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 Actra's software lets EDI users connect through the Web

By Bill Roberts, Web Week
Actra Business Systems, the long-silent joint venture between GE Information Services and Netscape Communications Corp., was expected to announce this week a new family of business-to-business electronic commerce products, including a product that supports EDI on the Internet.
Early adopters and analysts briefed in advance of the announcement hailed the Actra CrossCommerce platform as the best solution to date for extending EDI to business partners over the Internet. They said it was a clear sign that the joint venture, founded in April 1996, had done its homework before bringing its first products to market.
EDI--Electronic Data Interchange--is a set of transmission and data protocols used in the commercial world to send digital versions of purchase orders, invoices, and other documents over private value-added networks.
"EDI as it existed in the past has been used by most organizations to automate only the most popular transactions with only the most active vendors," said Mike Kennedy, an analyst at the Meta Group. "With Actra, I see the opportunity to put into place an umbrella environment whether you use EDI or not." Because Actra's products focus both on the procurement cycles of corporate buyers and the order-management function of corporate sellers, analysts said Actra will help to define a new class of software for business-to-business electronic commerce.
"This is very different from business-to-consumer," said Harry Tse, an analyst at the Yankee Group, Boston. "There are a lot of vendors out there that claim they do business- to-business, but they're really just catalog, order-placement, and credit card transaction technologies." Tse said the Actra products will offer a complete business-to-business solution, one that will put the company ahead of Sterling Commerce, Harbinger Corp., and others.
Actra CrossCommerce is a suite of five products anchored by ECXpert, a middleware platform upon which companies can build and deploy Net-based electronic commerce programs that integrate with existing EDI and legacy systems.
ECXpert provides communication through virtually any protocol including EDI, FTP, SMTP, and HTTP. It can plug into any back-end legacy system, and it offers APIs for the credit card payment transaction systems from VeriFone and CyberCash. ECXpert is expected to be available by the end of the month for Sun's Solaris operating system and later for Windows NT and other variations of Unix. Pricing starts at $25,000 for a single processor.
Two other products in the CrossCommerce suite, OrderXpert Buyer and OrderXpert Seller, are for managing corporate selling and buying over the Internet. Both products come bundled with ECXpert and its EDI capabilities. They will be available later this year, the company said. Pricing has not been set.
The electronic-catalog and search-engine technologies that are in OrderXpert Seller were licensed from Cadis Corp., the maker of Krakatoa software, which is used on several corporate Web sites for industrial sales and marketing. Krakatoa, one of the first Java- based applications, is highly regarded for its parametric search capabilities that allow people to search based on attributes, rather than keywords, and to narrow the search on successive queries until they find the right product. It is especially useful for end users looking for industrial products.
The last two products in the CrossCommerce family are MerchantXpert and PublishingXpert, which are the fully rearchitected 2.0 versions of Netscape Merchant Server and Netscape Publisher Server, respectively. Both will be available later this year.
Actra CrossCommerce is entirely object-oriented using the Common Object Request Broker Architecture (CORBA) and is based on other open Internet standards, including the Internet Inter-ORB Protocol (IIOP), S/MIME, SL, EDIINT, and Java. The management presentation layer is entirely written in Java and JavaScript, and can be accessed with any Java-enabled Web browser. The server side is written in C++.
Early adopters and beta testers have included Wells Fargo Bank, Bay Networks Inc., Boise Cascade Corp., and CBS SportsLine.
Laura Longcore, marketing systems manager for Boise Cascade Office Products, Itasca, Ill., said the company chose ECXpert because of its ability to handle any format-to-format translation, including, but not limited to, EDI. "It has a lot of versatility," she said.
Analysts praised Actra's vision and understanding of business-to-business commerce as much as they applauded the products themselves.
"I was quite pleased by what I saw," said Meta Group's Kennedy. "From GEIS they get guys who understand EDI. From Netscape they get guys who understand Internet technologies. It's a good blend."
Reprinted from Web Week, Volume 3, Issue 15, May 19, 1997 © Mecklermedia Corp. All rights reserved.



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