The underlying B2B IT infrastructures of intelligent enterprises need to be flexible enough to adapt to the changes in market opportunities quickly. Support for interoperability is a key feature of a flexible infrastructure especially in an environment where there are a plethora of technologies and standards available. Enterprises, in order to keep their IT infrastructure flexible as well as keep the long term cost of ownership of their IT infrastructure low, should select technologies that are standards based. Technology requirements for B2B commerce systems can be viewed at three levels as follows.
Transport Level. This level deals with the transportation of data from one entity to the other and includes the physical network and communication protocols. The Internet has emerged as the preferred choice for connectivity among business partners as it has a global reach and is cost effective to use. Data security over the Internet has also been addressed now with the development of virtual private network (VPN) technologies. It is highly desirable to have the IT infrastructure of enterprises built around the Internet and use related technologies and protocols such as TCP/IP, HTTP and FTP.
Data Format Level. Technology requirements at this level deal with ensuring that different applications can be integrated by handling the differences in data formats. This entails applications adhering to some message exchange format standard for exchanging data or using some translation service. Although traditional message exchange standard formats used in EDI such as X.12 and EDIFACT are still used today, it is becoming more attractive to use XML (www.w3.org/xml/) versions of these standards that are carried within a SOAP envelope (www.w3.org/TR/SOAP). The reasons are twofold. First, XML/SOAP messages can handle the flexibility needed to capture the dynamics of B2B transactions. Second, XML/SOAP messages can facilitate seamless integration of a variety of applications such as mobile applications running on PDA type devices, desktop applications like Web client, and enterprise class applications such as SAP and SEIBEL. It is therefore imperative that IT infrastructure use message standards based on XML and SOAP technologies.
Process Level. The third level of technology requirements deals with various B2B processes. Processes of trading partners are required to be seamlessly integrated on a dynamic basis. This entails (1) the ability to discover processes of trading partners on the fly; (2) agreement with trading partners on the modalities of interaction between processes; and (3) orchestrating process interactions and executions based on events and business rules. The IT infrastructure should support (1) semantically rich process libraries and document definitions using some standard ontology; (2) tools for dynamically discovering business partners and their processes; and (3) protocols to execute business processes of trading partners. The Web services framework (www.w3.org/TR/2002/WD-Wsa-reqs-20020819) does support some of the goals outlined above and provides an attractive framework to fashion the B2B IT infrastructure of intelligent enterprises. The various requirements for a flexible IT infrastructure can be met by using software agents. The next section provides an overview of software agents and relates agents to IT requirements for B2B systems.