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“Classic” EDI is Here to Stay … And I’m Here to Write About It

I’ve noticed that EDI, or Electronic Data Interchange, is described in a number of SDN forum and Wiki postings as “classic”.

This strikes me as a little odd because in my university days, I was a classics student and I can’t help but see the word in one of its most traditional senses: a wonderful academic discipline that studies ancient Greek and Roman art, literature, history, politics, language, and archeology.

So I looked it up in Webster’s online dictionary and found that the word “classic” is derived from the Latin classicus, which was used to describe the highest classes of Roman citizens. Webster’s goes on to describe five distinct shades of meaning for the English word “classic”:

  1. Traditional and enduring, serving as a standard of excellence and recognized value, such as classic literary works.
  2. Pertaining to the ancient Greeks and Romans or their culture.
  3. Historically memorable or with special literary or historical associations.
  4. Authentic, authoratative, or typical.
  5. The Classical period of Mesoamerican culture, particularly the Maya, between about 300 and 900 AD.

I don’t believe that the writers of the posts that I read meant to use “classic” in any of these senses. I suspect that they used it more in the pop culture sense of old, quaint, superseded or in the process of being superseded, but with a certain nostalgic value, such as “classic rock”, “classic” cars, “classic” coke, “classic” EDI, and so on.

A Classic Definition  

But for my money, Webster’s definitions one and four fit EDI to a T. EDI provides an enduring standard of excellence and value and it is certainly authentic and authoratative. EDI, and the technologies that arose to support it, remains by far the most important form of business-to-business (B2B) e-commerce in the world today and this is not likely to change anytime soon.

This may seem like a bold statement to some but it’s backed up by statistics. The United States Census Bureau, for example, tracks the value of e-commerce transactions in four key economic sectors that make up 75 percent of the US economy. It publishes these statistics in quarterly and annual surveys of tens of thousands of companies doing e-commerce. You can see these statistics on the bureau’s E-Stats website at:

The Census Bureau estimates in its annual e-commerce survey published in May 2009 that 93 percent of all e-commerce transactions in 2007 were B2B and that of these about 74 percent were handled through proprietary EDI systems. According to the Census Bureau’s numbers, the total dollar value of goods and services transacted by EDI in the United States alone in 2007 is in the neighborhood of $2 trillion, give or take a few billion.

Of course these are extrapolations based on surveys of a slice of American business so there are provisos but still … two trillion United States dollars is not chump change by anybody’s standards, even Wall Street investment bankers. Sure we’re into an economic recession but I believe that the prospects are good for the further growth of EDI. We can thank US President Barrack Obama for that, at least in part, for his stimulus package and proposed health care reform.

EDI Primed for Major Growth 

Under these initiatives, big government money will be pumped into computerizing US health records over the next decade, an enormous effort. EDI will be a big part of that, moving vast quantities of complex data back and forth between doctors, hospitals, clinics, pharmacies, medical equipment and drug suppliers, and, of course, lest we forget, insurance companies. There’s already a well-developed dialect of the X12 EDI standard — HIPPA X12N with hundreds of transactions — developed specifically for the health care and insurance industries.

But that’s not all. The United States government, and other governments around the world, are jumping into EDI to manage a dizzying array of data transmission requirements including customs and homeland security, taxes, law enforcement, procurement, distribution, military supply chains, and so on. North American governments are still largely devoted to X12 but the US government has made a committment to adopt UN/EDIFACT, the United Nations Directories for Electronic Data Interchange for Administration, Commerce and Transport. EDIFACT messages are already used by the Department of Homeland Security and the airlines to track travelers boarding planes to or over the United States. The same EDIFACT messages are used by the UK, China, and many other countries.

I could go on. I could mention impressive public and private sector EDI initiatives in India and China or the tens of thousands of customers that EDI software vendors have — Sterling Commerce alone claims 30,000 — or about the ambitious development schedules for future versions of EDIFACT and X12 … But you get the point. EDI is a fact of life. It’s not going away anytime soon but will likely continue to grow in use throughout the world. I embrace that fact of life.

And that’s why I’m here. Thousands of SAP customers are EDI users, usually with external EDI systems. From the beginning, SAP accomodated EDI and that’s why IDocs were born. I’m a big fan of IDocs and the IDoc interface, which is how I got into EDI in the first place, through ABAP programming, the LSMW, ALE data distribution, and IDoc development and configuration. The IDoc interface is a brilliant piece of engineering and a heck of a lot of fun to work with.

I’ve been blogging about SAP and EDI for nearly two years and have just published a book with SAP Press called Architecting EDI with SAP IDocs, a hands-on guide to designing and building an end-to-end SAP EDI system in an imaginary Hollywood studio. So yes … I have a passion for this work, both in SAP and the middleware, and I’d like to share this passion with you.

Feel free to write me with your questions and issues. I’ll also troll the forums, where a lot of questions pop up about SAP and EDI. We’ll begin with the basics and move on from there, wherever it takes us. I’m betting that it’ll be an interesting ride.


Architecting EDI with SAP IDocs

Architecting EDI with SAP IDocs
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  • And welcome back.  I remember back in 2005/6 you published a number of good community articles to the library (I was doubling as XI editor in those days)
    Good to have you blogging here in the community and hope to see more collaborative contents.
    • The Dark Side … I’ve walked a little on the Wild Side and the Dark Side has never been very far away. It’s always been fun.
      Thank you, Marilyn. I do remember you. It was a joy writing those XI articles and I only wish I could have written more. I plan to post regularly and hope that this leads to a lot of give and take with the community. Have a great weekend and thanks again for your comment.