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B2B messages your business needs

B2B electronic messages eliminate costs of manual entry and errors associated with this process. Another important advantage is speed at which the B2B electronic messages are sent and processed.

If you are in business, you interact with your suppliers, resellers, affiliates and other business partners. Even within your own company you may have departments or computer systems, which need to interact with each other. To be competitive in this world, you need to orchestrate all these interactions in the way you can focus on your core business.

The routine interactions between businesses typically come in form of predefined documents like orders, invoices, ASNs, Bills of Lading and so on. The businesses often send these documents by mail or fax. Even though the latter method is considered being an electronic message, that does not add much value. If there are hundreds of orders and each of them have many order lines, your business partner needs to spend days to manually enter your orders into their system. Of course there will be entry mistakes and time wasted to find and fix them. All that not only adds to your costs, but also creates significant delays in your operations. All that leads to dissatisfied customers, partners, and lost business.

The described problems are not new, and were solved decades ago by sending EDI Messages between business partners. The EDI stands for Electronic Documents Interchange and is what the B2B messaging is all about. The B2B electronic messages are structured the way that they are understood by computer software. Once configured, the B2B electronic messages interchange can run by itself without any human intervention. That saves enormous amounts of time and money.

Nowadays most large companies use B2B messaging to facilitate their operations. That is what makes them competitive and highly profitable. Small businesses are often entirely unaware of what electronic B2B messages are and why to use them. The irony is that the small businesses are the ones that may benefit most. They often can't afford a dedicated resource to deal with all the partners' interactions and piles of paper they produce. Using paper slows the entire business to a halt.

Contemporary economy is divided into those who can send and receive B2B electronic messages, and those who can't. Companies that use B2B electronic messaging are the most attractive business partners. They buy large volumes, and all the paperwork can be taken care of by computers. Would not you like to supply your products to retailers like Woolworths or Coles? Do you think they will accept your beautifully designed human-readable documents (even if sent electronically)?

That is when the Value Added Networks (VAN) come into play. Their typical offering is to receive your B2B message electronically, transform it the way your business partner understands it, and send it to your partner. Then they may relay your partner's B2B electronic message to you in the same fashion. Typically, VANs keep all your electronic messages for a period of time as an additional service.

The reason for using VANs rather than sending B2B electronic messages directly to your business partners is that there is a very low probability that your partner's software will understand what your software produced. Should you make changes to what your software produces, your other business partners may be affected.

Some VAN providers supply software components that can be installed on your computers. These components allow extraction of data produced by your applications, or receive and merge data from B2B electronic messages. If your VAN provider has such B2B components, you can also use then to integrate disparate applications inside your own business. This process is known as Enterprise Application Integration (EAI).

B2B electronic messages formats

The B2B electronic messages may be created in different formats. Historically, plenty of formats had been established. Thereafter there were many organisations that strived to establish themselves as regulating bodies of EDI. Because the business needs are so diverse, there is no single format that covers all the B2B electronic messaging. For many businesses, the complex formats just are not practical. Let's move from simple to complex, and you will see what may best suit your business.

DSV and CSV electronic message formats

The simplest B2B message format would be a Delimiter-Separated Values. When a comma is used as the delimiter, this format is referred to as Comma-Separated Values (CSV). If the records separator or values separator is a part of the value itself, there are 2 main approaches to the problem. Typically, a text qualifier is used to enclose such value. Usually these are double quotes or single quotes characters. Remember that the value can also contain the text qualifier. In this case the text qualifier is escaped with another text qualifier in front of it.

The other approach is to use an escape character in front of delimiter character when it is a part of the value. The escaped character is escaped by placing another one in front of it. Often the first record of the B2B electronic message in DSV format consists of names of the fields:

"Line Number", Item, Quantity
The use of comma as separator was apparently borrowed from human language. Because the comma may frequently occur inside values, Tab and vertical pipe (|) are considered to be a better choice.

The DSV format is simple, humanly readable, and has low proportion of mark-up characters. Due to its simplicity, the format is readable by wide range of software. The downside is that each record of the message must be of the same structure, which poses a significant limitation on use of DSV format for B2B electronic messaging.

FWF electronic B2B message format

As you could see, the DSV format can be tricky to process. Even if your software can take care of all the escapes in an B2B electronic message, that does not make the processing faster. Also, all the control characters have to be sent over the wire, and be stored along with the useful information.

Quite often, the data in the B2B messages does not vary in width greatly. In that case it becomes better to pad the values so that they have the same width within the same column, and forget about all these delimiters, qualifiers and escape characters. Just tell your software what the width of each column is, and away you go. This format of electronic message is referred to as Fixed Width Format (FWF). The previous example sent in FVF format will look like:

00002BS09876  052
Typically, the strings are padded from right, and numbers from left.

Tagged (EDI) B2B electronic message format

Described above B2B electronic message formats have a serious deficiency. The data must be homogeneous. That is not practical if we want to send an entire document. For example, a purchase order has information about the customer, the date, shipping address, payment terms, etc. It also has lines that describe items being purchased. Obviously, when we want to send a bunch of orders in one interchange, we need to somehow tell the order header from an order line.

The solution to this problem are electronic messages that use the formats described above, but with tags that describe type of each record. Typically, the tag is the first element of the record.

H|00012345|200911072355|Fast Product PTY
L|00000001|Widget A|300
L|00000002|Widget B|5
In the real world, there are many types of segments present in the same message. Sometimes, different segments may be signified by the same tag. For example the Header as well as Details segment may be followed by a Description segment. The segments relation is determined by their sequence in the message, with higher level segments being a context for segments that follow.

EDIFACT electronic B2B message format

As we mentioned, the B2B electronic messaging originated quite some time ago. Back then there was no Internet as we know it now, and the transmission protocols and communication infrastructure were not as robust. Imagine that your tagged electronic message was not transmitted in full. Would the recipient know that what they received is only a part of what was intended?

That is why there is a much more comprehensive format of B2B electronic messages called EDIFACT (Electronic Data Interchange For Administration, Commerce and Transport). This format is based on the Tagged format, but is not so easy to be read by humans. There are no carriage return & line feed breaks to start with. Also, there are more than 2 dimensions to the data. The segments are predefined for particular types of messages. Of particular interest, there are segments that are mandatory for closing every interchange, which means that if they are missing, the interchange becomes invalid. That guarantees integrity of every B2B electronic message. The complexity of the format and the documents often leads to implementation shortcuts, which means that most of B2B partner's electronic messages are still proprietary.

XML electronic B2B messages format

The XML is a relatively new format. As you might know, the XML is based on tags that are proprietary. For the B2B electronic messaging purpose there are standards that offer the best practices and standard XML schemas. Conceptually, the XML B2B messages are similar to EDIFACT. The XML is easier to read, and because its wide spread, there are plenty of parsers around. The disadvantage of the XML is amount of markup required to hold the data. Sometimes the XML file is three times larger than EDIFACT holding the same data.

Other electronic B2B messages formats

Some industries have adopted their own formats for B2B electronic messages exchange. A good example is HL7 format used for exchange of medical information.

Make your move

Now you have enough information to understand that the B2B electronic messaging is what your business urgently needs. Do not be discouraged by complexity of the issue. Your goal is well within your reach. Contact us about your circumstances, and we will find solution that suits you best.

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