Over the past more than 20 years that I have been working in the systems integration scene, I have encountered many repeated patterns. One of these patterns is the debate whether intermediaries, such as EDI or VAN operators, integration platforms or iPaaS providers are actually required. Some argue that there is always a possibility of creating direct connections between integrated systems or trading partners when doing business-to-business messaging.
In the early days of my career, it was easy to draw an analogy between integration intermediaries and telephone operators. If you wanted to talk to just one person, you could always install your own copper wire between yourself and your friend. But if you had a hundred friends, this could get complicated – and get even worse if you moved, as you needed to re-install the wires. Because of this, telephone operators emerged – you needed to create only one connection to the operator, and you could talk with anyone.
Technologies change, and landline phones are becoming a scarce resource. The analogy still holds, even though not that meaningful anymore from the physical wiring perspective.
But the debate remains. In the advent of the API economy, I have seen a lot of comments stating that the intermediaries are no longer needed as “if you expose an API, anyone can directly connect with it”. Sure, that is correct – if you don’t have too many friends you want to connect with. Make one change in your API implementation, and all your friends need to do changes to their end before the conversation can continue.
EDI vendors who have created the Value-Added Network (VAN) interoperability scene have been working as B2B messaging operators for decades, because there is a valid need for B2B intermediaries. Companies are typically willing to focus on their core businesses – not on building and maintaining integrations between their trading partners. They don’t want to create their own telephone or postal services either but utilize existing vendors.
A great blog post from my friend, Marshall Lamb from IBM, describes the importance of VAN in modern commerce. His post also covers some of the pain points in the current VAN interoperability scenario; I strongly suggest that you would read his post before continuing reading this one.
VAN networking has been around for decades. As Marshall points out in his text, the technology was created during the era of dial-up connections, with the Internet being more of an academic research project. Thus, when different EDI operators discovered that interoperability is a must, it was created using methodologies and technologies available at that point.
The problem is that interoperability between these providers has changed little since. It is still based on one-way, file-based transfers between the operators and ultimately trading partners. As I pointed out in my earlier blog, the biggest shortcomings include relying on a fully asynchronous model that does not adhere to modern API-based structure, static routing that makes the network management expensive and requires a lot of manual work, and the resulting network complexity.
To assess these problems and find an alternative solution, Marshall and I, with Liviu Rodean from IBM and Mats von Weissenberg from Youredi, started researching a way to modernize VAN networking. The emphasis in our work has been on “modernization”, not “replacing”, as the work that VAN operators have been doing since the 1980s is too valuable to be neglected. The four principles we decided to base our work on, are:
- Leveraging existing technologies and standards
- Building on the existing network effect, and
- Focus on evolutionary adoption.
This work has resulted in a draft specification of “Project Avanto”. Avanto is a proposal for a new interoperability standard between EDI operators, built on VAN principles, but adding elements such as EDI to API interoperability (making it easier for modern API interfaces to be included in the network) and DNS-based addressing (removing static routing and significantly decreasing manual work).
For a quick introduction to Avanto, please check the following video:
Avanto will be an open specification describing the method for modernizing the VAN interoperability. Once implemented by different operators, integrated trading partners can utilize the EDI services in the way they have been used to, but they can also benefit from eased EDI to API communications when communicating with partners providing API interfaces.
Even though the specification addresses the VAN interop needs, it also offers new possibilities for modern service providers who have not participated in VAN networking earlier. When Avanto is implemented by VAN providers, connecting to the modernized network becomes extremely easy, offering a way to communicate with about a million companies utilizing the current VAN infrastructure.
Avanto makes the operations of the existing VAN providers simpler, easier, and less costly, and offers modern service providers a tool to communicate with their customers, vendors, and partners in a unified manner, utilizing a relatively simple protocol based on proven Internet technologies such as DNS, HTTPS and mTLS.
We believe that making B2B networking easier and providing new possibilities for service providers will increase the digitalization level across industries – leading to more efficiency, faster operations, and better customer satisfaction. It would be foolish to let the global network of 1M corporations age out instead of modernizing it to respond to the modern world’s demand in data connectivity.
We are currently discussing the Project Avanto with major stakeholders in the industry and planning the next steps to start realizing the benefits Avanto provides. If you are interested in joining these conversations, please get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You are welcome to dive into Avanto with us!