Electronic Data Interchange Standards
Generally speaking, Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) is considered to be a technical representation of a business conversation between two entities, either internal or external. Note, there is a perception that “EDI” consists of the entire electronic data interchange paradigm, including the transmission, message flow, document format, and software used to interpret the documents. Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) is considered to describe the rigorously standardized format of electronic documents.
The Electronic Data Interchange standards were designed to be independent of communication and software technologies. EDI can be transmitted using any methodology agreed to by the sender and recipient. This includes a variety of technologies, including modem (asynchronous, and bisynchronous), FTP, Email, HTTP, AS1, AS2, WebSphere MQ, etc. It is important to differentiate between the EDI documents and the methods for transmitting them. While comparing the bisynchronous protocol 2400 bit/s modems, CLEO devices, and value-added networks used to transmit EDI documents to transmitting via the Internet, some people equated the non-Internet technologies with EDI and predicted erroneously that EDI itself would be replaced along with the non-Internet technologies. These non-internet transmission methods are being replaced by Internet Protocols such as FTP, telnet, and e-mail, but the EDI documents themselves still remain.
As more trading partners use the Internet for transmission, standards have emerged. In 2002, the IETF published RFC 3335, offering a standardized, secure method of transferring EDI data via e-mail. On July 12th, 2005, an IETF working group ratified RFC4130 for MIME-based HTTP EDIINT (aka. AS2) transfers, and is preparing similar documents for FTP transfers (aka. AS3). While some EDI transmission has moved to these newer protocols the providers of the value-added networks remain active.
Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) documents generally contain the same information that would normally be found in a paper document used for the same organizational function. For example an EDI 940 ship-from-warehouse order is used by a manufacturer to tell a warehouse to ship product to a retailer. It typically has a ship to address, bill to address, a list of product numbers (usually a UPC code) and quantities. It may have other information if the parties agree to include it. However, EDI is not confined to just business data related to trade but encompasses all fields such as medicine (e.g., patient records and laboratory results), transport (e.g., container and modal information), engineering and construction, etc. In some cases, Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) will be used to create a new business information flow (that was not a paper flow before). This is the case in the Advanced Shipment Notification (856) which was designed to inform the receiver of a shipment, the goods to be received and how the goods are packaged.
There are four major sets of EDI standards:
- The UN-recommended UN/EDIFACT is the only international standard and is predominant outside of North America.
- The US standard ANSI ASC X12 (X12) is predominant in North America.
- The TRADACOMS standard developed by the ANA (Article Numbering Association) is predominant in the UK retail industry.
- The ODETTE standard used within the European automotive industry
All of these Electronic Data Interchange standards first appeared in the early to mid 1980s. The standards prescribe the formats, character sets, and data elements used in the exchange of business documents and forms. The complete X12 Document List includes all major business documents, including purchase orders (called “ORDERS” in UN/EDIFACT and an “850” in X12) and invoices (called “INVOIC” in UN/EDIFACT and an “810” in X12).
The Electronic Data Interchange standards says which pieces of information are mandatory for a particular document, which pieces are optional and give the rules for the structure of the document. The standards are like building codes. Just as two kitchens can be built “to code” but look completely different, two EDI documents can follow the same standard and contain different sets of information. For example a food company may indicate a product’s expiration date while a clothing manufacturer would choose to send color and size information.
Electronic Data Interchange Specifications
Organizations that send or receive documents from each other are referred to as “trading partners” in Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) terminology. The trading partners agree on the specific information to be transmitted and how it should be used. This is done in human readable specifications (also called Message Implementation Guidelines). While the standards are analogous to building codes, the specifications are analogous to blue prints. (The specification may also be called a mapping but the term mapping is typically reserved for specific machine readable instructions given to the translation software.) Larger trading “hubs” have existing Message Implementation Guidelines which mirror their business processes for processing EDI and they are usually unwilling to modify their EDI business practices to meet the needs of their trading partners. Often in a large company these EDI guidelines will be written to be generic enough to be used by different branches or divisions and therefore will contain information not needed for a particular business document exchange. For other large companies, they may create separate EDI guidelines for each branch/division.