many as 40,000 automotive suppliers by the end of
next year.

The Bellcore subsidiary of Science Applications International Corp. of San Diego will
oversee ANX and certify Internet providers as ANX carriers.

The International Computer Security Association, formerly the National Computer
Security Association, will certify IP security standards compliance and interoperability
for applications used on ANX.

Vendors that have already passed IPsec testing for the ANX pilot include Checkpoint
Software Technologies Ltd. of Lexington, Mass.; Cisco Systems Inc. of San Jose, Calif.;
Radguard Ltd. of Tel Aviv, Israel; Raptor Systems Inc. of Waltham, Mass.; Timestep Corp.
of Kanata, Ont., Canada; and Trusted Information Systems Inc. of Rockville, Md.

The automakers have estimated that EDI with their suppliers would rapidly turn a
secure, managed Internet EDI network into a dominant commerce medium

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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