B2B: Interview with GXS CEO

News.com has an interview with Harvey Seegers, CEO of GE’s erstwhile B2B business which was recently sold to a tech buyout fund. A few points Seegers makes stand out:

  • As much as we in the IT world would like to wish it away, companies still think that IT spending is a discretionary expense. There is something else that we and other industry players have done which is cause for optimism: Technology has made it much more cost effective for third- and fourth-tier vendors to do business electronically. Hopefully, the story is that small to medium-sized enterprises come online like their larger counterparts.

  • You’ll see and read a lot about Web services. But there’ll be a lot of talking and not much walking. I think you’ll see the continued fragmentation of XML. It won’t be the lingua franca that everybody hoped it would become…I don’t see a clear path toward getting industry agreement on any XML standard.

  • I feel very strongly that private exchanges have a bright future. Even while companies tried to figure out the public-exchange game, we were investing in private exchanges. The private domain we run for GE has 40,000 suppliers, and this year GE will buy $20 billion in goods and services using the private exchange GXS.

  • Oracle buys Calendar software company

    An item which caught my attention was Oracle’s purchase of a calendar software firm:

    Oracle has purchased Steltor, a small, 15-year-old company that offers calendaring software for businesses.

    Oracle bought the Montreal-based company on June 21 as part of the database giant’s goal of improving its e-mail handling features built into its 9i application server-software and 9i database, an Oracle representative said. Steltor, which has about 600 customers, builds software that allows employees to manage their schedules, calendars and e-mail.

    This is interesting. Taken together with the ads Oracle has been running about its database making Microsoft’s Mail “unbreakable”, it perhaps signifies a stronger push into corporate messaging and collaboration systems. Oracle’s view is perhaps that emails are objects which are better stored in databases (so more sales of Oracle) than in proprietary file formats by Outlook or Outlook Express.

    Need to do some thinking on how an Application Server and Database can add value to email and calendaring.

    Karun Philip on Software Components

    Karun had written in recently commenting on some points in my recent series on “Rethinking Enterprise Software“. His comments pertain to Visual Biz-ic and Software Components (1 2 3):

    In developing a “Visual Biz-ic”, it is useful to think of it as developing the DTD for an XML language. In my business, we started with a DTD for structured finance and then developed the interpreter for it. The DTD is now accepted by W3C and is available at xml.org.

    Any business language has two dimensions — horizontal components common to all industries, and vertical components specific to particular industries. For instance a balance sheet is common to all industries. A construct like Average Mileage may only be relevant to the tire industry. Since my industry is banking, I have built the basics of balance sheet constructs in DoubleHelix — our XML language. An asset is simply a schedule table of date, principal due, interest due (and some related fields). A liability is simply a schedule table of date, pricipal to be paid, interest to be paid. All businesses boil down to this. On top of the substructure, we have very specific things such as calculate risk-based present value, etc. etc. which are only really needed by banks. But the basic structure of asset table and liability table is a useful generalization.

    What Karun says is absolutely right. We need to think of the components as Horizontal Components and Vertical Components — the former are general-purpose (working across multiple or all industries) while the latter are much more specific to certain industries. Interestingly, there are XML standards being created for multiple industries which could serve as the base for building these components.

    Karun once again:

    You wrote: “I could visually define the business processes, rules and information flows in my enterprise. Still better, the system could come with a library of business processes from which I could use. While most SMEs do follow some processes, they may not necessarily be the most efficient. Being able to identify other companies in similar segments whose processes and flows could be used can help me define the processes for use in my company. The software would then automatically generate the necessary business objects and logic based on my choices. If required, I could then use English to define special business rules for my company.”

    In my company we implemented TQM, but the people we learnt it from made sure that it was people centric rather than process centric. There exist process definition documents, but they are ancillary to the results that each employee is required to do. In every task, the aspects that we measure are some or all of PQDCM — productivity, quality, delivery (per schedule), cost, and morale. We set numeric targets and measure the actual result, and insist on continuous improvements. If we realize something is not being achieved despite the metrics showing improvement, we need to see whether the metrics need to be re-designed / enhanced.

    Your tool could begin with the business process design, but each step should have the person and the metric(s) by which it is measured including two dimensions: targets and actuals. That would then feed into each person’s areas (metrics) of accountability. In my company we have a software system where anyone can log in and they will see their metrics and the metrics of those who report to them. ou can click on a particular item to see the support documents (like business process, quality measuring procedures, etc.). This system of being people focused has worked great. Once you only specify the result (in a metric) that must be achieved by the person, it is up to him or her to use creativity and talent to achieve it. If he or she does, the data will record it, and they will eventually be recognized and rewarded. I have also found that poor performers leave of their own accord without any sense of indignence, because it is clear what the performance was. TQM is something every small business should learn — it works wonders.

    Maybe you can incorporate some of this in your product if you think it make sense.

    Excellent thoughts, and something we should definitely keep in mind when we get to the execution of the enterprise software ideas.

    UDDI’s Slow Progress

    News.com writes on UDDI in Directory assistance for Web services?:

    Born during the business-to-business e-commerce craze, the directory project was touted as a “Yellow Pages” for e-commerce applications and services. The basis of the directory is a Web services specification called Universal Description, Discovery and Integration (UDDI), which identifies and catalogs Web services so they can be easily found online.
    The specification is finding a home, albeit slowly, in big companies as a way to build directories for internal Web services projects–allowing the companies to better catalog and communicate services across departments. Yet the bigger dream to build the UDDI-based public Web services directory, known as the UDDI Business Registry, is just that for now–a dream, experts say.

    “The idea of a public registry was ahead of its time because you have to have other parts, like service-quality guarantees and trust,” Gartner analyst Daryl Plummer said. “People are using it now, but it’s just experimentation. We are a good four to five years away.”

    Also came across a story in InternetWeek on whether UDDI and LDAP would be a perfect fit: ” Couple UDDI’s strengths — widely accepted and standards-based — with LDAP’s advantages — broad enterprise deployment and proven security and scalability features — and Web services may have the repository architecture required to make a major impact on the enterprise.”

    Adam Bosworth on Web Services

    Adam Bosworth (BEA) writes in his XML Magazine column:

    Thinking of the Web servers as “objects” is an extremely bad idea. Objects are repositories of state. Conversations with them are by definition not stateless. Because objects are encapsulated, conversations with them are also inherently fine-grained. If you think about it, coarse-grained messages are the antithesis of encapsulation. You are surfacing your state explicitly as a message.

    This is at the heart of Web services. Web services doesn’t mean surfacing application “interfaces” to underlying objects through automatically generated SOAP. It means providing well-defined, coarse-grained messages that provide all possible information in one fell swoop (SOAP) and a contract (WSDL) for which messages sent in result in which messages sent back.

    I don’t understand much of the above, but I think its something I should keep in mind and come back at a later point of time.

    Tim O’Reilly on the Internet OS

    Tim O’Reilly is one of those people whose every word needs to be read and thought over. So, when you get a long interview, its time for plenty of thinking! There are two key points which Tim makes:

    The big challenge will be what the Internet operating system will look like. It won’t look like the current generation of either .NET or SunONE or anything else that’s out there right now. What we need is to get to the next step from today’s situation, where there are a bunch of non-standardized techniques that only the alpha geeks know about and can use. We’re in the roll-your-own phase of Internet development. Now we need someone to package up all the really useful bits — to put all the great peer-to-peer and other tools together as part of a “standard” platform that all developers can use to create software. It’s like when Microsoft came out with the Win32 API; they told developers that, instead of having to worry about the thousands of drivers for the PC, they could just write for the APIs Microsoft provided. Someone will need to do that for the Internet platform. Wouldn’t it be great if someone could put MapQuest’s functions into an operating system, for example? That way, I could put a query to find the distance between any two points into any application I wanted. You need to expose these things to the programmers, not just the users. Give us some interfaces!

    What has to happen is for a half-baked OS to emerge, with lots of problems that nonetheless highlight the issues. Only then can someone solve the various problems with a systematic solution.

    Consider Web Services, for example. There’s a lot of potential in both J2EE and .NET, as well as in XML standards like SOAP, but what is missing are the actual programmable components. These are the equivalent of all those PC devices that were so burdensome to write drivers for, and for which Microsoft offered a solution with the Win32 API.

    To me, these programmable components are all the various large Web-facing databases, and the equivalent of the build-your-own-driver school of programming are the Web spiders that access those services programmatically. Web spiders, including unauthorized interfaces built by screen scraping, are one trail of breadcrumbs we need to follow when looking at the functionality that an Internet operating system will need to provide.

    My take: the next OS needs to be “an enterprise server OS” — it needs to be server-centric (because what we will use on the desktops are Thin Clients) and it needs to be focused on the enterprises, especially those at the bottom of the pyramid. Disruptive innovations have a knack of starting in the lower-end of the markets. I think there is an opportunity to create an OS which builds on Linux and incorporates elements from the Application Server to create a transaction-oriented “higher-level” OS. What’s needed are the interfaces forthe eBusiness applications to become components and talk to each other. They are the modern-day “drivers” of business. The simplified user-end needs to be a Digital Dashboard which runs in a browser and can handle RSS+ (more than just the RSS tags to support enterprise events).

    Enterprise Software: Quarter Update

    This has been the area where we’ve not had a clear idea of how we want to go ahead. This is partly because its an area where I am personally out of depth. This is one thing I am now working to change. But as we’ve explored various paths, a strategy has slowly emerged.

    We want to use PostgreSQL and JBoss as the building blocks. The former is a relational database and the latter is a Linux-based open source application server. This means understanding J2EE and EJB, and also examining some of the IDEs like NetBeans and Eclipse. We’ve also put together a sample application plan for internal use to be built using these components in July.

    Our objectives for the quarter here are:
    – put in place a roadmap for Visual Biz-ic and the Enterprise Software Components
    – also study ebXML and RosettaNet to see how we can leverage the business process standards work
    – identify some milestones which we can build on
    – for me personally to get greater familiarity with this space
    – identify potential partners we can work with

    By the end of September, I am hoping to have a much clearer picture on how we intend to proceed here.

    Udell on Gaia

    Glue, Gaia, and the services grid: : “Graham Glass, the wizard behind The Mind Electric, is ‘100% sure’ that grid computing is the future. To prepare for it he’s building Gaia, which in its first incarnation will be used to do simple, lightweight clustering and load-balancing of web services. Those services, initially, will be Java-based and written in TME’s SOAP toolkit.”

    May be interesting to look at Gaia as we think about how to build a component framework for the enterprise applications using Web Services. We can think of the Thick Servers as forming a P2P network, a computing grid.

    Loose Coupling in Web Services

    Jon Udell writes on Web services: “Web Services are a species of componentized software. As such, the usual design patterns apply. Components need well-specified interfaces, and they must be reusable. More so than most conventional components, however, Web services tackle business processes that are widely distributed both in time and space. The new design pattern that arises in response to this challenge is called loose coupling.”