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The Internet-Business Framework - The Foundation for SAP Collaborative Business Scenarios

by Dr. Franz J. Fritz | SAPinsider

October 1, 2000

by Dr. Franz J. Fritz, SAP AG SAPinsider - 2000 (Volume 1), October (Issue 2)
 

One of the four basic mySAP.com deliverables, the Internet-Business Framework provides the open environment and flexibility you need to work with other organizations across the Internet. This article describes some of the tools, services, and resources you can choose from as you Web-enable your SAP systems. Discussed are: XML, Web enabling, RosettaNet, DOM, XSLT, HTML, Business Connector, SAP interface Repository, WebFlow, SAP Internet Adviser, SAP WebFlow Builder, WF-XML, C-Business scenarios.

     One of the central goals of mySAP.com is, of course, to help your organization work better with business partners over the Internet. To achieve this, R/3 systems work in conjunction with the four basic mySAP.com deliverables:

  • mySAP.com Workplace, the portal solution for employees, partners, and consumers

  • mySAP.com Marketplace, which offers horizontal and vertical business hubs

  • SAP Collaborative Business (c-Business) Scenarios

  • Application hosting

      The underlying system that connects these elements is the Internet-Business Framework (IBF), which you will see referred to in technology overviews of mySAP.com. The SAP IBF is what provides the open environment and flexibility you need to work with other organizations across the Internet. This article describes some of the tools, services, and resources you can choose from as you Web-enable your SAP systems.¹

     From the Business Framework to the IBF

     Back in 1996, SAP introduced the Business Framework to provide open interfaces (BAPIs) to all SAP components, and to enable many complementary software partners to make use of these interfaces. There are now more than 2,000 interfaces available and more than 600 software partners with certified complementary solutions.

     With the advent of mySAP.com in 1999, this framework was extended to become the Internet-Business Framework, based on Internet technology and standards. The goal was to provide ease of access, change, and collaboration for business communities, yet to do so in a way that allows every collaborating party to have its own choice of hardware, operating system, programming language, etc. No specific software (apart from standard Internet technology, such as Web browsers, Web servers, and XML parsers) needs to be installed.

     This is critically important, since from a business point of view, collaborating parties may belong to the same global enterprise, to the same industry, or to the same community - but they could also belong to very different industries.

     To give just one example, let's look at real estate management (something that practically every organization has to deal with on some level), modeled in Figure 1. With the various interactions needed to plan, construct, finance, buy, sell, rent, or maintain real estate, you end up with complex relationships between very different industries and sectors: construction, the public sector, banking, insurance, and utilities.

Figure 1 Multiparty Collaboration: Real Estate Management

SAP Actively Supports XML Standards

True collaboration between business partners over the Internet requires common languages and vocabularies, and SAP is very active in a number of consortia for both technical and application-related XML standards.

On the technical side, SAP is an active member of W3C and has contributed to the XML schema standard. SAP also supports the standardization efforts of Microsoft's BizTalk.org, as well as XML.ORG, which is operated by OASIS.

As a member of the Workflow Management Coalition, SAP has actively contributed to the creation and evolution of WF-XML for Web-based interoperability between heterogeneous workflow systems.

On the application and business side, SAP supports a wide range of XML. For example, SAP is an architect partner in RosettaNet, the well-known consortium for business collaboration in the high-tech industry. As a result of this partnership with leading high-tech companies, SAP has set up, and gone live with, RosettaNet-based business processes for buying hardware equipment.

SAP is also active in multiple industry-specific XML standards groups in industries such as automotive, oil and gas, engineering and construction, and insurance.

In the horizontal domains covered by SAP application components, there are also many standardization activities. For example, SAP supports and implements XML standards in HR, including job postings and candidate profiles. At the same time, standards creation and implementation are moving forward in the SAP Financials area (with the IFX Forum) and for XML business reporting (in the XBRL Consortium).

Since, for the moment, the industry must live with multiple XML formats for some common business processes and documents in the areas of buying, selling, catalog management, and so on, good facilities for mapping and conversion between different flavors of XML are needed. With the Business Connector, SAP provides good mapping support for straightforward scenarios. More sophisticated conversion solutions can be built with certified partner products - for example, from Mercator and Viewlocity.

     The Fundamental Concept: XML-Based Internet Services

     XML, perhaps the most important Web standard for application development and collaboration, provides many of the features that are so essential to open and flexible cooperation between independent systems and businesses - especially considering the complex relationships that so many organizations have with their business partners. To help its customers collaborate with business partners, SAP has already taken several steps to embrace these Internet standards, among others:

  • XML schema for description

  • DOM for application access

  • XSLT for transformation

     An Internet service is defined by receiving an XML request message and producing an XML response message. This can happen in a synchronous or asynchronous way. The requester and the server can sit anywhere on the Internet. The new XML-based paradigm for distributed systems opens up a whole universe of opportunities.

     In contrast to today's HTML-based services, XML-based services allow for a separation of content and presentation, so they are easily personalized and adapted to various devices, portals, and environments.

     XML-based Internet services offer a wealth of possibilities for collaborative and online business scenarios. These services can encompass typical business functions. For example, any given organization and its partners can use the Internet to handle normal, everyday needs for order creation, availability checks, credit-limit checks, and pricing calculations. There are Internet services for document search, mail, calendar handling, access to job offerings, and financial reports. All provide easy and efficient content-sharing between enterprises and consumers.

      Internet services, in fact, now often replace local databases and file systems for certain types of content. They provide information about the existence, location, and signature of other Internet services, and can be transformed and composed into applications, workflows, and higher-level Internet services. Marketplaces and business hubs provide opportunities for hosting executable services directly, but also allow you to host service directories that provide lookup and connection to services from others in the Internet community.

Building Blocks of the Internet-Business Framework

     The major building blocks and new services that SAP has already delivered to support the Internet-Business Framework include:

  • mySAP.com Workplace integration for partners

  • Business Connector n XML-based certificatio

  • SAP Interface Repository

  • WebFlow

  • SAP Internet Adviser

      These building blocks provide the technology, knowledge, and services that are needed to set up SAP c-Business Scenarios and leverage all the rich business functionality of the various mySAP.com components.

Workplace Integration for Partners

     Not only does the mySAP.com Workplace provide the main entry point to all dialog applications from SAP, it is also a platform for the integration of partner products and services. While the first generation of BAPI-based integration was based mainly on backend, server-to-server interaction and was therefore invisible (for the most part) to the end user, now partner applications can be a visible part of the mySAP.com Workplace. This Workplace integration is a new opportunity and benefit for mySAP.com partners.²

Business Connector

     On the backend side, the SAP Business Connector provides XML-based access to all existing interfaces of all SAP components: BAPIs, IDocs, and RFCs. The SAP Business Connector is shown in Figure 2. The Business Connector takes care of conversion between the XML format and SAP internal formats such as RFC and IDoc. It also supports graphical mapping to other formats, along with administration of routing information to and from business partners. More sophisticated extensions can be built and integrated with Java programming.

     In its basic version, the Business Connector is free of charge for all SAP customers, and allows them to connect their components and applications to the Internet.³

Figure 2 SAP Business Connector and Online Help

XML-Based Certification of Complementary Software

     SAP has extended its software partner certification program to leverage the ease and flexibility of HTTP/XML-based connectivity provided by the Internet-Business Framework. Now, with mySAP.com, certification and integration of software partner products and services no longer require SAP's partners to install or maintain SAP-specific code. On the other hand, existing certifications still remain valid, and current integration solutions can still be used with the Internet-Business Framework.

SAP Interface Repository

     To streamline interface development, the SAP Interface Repository offers you a central location for all SAP interfaces. The Interface Repository pulls together interfaces from all SAP components in all versions and places them on one Web site. The structure of each interface is provided as an XML schema as well as an XML template document. You can access the Interface Repository at http://service.sap.com/ifr.

     The templates and schemas in the SAP Interface Repository are accessible via HTTP and can be interpreted without any additional proprietary software. Partners and customers can easily navigate through the Interface Repository, download interface descriptions, and create or generate program code based on these descriptions.4

WebFlow

      WebFlow is SAP's extension and enhancement of SAP Business Workflow, SAP's proven standard workflow system, in order to cover the needs of Internet-based business processes. WebFlow is designed to support collaboration over the Internet. Figure 3 shows an example of the WebFlow Builder, which is used to create WebFlow process definitions. A WebFlow process can include:

  • Work items that are accessible over the Internet

  • Creation, sending, and receiving of XML messages

  • Dialog work items for any type of person or role in the enterprise

  • Automatic work items executed by the system based on the evaluation of business rules

      mySAP.com WebFlows can be started and monitored via XML messages, and can also return their results in XML format. These capabilities are based on WF-XML, which is an open XML standard developed by the Workflow Management Coalition for the interaction of workflow systems and applications, regardless of vendor and system platform. WebFlow work items are URL-addressable and can be processed by any target recipient over the Internet. This means that you can easily send and distribute references to work items via e-mail.

     WebFlow technology provides an easy way to define and change processes, using a graphical representation, without programming. Some examples include:

  • You can add additional steps or change the sequence of steps in any given workflow process.

  • You can use the WebFlow configuration tool to change assignments of responsibilities to people, groups, or roles.

  • You can send notifications about important events via e-mail.

WebFlow work items provide easy case-based status tracking, quality monitoring, reduced cycle times, and greatly enhanced information flow between all participants of a business process. WebFlow work items are found in many of SAP's published c-Business Scenarios.

     To give an example, let's take an issue that comes up frequently in manufacturing: "deviation of quality." In this case, the manufacturer can send an e-mail that includes a URL reference to a work item. He can ask the customer to accept or reject a deviation of quality that occurred during production. The customer, no matter what systems or applications she uses, can process this work item on the manufacturer's system from her own browser, and therefore can directly influence further processing in the WebFlow on the producer's side.

     In the mySAP.com Workplace, all work items from all systems and components in a mySAP.com system infrastructure are pulled together and offered through one single WebFlow MiniApp in the mySAP.com Workplace. This WebFlow MiniApp offers all currently open work items to a given person in a given role. By clicking on one of the work items that appears in the MiniApp, you start the corresponding business application without any need to sign on and navigate to a specific business system. This means that mySAP.com users no longer have to look in various places for a single particular open work item.5

Figure 3 mySAP.com WebFlow Builder, Based on SAP Business Workflow

Resources and References

SAP Internet-Business Framework References

Business Connector
http://service.sap.com/connectors

Complementary Software Program
http://www.sap.com/csp

Partner Value Net
www.sap.com/partner
http://service.sap.com

SAP Interface Repository
http://ifr.sap.com
http://service.sap.com/ifr

SAP Internet Adviser
http://service.sap.com/internetadviser

Standardization Resources

BizTalk.org
http://www.biztalk.org

Interactive Financial eXchange
(IFX) Forum
http://www.rosettanet.org

Workflow Management
Coalition (WFMC)
http://www.aiimorg/wfmc

XBRL Consortium
http://www.xfrml.org/default.htm

XML.ORG
http://www.xml.org

W3C
http://www.w3.com

     SAP Internet Adviser

     The Internet Adviser is a central loca-tion for the basic information you need to implement SAP's c-Business Scenarios and online applications generally. The main purpose is to support the actual implementation and configuration work of consultants and customers. But it is also a reference source for the Internet technology that is needed, and provided, in the mySAP.com context. The latest version can always be accessed online through the Service Marketplace at http://service.sap.com/internetadviser. For easy offline use, you can obtain the CD version of the Internet Adviser at the same Service Marketplace site.6

     Summary

     The Internet-Business Framework is the technical foundation of mySAP.com. It relies on Web standards like HTTP and XML for open collaboration between different platforms and components. Users, developers, and partners can use the resources of the Internet-Business Framework - including its tools, guidelines, and partner program - for easy and flexible collaboration in Internet business scenarios.


¹ For more information on the resources or organizations described here, see the "Resources and References" listed at the end of this article.
² Partners can find details on Workplace integration in the Partner ValueNet section of www.sap.com/partner and at the recently created SAP Service Marketplace at http://service.sap.com. (For more information, see "A Tour of SAP's Online Service Marketplace" in this issue of SAP Insider.)
³ The Business Connector is based on technology provided by webMethods. To download the free version, visit http://service.sap.com/connectors.
4 For more information on the Interface Repository, see the article by Anton Deimel in this issue of SAP Insider.
5 For more information on worklist e-mail notification and managing worklists in the Workflow MiniApp, see Alan Rickayzen's article "Universal Workflow Access with the mySAP.com Workplace" in this issue of SAP Insider.
6 See Peter Ludwig's "SAP Internet Adviser: Your Guide to Implementing Business Scenarios with mySAP.com" in this issue of SAP Insider.


Franz J. Fritz has a Ph.D. in mathematics and 30 years of experience in all areas of IT. Workflow and business process management have been particular areas of interest for much of his life. He has worked for SAP since 1993 as program director and vice president with responsibility for the Business Process Technology and Internet-Business Framework departments.

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