UBL: A Lingua Franca for Common Business Information
April 28, 2004
The Universal Business Language ( UBL) is a language for capturing business information for use in integrating business systems and sharing data with trading partners. UBL was designed from the beginning to leverage the many vocabularies and experiences available in existing systems using EDI (Electronic Data Interchange), ebXML (Electronic Business XML), and other XML and Web-based e-commerce systems.
As stated by the UBL TC charter, the purpose of the UBL TC is to develop a standard library of XML business documents (purchase orders, invoices, etc.) by modifying an already existing library of XML schemas to incorporate the best features of other existing XML business libraries. The TC will then design a mechanism for the generation of context-specific business schemas through the application of transformation rules to the common UBL source library. UBL is intended to become an international standard for electronic commerce freely available to everyone without licensing or other fees.
The UBL vision is to create a vocabulary for the large bulk of information that is fairly regular between companies, and also to create mechanisms for extending and customizing vocabularies for use in specific contexts (such as industry groups, languages, or national jurisdictions). Currently at version 1.0 Beta, UBL is produced in an open, publicly visible process and is made available without royalties or other fees.
UBL is being developed by the UBL Technical Committee (TC) within OASIS. This TC is made up of several Sub Committees (SCs), including several focusing on localization of UBL for different countries and languages, naming and design rules, contextualizing for different vertical industry spaces, and liaison with other standards development activities. The UBL TC was formed in late 2001 and has grown to include participants from many countries in Asia / Pacific, North America, and Europe.
Beta Release 1.0 of the UBL is a Committee Specification and was released for development testing in November of 2003. This beta will be used in testing and for creating the demonstration applications needed to promote it to a vote to Standard status within OASIS. The beta will stay on the site and remain available for download indefinitely at http://www.oasis-open.org/committees/ubl/lcsc/UBLv1-beta. The implementation testing phase began with the approval of the Committee Draft 26 November 2003 and ended 9 February 2004. The TC is now building the final UBL 1.0 package, delivery of which is scheduled for the end of April, 2004. Several Localization Subcommittees will produce content in specific languages including Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, as well as others to be announced as they are formed.
The are many industry specifications that address vocabularies for conducting business within that industry. Many of these work within the EDI framework. The UBL TC membership recognizes that the success of UBL will be dependent on how well it works with other industry vocabularies, applications, and requirements. Therefore, they have a Liaison SC focusing on building relationships with industry groups and associations and for coordination of review of specifications. Industry data exchange standards organizations that have appointed liaisons to UBL including ACORD (insurance), ARTS (retail sales), ebXML Asia Committee (ebXML), e.centre (EAN.UCC), EIDX (electronics), HL7 (health care), the Information Technology Standards Committee of Singapore, NACS (convenience stores), the Open Applications Group (OAGI), RosettaNet, SWIFT (banking), UIG (utilities), VCA (prescription eyewear), UN/CEFACT ATG, UN/CEFACT TBG, ASC X12, XBRL (accounting), the OASIS e-Government TC, and the OASIS CIQ TC. These groups provided input particularly during the first formative year of UBL development and will probably help rationalize UBL with their own vertical industry specifications going forward.
UBL is designed to facilitate data interchange between entities that may not use common vertical industry vocabularies. A good example might be a scenario involving an electronic equipment manufacturer, a hospital, and a chemical supplier. The electronic equipment manufacturer may already be conducting business electronically with its partners using RosettaNet, the Hospital may be using the vocabularies of HL7, and the chemical producer may be using CIDX (Chemical Industry Data eXchange). Each of these languages is very different and addresses the nuances of goods and services in that industry sector. It is conceivable, though, that the hospital will do business with the equipment manufacturer and the chemical manufacturer, as well as its other partners in the healthcare industry. Rather than adopt each of the vertical industry vocabularies, the hospital could eventually conduct business within healthcare in HL7 and all others in UBL. Consider that a hospital will also be purchasing pharmaceuticals (CDISC & DIA), may have to report financial information (XBRL) and so on. UBL could be the interchange to each of the many formats an organization may interact with.
UBL addresses the content and payload portion of e-commerce business messages and leaves the system interoperability and other functions to web services and ebXML standards (e.g., ebXML CPPA (Collaboration Partner Profile & Agreement) for collaboration profiles, or XML Protocol (once called SOAP), or ebMS for messaging services).
The designers of UBL are working to consolidate both the business operational view (information models) and the functional service view (schemas) of the information largely in the processes related to procurement. Information components (e.g., addresses, product codes, etc.) can be found in a variety of documents (e.g., invoices, purchase orders, shipping manifests, etc.) and will be encoded independently of their presentation.
More in Standards Lowdown
The first production implementation of UBL 1.0 Beta (by Impaq in the UK) went live at the beginning of January. The Danish National XML Committee announced in January 2004 that it has formally adopted an early version of UBL as a standard for e-commerce in the public sector. Following a 30-day public hearing, the Danish XML Committee decided to use UBL 0.7 to enable integration between systems controlled by state authorities and a newly implemented portal for public procurement. Also, it is important to consider the creation of the localization subcommittees as examples of growing uptake of UBL. It is still early to measure adoption though, since the specification hasn't even been promoted to an official standard yet.
According to Jon Bosak (firstname.lastname@example.org), Chair of the UBL TC, "Our only real challenge is getting 1.0 finished up and out the door. We're standing at this point on top of six years of work, and we're finishing up our second revision of a spec that was good enough to be adopted by Denmark at version 0.7, so basic workability is not an issue. And I honestly don't think that 1.0 adoption is going to be an issue, either, though I don't expect this to be obvious for a little while yet. Challenges for the TC in the post-1.0 time frame will center on coordination with vertical industry groups that wish to adopt UBL and inclusion of semantic refinements coming out of the localization activities."
For additional information on UBL specifications and activities visit http://www.oasis-open.org/committees/tc_home.php/ubl. Additional information on UBL is also available at the XML Cover Pages at http://xml.coverpages.org/ubl.html.