Auto industry portal kicks into high gear

The Big Three automakers are finally ready to make Covisint, the business-to-business web portal they founded three years ago to reach suppliers, the central engine in their e-commerce and messaging systems

The Big Three automakers are finally ready to make Covisint, the business-to-business web portal they founded three years ago to reach suppliers, the central engine in their e-commerce and messaging systems.

DaimlerChrysler said by year-end it would phase out its private supplier extranet and use Covisint to do business with its 9,000 suppliers. Ford Motor said it intends to use Covisint to exchange electronic data interchange (EDI) orders and design data. And although General Motors will continue to use its own SupplyPower web portal, the company said it expects Covisint to support its most important XML-based priority-messaging and document delivery service.

This is a significant change from Covisint's current role as an online catalog and auction house for almost 100,000 registered trading partners, and more in keeping with the grand vision laid out when Covisint was announced in 2000.

While it's taken time to rev up the engine, Covisint is now bringing in about $US60 million in fees and expects to be profitable next year, said Brad Pfeiffer, client relationship director to Ford. "We're just going to focus now on what we were founded to do — provide an industry portal and the messaging piece," he said.

Even though the Big Three continue to bicker about some things, such as the use of XML, they say Covisint is now central to their e-commerce strategies with suppliers. Each car company is making more business applications available through the Covisint portal.

"We want to drive Covisint as the single source of entry" for parts suppliers, Greg Wise, manager of business-to-business and portal management at DaimlerChrysler told the audience of vehicle-parts manufacturers at Auto-Tech.

He said Europe is moving more slowly in making applications available via Covisint, requiring suppliers to physically sign legal documents such as confidentiality agreements to use Covisint. US-based operations are content to just click on a Web-based form to indicate agreement.

But Wise said all DaimlerChrysler parts manufacturers will be included in a new Global Supplier Directory on Covisint. Suppliers typically buy manufactured goods from other suppliers to incorporate into what they sell to DaimlerChrysler, so that could help suppliers locate each other to do business around the globe.

One advantage for suppliers making the mandatory switch to Covisint, Wise noted, is that Covisint can offer them each a single sign-on ID. This will let each user gain access to up to 150 applications via only one ID logon.

"There's a huge inefficiency for suppliers that have 30 passwords and IDs," but that's what Covisint and many other portals have required, said Dave Miller, Covisint CSO. To address the problem, Covisint has introduced a federated logon system to make it possible for suppliers to use one ID for multiple applications.

To get the new federated logon for employees, each supplier will need to name a security officer as the key Covisint contact. Covisint will hand off the requests to the appropriate security administrators at the automakers, who will route the request to the division that owns the desired application.

If granted, the security officer will inform Covisint to allow access to the applications via a federated ID, which will be done using the RSA ClearTrust access control software Covisint uses to authorize access to the portal (the portal is based on IBM WebSphere).

The secure sharing of security credentials between supplier, automaker and Covisint requires use of a new type of client encryption-based software, Miller said. Covisint, as a backer of the Liberty Alliance standard called Security Assertions Markup Language, has written its own XML-based code based on SAML. ClearTrust 1.5 will be officially SAML-ready this fall, Miller said.

Miller acknowledged there is complexity in the whole scheme, and experience will show how well the model works.

Ford's better idea

Ford is looking at Covisint as a way to allow transfer of EDI documents for purchasing and shipping, says Tim Thomasma, Ford's enterprise infrastructure architect.

Suppliers currently send EDI documents three ways: as IP-based file transfers over a private VPN network called the ANX; by posting them to a web-based Ford site; or via EDI value-added networks (VAN).

Ford now will only allow use of the ANX Velocity service, or VANs run by GE Information Services, IBM and Sterling Commerce. Covisint will be added as a Ford-recognised VAN in November based on testing now being done.

A big proponent of web services as defined by the World Wide Web Consortium and a second group known as Web Services Interoperability Organisation, Ford would prefer that suppliers start using the format-neutral XML rather than the decades-old EDI technologies for sharing business documents. Sharing of XML-based files with Ford also will be possible this fall through Covisint, Thomasma added.

Driving toward XML messaging

Business-to-business exchange based on portal software from ATG and access-control security in the form of IBM's Tivoli PolicyDirector. SupplyPower lets trading partners access 25 back-end applications, including SAP AG and PeopleSoft Inc. tools and other Web-based programs.

"SupplyPower is the single point of entry for GM for 17,500 companies," said GM information officer Steve Hanna.

Although the company is only using Covisint for online auctions with suppliers today, it eventually wants to use Covisint as a hub for XML-based messaging.

"Covisint is our messaging strategy," Hanna said. GM announced last week that it is participating in what Covisint calls the priority-messaging pilot project with Ford, DaimlerChrysler and suppliers Delphi, Lear and JCI. According to Bill Penn, Covisint's chief architect, that involves exchanging time-critical documents in XML format in a way that automated updates can be made to back-end applications of carmaker and supplier. The pilot starts in November and "we'll do it using the brokering technology in WebMethods," Penn said.

Like Ford, GM wants to see the auto industry convert from EDI to XML. However, GM prefers the version of XML documents known as ebXML defined by the Open Applications Group. GM has started using the SeeBeyond middleware internally to integrate XML-based ebXML data into 57 different applications, Hanna said.

The fact that Ford and GM are butting heads over which versions of XML to use to define business documents might complicate the situation, but it won't run the effort off the road because translation between XML documents is possible, Penn said. The automakers also said they hope to reconcile their XML differences soon.

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