Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) refers to the structured transmission of data between organizations by electronic means. It is more than mere E-mail; for instance, organizations might replace bills of lading and even checks with appropriate EDI messages. It also refers specifically to a family of standards, including the X12 series. However, EDI also exhibits its pre-Internet roots, and the standards tend to focus on ASCII-formatted single messages rather than the whole sequence of conditions and exchanges that make up an inter-organization business process.
In 1992, a survey of Canadian businesses found at least 140 that had adopted some form of EDI, but that many (in the sample) "[had] not benefited from implementing EDI, and that they [had] in fact been disadvantaged by it."
The National Institute of Standards and Technology in a 1996 publication defines Electronic Data Interchange as "the computer-to-computer interchange of strictly formatted messages that represent documents other than monetary instruments. EDI implies a sequence of messages between two parties, either of whom may serve as originator or recipient. The formatted data representing the documents may be transmitted from originator to recipient via telecommunications or physically transported on electronic storage media.". It goes on further to say that "In EDI, the usual processing of received messages is by computer only. Human intervention in the processing of a received message is typically intended only for error conditions, for quality review, and for special situations. For example, the transmission of binary or textual data is not EDI as defined here unless the data are treated as one or more data elements of an EDI message and are not normally intended for human interpretation as part of online data processing."
EDI can be formally defined as 'The transfer of structured data, by agreed message standards, from one computer system to another without human intervention'. Most other definitions used are variations on this theme. Even in this era of technologies such as XML web services, the Internet and the World Wide Web, EDI is still the data format used by the vast majority of electronic commerce transactions in the world.
The EDI 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), , Email, , AS1, AS2, etc. It is important to differentiate between the EDI documents and the methods for transmitting them. When they compared 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, , 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.
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, 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:
All of these 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 EDI standard 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.
Standards are generally updated each year.
VANs also provide an advantage with certificate replacement in AS2 transmissions. Because each node in a traditionally business-related AS2 transmission usually involves a security certificate, routing a large number of partners through a VAN can make certificate replacement much easier.
AS2 (Applicability Statement 2) is the draft specification standard by which vendor applications communicate EDI or other business-to-business data (such as XML) over the Internet using HTTP, a standard used by the World Wide Web. AS2 provides security for the transport payload through digital signatures and data encryption, and ensures reliable, non-repudiable delivery through the use of receipts.
EDI translation software provides the interface between internal systems and the EDI format sent/received. For an "inbound" document the EDI solution will receive the file (either via a Value Added Network or directly using protocols such as FTP or AS2), take the received EDI file (commonly referred to as a "mailbag"), validate that the trading partner who is sending the file is a valid trading partner, that the structure of the file meets the EDI standards and that the individual fields of information conforms to the agreed upon standards. Typically the translator will either create a file of either fixed length, variable length or XML tagged format or "print" the received EDI document (for non-integrated EDI environments). The next step is to convert/transform the file that the translator creates into a format that can be imported into a company's back-end business systems or ERP. This can be accomplished by using a custom program, an integrated proprietary "mapper" or to use an integrated standards based graphical "mapper" using a standard data transformation language such as XSLT. The final step is to import the transformed file (or database) into the company's back-end enterprise resource planning (ERP).
For an "outbound" document the process for integrated EDI is to export a file (or read a database) from a company's back-end ERP, transform the file to the appropriate format for the translator. The translation software will then "validate" the EDI file sent to ensure that it meets the standard agreed upon by the trading partners, convert the file into "EDI" format (adding in the appropriate identifiers and control structures) and send the file to the trading partner (using the appropriate communications protocol).
Another critical component of any EDI translation software is a complete "audit" of all the steps to move business documents between trading partners. The audit ensures that any transaction (which in reality is a business document) can be tracked to ensure that they are not lost. In case of a retailer sending a Purchase Order to a supplier, if the Purchase Order is "lost" anywhere in the business process, the effect is devastating to both businesses. To the supplier, they do not fulfill the order as they have not received it thereby losing business and damaging the business relationship with their retail client. For the retailer, they have a stock outage and the effect is lost sales, reduced customer service and ultimately lower profits.
In EDI terminology "inbound" and "outbound" refer to the direction of transmission of an EDI document in relation to a particular system, not the direction of merchandise, money or other things represented by the document. For example, an EDI document that tells a warehouse to perform an outbound shipment is an inbound document in relation to the warehouse computer system. It is an outbound document in relation to the manufacturer or dealer that transmitted the document.
Another significant barrier is the cost in time and money in the initial set-up. The preliminary expenses and time that arise from the implementation, customization and training can be costly and therefore may discourage some businesses. The key is to determine what method of integration is right for your company which will determine the cost of implementation. For a business that only receives one P.O. per year from a client, fully integrated EDI may not make economic sense. In this case, businesses may implement inexpensive "rip and read" solutions or use outsourced EDI solutions provided by EDI "Service Bureaus". For other businesses, the implementation of an integrated EDI solution may be necessary as increases in trading volumes brought on by EDI force them to re-implement their order processing business processes.
The key hindrance to a successful implementation of EDI is the perception many businesses have of the nature of EDI. Many view EDI from the technical perspective that EDI is a data format; it would be more accurate to take the business view that EDI is a system for exchanging business documents with external entities, and integrating the data from those documents into the company's internal systems. Successful implementations of EDI take into account the effect externally generated information will have on their internal systems and validate the business information received. For example, allowing a supplier to update a retailer's Accounts Payables system without appropriate checks and balances would be a recipe for disaster. Businesses new to the implementation of EDI should take pains to avoid such pitfalls.
Increased efficiency and cost savings drive the adoption of EDI for most trading partners. But even if a company would not choose to use EDI on their own, pressures from larger trading partners (called hubs) often force smaller trading partners to use EDI. An example of this is Wal-Mart`s insistence on using EDI with all of its trading partners; any partner not willing to use EDI with Wal-Mart will not be able to do business with the company. Wal Mart EDI & Wal Mart RFID. .
This all comes at a massive cost in time and management as a company may attempt to support a broad range of transactions with a broad range of entities. This example is an extension of the lack of strict standards across implementations, transactions and methods.