Commerce One Flips its Web Services Switch

If you were a electronic marketplace proprietor in the late ’90s, you were likely confident that you were going to make good money. The prospect that you could build a virtual marketplace, match buyers and sellers in an industry, help them consummate transactions, and make money by charging a small fee might have seemed like a sure bet.

Scores of firms were lining up to use your services to procure goods. But something happened along the way to the bank. The money dried up, and firms like Commerce One, Ariba and Verticalnet, who competed ferociously for new customers, felt the hit. Hard. But in truth, there were other problems. Many of these bold e-marketplace specialists underestimated how hard it would be to integrate all the systems involved because of disparate hardware and software.

So, the time comes to reduce expenses by selling off chunks of your business that were giving you headaches and cutting staff to comply with the wishes of investors fearful of red ink in a decidedly bear market. You do that. You concede defeat and vow to redouble your efforts in the battle to stay alive.

Boiled down, that’s the situation Commerce One found itself in. The Pleasanton, Calif. company has retrenched to become a serious Web services player, and if this week’s arrival of its bet-the-company Conductor platform is any indication, it’s made strides. Still, analysts say it has a long way to go.

Conductor: Making Sure Businesses Stay on Their Rails

Commerce One’s Conductor helps companies speed the flow of such business processes as supply chain management (SCM), customer relationship management (CRM) and enterprise resource planning (ERP), making customer and partner interaction easier. Sounds a lot like products integration concerns such as webMethods and SeeBeyond make, right? Not exactly. Conductor is largely different because its features are specifically tuned to Web Services infrastructure (choreographies, routing, transformation).

A composite system, Conductor’s architecture makes many applications viewable through a single graphical user interface (GUI). This pares the time and cost of writing and using composite applications, as compared to employing myriad business process management (BPM), enterprise application integration (EAI), portals, identity management and various design tools. This service-oriented approach is the direction many enterprise software firms are heading to stay competitive. The terrain includes larger firms like IBM and BEA Systems and BPM and workflow firms such as Intalio, Oak Grove Systems, Handysoft and Savvion.

Jeff Watts, vice president of marketing at Commerce One, explained some fundamental differences between Commerce One’s former approach to e-marketplaces and the current practice his firm is betting on.

“Marketplaces have always been how to implement and execute business processes on the inside of the firewalls and outside,” Watts said. “With the composite approach, we are looking at how to run business processes across a system to reach predictable resolutions. It’s like a journey across the wilderness.”

Watts said a practical application of Conductor in terms of exposing functionality as Web services is in invoice management, where the customer gets the invoice, and needs to reconcile it with the purchase order. Conductor will use appropriate applications to match the invoice against the purchase order to make sure the customer received what goods he was supposed to.

Sanjay Chikarmane, vice president of product marketing at Commerce One, said Conductor provides everything that their MarketSite portal product provided and more.

“MarketSite only provided conducted and transaction,” Chikarmane said. “It certainly was useful, but Conductor also provides their customer new services in area of collaboration.” He said a difference between Conductor and traditional integration products, is that Conductor adds another layer of connectivity, providing not only integration but BPM and workflow. But IBM has all of these products, right, after its myriad acquisitions, such as CrossWorlds and Holosofx. Well, yes, Chikarmane said. “They aren’t unified. You need their Global Services to put it all together.” And that costs money.

One aspect that pulls business processes together within Conductor is its Registry. The brain of the platform, Registry defines user and system interfaces as services. It maintains full definitions of user roles and access, systems, business processes, data schemas, transformation maps, choreographies, rules and security requirements. These may be modified as required by the enterprise customer, which Chikarmane said is another key differentiator between its platform and that of rivals, whose systems are hand-coded and must be updated manually. That traditional method costs money and time.