Research Into Greater Interoperability

The dictionary definition of “interoperability” is the ability of several computer systems to exchange and process each other’s data. This may appear straightforward, but in fact it represents a considerable IT challenge. According to the Gartner Group and AMR, companies spend around 30-40% of their IT budget on solving integration tasks – which is forecast to be some $30 billion in 2006. Yet, although interoperability is not a product, it would benefit from new technologies.

New technologies for interoperability

SAP Research is tackling this set of key issues in a number of major research projects conducted within its global research network. For instance, the DIP (Data, Information, and Process Integration with Semantic Web Services) research project is looking at ways of combining web services and semantic web technologies with the objective of automatically creating web services within the Internet environment.
SAP Research is also involved in a second international project devoted to interoperability called ATHENA (Advanced Technologies for Interoperability of Heterogeneous Enterprise Networks and their Applications) which has been running since the beginning of 2004. SAP is working as the coordinator with over 20 organizations from the fields of research, science, and industry in addressing this complex problem. ATHENA is supported by the European Commission and its objective is to analyze various aspects of interoperability, including cross-organizational business processes, service-oriented architectures, semantic description of business documents, and an economic analysis of network organizations.

Automation of cross-organizational business processes

The next generation of company networks is based on cross-organizational business processes. These must support the sharing of information between the cooperating business partners’ corporate applications, which in turn requires companies’ internal systems to be linked up. It is important here that certain internal processes or confidential information remain hidden from view. In other words, business partners must not be able to gain access to them.

Process abstraction concept
Process abstraction concept

We shall use the example of a typical manufacturer/supplier scenario. In order for a manufacturer to meet orders placed by his customers, he requires goods from a supplier and consequently requests a quotation. Once the negotiations are completed, he issues an order and the supplier responds with an order confirmation and later with actual delivery of the goods. By combining their processes, the two business partners can boost the efficiency of their order processing flows. In doing so, however, they need to ensure that neither party unintentionally gains an insight into the other’s internal processes.
SAP Research has developed a process abstraction concept for these tasks. Within this concept, each partner defines public processes that lie above the internal, private processes. Partners only ever see the public process. The customer-specific processes remain concealed. In our example, the supplier receives no information about either the identity of the competitors or the results of the bidding process. The only thing that runs between the two parties is the joint B2B process. Supporting the definition and use of public processes and B2B processes as efficiently as possible for the user is key.

The suppliers only know what they are supposed to know

Definition of cross-organizational business processes
Definition of cross-organizational business processes

Maestro for BPM is the project name of a software-modeling tool developed by SAP Research. It is a prototype realizing the abovementioned concepts. This SAP Research concept creates a public process from the private processes in the company. To do so, the user first creates a copy of these private processes via a click of the mouse. Like a type of black box, the public process combines various tasks, which are grouped together on the screen. It conceals various items of internal information. If a supplier is selected after a bidding process, they remain unaware of the price and scope of services offered by the next most expensive competitor for instance. The related competitor information remains concealed behind the public ordering procedure. This prevents the supplier from gaining access to any information about their competitors’ bids. Other public process steps within the supply chain are constituted in the same way. As this method is based on open standards, business partners do not need to use the same tools.
The solution developer combines the process steps that make up the business partners’ public processes in the correct order via mouse and GUI without doing any programming. Once all steps are completed, Maestro for BPM translates the processes into executable XML models. The result is a comprehensive B2B ordering process which conceals the companies’ internal steps. Maestro therefore enables a comparatively complex (programming) task be solved with no customer-specific programming. The intelligent tool reduces complexity, accelerates business processes and their adaptation, and reduces operating costs.

International network for company interoperability

More and more players are joining the push to deliver greater interoperability. The success of their efforts depends to a large degree on agreement among the potential partners. For this reason, SAP is committed to building up a network devoted to interoperability. For this reason, the European Enterprise Interoperability Centre (EIC) was initiated in parallel to the ATHENA project. As well as focusing on the development and introduction of new interoperability concepts and technologies, the Centre also brings customers and partners together to jointly define cross-organizational processes and map out requirements for future standards.

Prof. Karsten Schulz

Dr. Wasim Sadiq

Dr. Rainer Ruggaber

Ulrike Greiner