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Messages, EDI, and SAP: More Than Just Data Vessels

Consider a bridge stretching across a great bay — let’s say it’s the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

At either end lie two bustling communities and highways that offer choices of multiple destinations. Below it is the San Francisco Bay. To its west is the Pacific Ocean, wide, vast, cold, deeply blue, often shrouded in fog.

Thousands of cars, SUV’s, buses and trucks of all models, sizes, shapes, and colors flow across it each day. Each vehicle is unique, with different individuals guiding it across from one side to the other, and different payloads and passenger configurations.

Each vehicle has its own origin and destination. The bridge facilitates that arrival and ensures that each can cross as safely as the structure will allow.

Behind that bridge is a vast array of people and organizations in both the public and private sectors: designers, architects, government officials, construction and maintenance crews, security personnel, traffic experts, and many others, whose job it is to ensure smooth transit across that bay.

The same is true for each vehicle crossing the bridge. Not one stands alone but is the product of an army of people, organizations, companies, and governments that created standards and designs, supply chains, factories, oil fields, refineries, laws, and treaties to govern it all.

We take all this for granted but it is a magnificent achievement. And that bridge a majestic ride, particularly late in the afternoon on those rare days when San Francisco has a heat wave and the air is still thick with warmth and the water of the bay like oil and the silver towers of the city gleaming in the brilliant sunshine.

Bridging Data Standards

EDI, or Electronic Data Interchange, with its structured messages and transactions that carry data traffic between business partners, is a lot like that bridge and the traffic that flows like a river across it.

While EDI is today a dynamic component of the world’s economy — by far the most important form of e-Commerce — it was created by committees in North America, Europe, and the United Nations. These included experts from business, government, and standards bodies; data modelers, programmers, and communications specialists, who over decades worked hard to simplify and standardize the electronic exchange of critical business documents.

Their aim was to reduce the costs of doing business by eliminating the tedious and resource-intensive paperwork that gummed up the smooth flow of commerce, trade, and government operations.

The birth of EDI grew out of an effort to standardize the paperwork — to design common forms — that was used to ship goods between companies. On a global scale, the United Nations worked to standardize forms that supported trade and commerce between countries.

The key to all of this was standardization and the creation of document types, structures, data elements, and qualifiers, that everybody could use, regardless of how they organized their business, what systems they used to run them, or how they communicated their data.

EDI message and transaction standards built the bridges, the common language, that allowed businesses and governments to begin linking their processes together, to the benefit of each participant, through their business documents, transforming business relationships into trading partnerships.

Bridging Data Standards

But no, this posting is not about the history of EDI nor is it a philosophical musing about standards and business process integration. This is just to introduce my new series of postings about EDI messages, transactions, and standards, with an emphasis on SAP and the IDoc interface.

Our focus will be on the EDIFACT and X12 EDI standards because they are the most commonly used around the world, but we’ll touch on some of the others as well. And of course we’ll also look at IDocs and how they work in an EDI environment.

So what’s the big deal, you may ask. What’s the point? Basic questions about EDI are often posed in the SDN forums so there’s a lot of curiosity out there and people looking for help and understanding.

Thousands of SAP sites around the world have to deal with EDI in a practical way every day. All too often, the EDI and SAP teams are separate and know little about what the other does or needs. The most common point of contact between them is almost always the map that bridges the IDoc to its corresponding EDI message or transaction.

It’s in our interests as SAP professionals, therefore, to have a better understanding of these EDI messages and IDocs, even if only to be able to decipher the data in the EDI transaction before us. Messages, after all, are more than just data containers: they are the lynchpins of trading partnerships.

I find this topic fascinating and to be honest I don’t completely know yet where this thread will take us. So feel free to join me in this exploration and let’s see where it leads.

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      4 Comments
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      Author's profile photo Hans Derycke
      Hans Derycke
      I wish more SAP-oriented blog posts were written like your opening paragraphs...
      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member
      Thank you, Hans. I appreciate your comment.
      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member
      Sounds Interesting. Waiting for your next blog
      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member
      Thank you. I'm going to be a little off schedule this week but it will come. Stay tuned.