The notion of on-demand computing takes on many different faces, from grid computing to utility computing to software-as-a-service, but one aspect that doesn't get much attention — especially in high-performance circles — is managed services, or outsourcing. Meet GXS.
With its highly successful Trading Grid infrastructure, the company seems to dominate the business-to-business (B2B) transaction market, boasting 41,000 customers worldwide. The Trading Grid itself is a collection of hardware and software services that manages information sharing between GXS customers and their trading partners (buyers or sellers), and is capable of handling documents in a wide variety of standard formats, be they EDI, RosettaNet, XML or almost anything in between. The Trading Grid also offers the “classic SOA proposition” by composing solutions for customers by linking various services.
According to GXS Chief Technology Strategist John Radko, while the e-commerce is not necessarily new in the B2B space, the proliferation of information, stemming from more highly specialized companies and, as a result, more trading partners, demanded a more centralized and efficient platform for getting the job done. “Today, what goes on is ever-increasing scale of operations, and that's why me moved to the Trading Grid architecture,” he said, adding that the platform handles about 2 billion discrete transactions every year, with each one potentially involving several documents.
Architecturally, Radko said GXS began utilizing mainframe technology, eventually evolving into open, scalable systems to address the increasing need for flexibility. “Increasingly, what we found is we needed to be scalable in unpredictable ways,” he noted, “meaning we couldn't predict which service or offering was going to take off, and we needed to be more flexible in terms of what we could operate, what kinds of software and what kinds of partners we could have.” Thanks to its loosely coupled services, the new architecture — the Trading Grid — also helped to eliminate the stovepipes into which GXS had placed its services.
Continuing this evolution, GXS recently announced its Trading Grid Ultra deployment model, which allows customers to carry out their Trading Grid jobs on a state-of-the-art platform. Trading Grid Ultra utilizes 4-CPU Egenera blades (part of what Radko describes as a “framed blade farm”) for processing, EMC SAN technology for storage, Forum Systems software for Web services enablement and Cisco networking solutions. To illustrate just how far technology has advanced in recent years, Radko points out that, “Our heritage was back in the mainframe days, but on our go-forward Trading Grid Ultra infrastructure, the largest server that you have access to … is a 4-CPU box.”
One Trading Grid customer that already has gone Ultra is Royal Bank of Canada (RBC), which uses GXS's managed services for the institution's B2B and even B2B2B operations. Brenton Trites, RBC's product manager for automotive- and asset-based financing, describes the Trading Grid as “mission-critical” for his department, which is tasked with coordinating financial information among the bank, the dealer and the auto manufacturer. “The alternatives, if we look at our current competition, they use fax, courier, paper file transfers and e-mails,” said Trites. “What we use is a complete, custom-made application specific to customer-friendliness for the ease of transaction.”
However, the Trading Grid platform not only saves time when compared to the “arduous” process of exchanging paper documents via courier or e-mail, it also results in increased efficiency. Trites said some competitors use 60 people to do the same jobs that RBC accomplishes with, on average, 2.5 people. Errors also have significantly decreased since going to the Trading Grid, he added, and in 10 years of working with GXS, RBC has experienced an incident downtime total of only three days.
“If we look at what this department brings to the Royal Bank of Canada, and how integral [the Trading Grid] is, originally you would think of it just as a calculator to record and store data,” Trites explained. “But, when we put it into a Web based interface to the customer … it is unparalleled in the industry in Canada at this point.”
He added that due to the efficiency of passing and managing financial data via the Trading Grid, some customers and partners have been able to consolidate from three to five accounting departments to one centralized location. And while RBC expected about 40 percent of their customers to sign on with the platform themselves, the bank actually has seen a subscription rate of 92 percent.
Of course, RBC is just one of many GXS customers, and Radko cites the year-to-year growth rate for the company's managed services at around 20 percent. The reason for this growing number, as noted earlier, is the ever-increasing numbers of trading partners with whom companies are having to do business, as well as the ever-increasing complexity of these transactions. By signing on with GXS, though, customers are able to share the cost of maintaining robust implementations of nearly two dozen communications protocols and the ability to handle documents in any number of formats. It would be very difficult — almost impossible — says Radko, for a single enterprise to, in a cost-competitive manner, match what the Trading Grid can offer.
“When you think about things like reliable storage, that tends to cost a lot. When you think about disaster recovery and high availability in a flexible, yet still commodity-priced model, that tends to be very complicated,” Radko averred. “By going to this rigorously standardized Trading Grid model, it helps … fuel … business.”