vanValue-Added Networks (VANs) have been around for more than 30 years. But as Scott Lewis, senior product marketing manager at IBM’s Sterling Commerce puts it, “today’s VAN is definitely not your father’s VAN.” VANs have evolved from simply being a managed network on which to exchange EDI information and documents between a company and its trading partners to a more robust service that includes not only the network but also a variety of services aimed at facilitating more effective commerce amongst numerous organizations.

Today’s more advanced offerings – which are more often being referred to as business to business (B2B) integration or even simply business integration services – that include hosted document exchange and managed services offerings. Among the services are combined EDI/XML B2B integration (B2Bi), enterprise application integration (EAI), business process management (BPM), and managed file transfer (MFT) capabilities. According to Gartner, in its “Market Trends: Multienterprise/B2B Infrastructure Market, Worldwide, 2009-2014” report, B2B integration requires the integration of more than just two applications. Today there is demand for much deeper and broader levels of integration that span companies and involves numeours organizations. Coming soon… cloud applications will be included in this fray. Gartner writes in its report: “The "dumb" network that used to only transfer bulk files between applications and trading partners is turning into a "smart" network that incorporates diverse integration functionality, including communications, translation and workflow, increasingly implemented by application vendors and users using an SOA. The B2B discipline also now must include cloud services integration — for example, how to link services from solutions such as salesforce.com to on-premises applications.”

Vendors such as GXS, Seeburger and Sterling Commerce (in mid-2010 IBM acquired Sterling Commerce from AT&T for $1.4 billion) have all evolved their VAN offerings to provide customers with layered services. “The traditional VAN was a big building in which packages of information moved through,” says John Radko, Chief Technology Strategist at GXS. “Today, we are really a logistics provider of information.”

Granted, the vendors still offer the core features – their portfolios of services include the ability to support hosted document exchanges of EDI, XML, flat files, spreadsheets and other types of data. But they’ve layered on top of those services new features including application and process capabilities, embedded translation services that mediate the differences between the various data and file formats of trading partners and applications, analytics, increased visibility into all the data that passes to and fro, and even services that trigger actions based on real-time data and transactions, rules-based engines, and knowledge accumulated from historical data. Vendors are even adding layered services to help companies handle globalization and regulatory matters.

Companies are working with more partners, have more platforms to support, and operate across a much broader geographic area. “Customers want us to help them alleviate all the complexities,” says Sterling Commerce’s Lewis. “Our managed service offering has been growing at a nice pace over the last few years. It is really around the core competency we can bring to the table.”

GXS’ Radko refers to the notion of a river of data. “All the data that flows between trading partners is immensely valuable,” says GXS’ Radko. “So organizations need to get it all to flow through the same conceptual channel, and then be able to process it.” Radko stresses that GXS focuses on helping its customers add quality and value to all that data.

Perhaps more than anything the Internet, and more specifically the adoption of AS2, have affected the evolution of VANs until now. Executives at Seeburger said in an email exchange with ec-bp.org that while the Internet initially did not appeal to organization as a network for exchanging data, “that all changed with the adoption of AS2, which provided a standard for transport, encryption, and authentication.  The wide acceptance of this standard changed everything.” That doesn’t mean VAN’s go away, Seeburger says. Interestingly, the term VAN probably applies more than ever.  In the early days of VAN’s the term was more of a misnomer than it is today.  Prior to the availability of the Internet, VANs primarily provided a communications conduit that supported the myriad of protocols that their customers wished to utilize and a store-and-forward mailbox.” Now, the sweet spot of VANs today is all these new value-added capabilities. “More and more data is being moved via direct communications via protocols such as AS2 for the trading relationships which move large volumes of data.  VANs are no longer the default method for moving data, but the value-added portions of the VAN are being utilized more because that is the value that they bring to the table,” the Seeburger execs say.

Going forward, the vendors all agreed that cloud computing will play heavily in the continued evolution of the VAN. They are all leveraging the on-demand, subscription-based model a cloud provides, which lets customers use a VAN and the value-add features without having to install or pay for on-premise equipment. Cloud-based models also promise dynamic scalability. Seeburger has an implementation goal of 100% electronic enablement for its customers and their constituents. Lewis of Sterling Commerce says a fully-cloud-based VAN promises the flexibility to easily add additional services, and that Sterling Commerce is already offering its services in a cloud. And GXS is doing the same, and even rearchitecting its own computing platform to be cloud-ready. “Of course, we’ve shifted of of mainframes to open systems, from Unix to Linux. And now we are in the process of shifting from physical
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