Some Clarity of Thought Around EDI
Lets set the technical record straight on a few items. EDI is a generic term that has been equated to mean a standard like X12 or EDIFACT. When you examine the acronym you discover it means Electronic Data Interchange. The Electronic Data part of EDI can come in many formats: X12, EDIFACT, CSV, XML, fixed record length, etc. The Interchange part can occur using any number of protocols: FTP, HTTP, SMTP, AS2, etc.
The Role of VANs
Now that we have the basic terms covered, lets talk about the role of a Value Added Network (VAN). As the name implies this service provides added value to the data exchange world. Some of the value is understanding how to use all the protocols to exchange data in various formats, but the majority of the value is to take data received from many partners in many formats through many protocols and deliver a single format in a single protocol to the recipient of the data. In other words, VANs do all the communication and translation (all the hard work) in the world of electronic data interchange. If a recieving entity could get all their partners to send them the same data in the same format using the same protocol all the time, the value of a VAN would be reduced but not removed. Using a VAN also removes a non-core chore from your business. Who has time to worry about whether all the data is moving everywhere it should all day? You may not, but VAN providers do. No matter the format of the data, there is almost always a need to translate from the inbound data to "my" data. Companies just dont talk the same language no matter what. Mostly because they all have different systems. So we know that VANs can translate data from one format to another and send it using any protocol, lets talk a little about other value VANs can add: data validation, data integrity, mailboxing, data consolidation and deconsoilidation, ability to store and forward, regulate data flow, and many more. Again, is this core to your business?
EDI Silver Bullets
There are no silver bullets that we have found. Currently, AS2 and XML are probably the most widely touted silver bullets of the day. Nothing could be further from the truth. For some reason people seem to believe XML is self-describing. As a matter of fact, there is an example of an XML document we receive from a trading partner that is so huge, complex, and confusing we are translating it for other VANs as they gave up. As for AS2, if you want ease of use, use FTP. AS2 is much more difficult to set up and get working. Most non-IT folks dont know what a certificate is or how to obtain one.
Not Quite Ready for Real People
Although the exchange of electronic data can help you provide better customer service, provide insight into your trading partners, and give you visibility into your business, the human race has been around for quite a while and we still have not figured out how to speak a single spoken language. EDI in any form has been around for only about 40 years, we might need a little while longer to figure out how to talk to one another.
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