Microsoft Delivers Integrated, Easy-to-Deploy Supply-Chain Management Solution for Small and Midmarket Businesses

Marcus Schmidt, Lead Product Manager, Microsoft Business Solutions.

LAS VEGAS, Nevada, Oct. 7, 2003 — It’s no secret that a company’s bottom line is affected to a great extent by how well it communicates with its customers and partners. If business processes constantly involve copying data back and forth from digital to paper-based formats — such as faxing printouts of electronic purchase orders to suppliers, or manually re-keying customer data from a status report into an order form — then profits inevitably will be affected. But, while supply-chain management solutions may have come a long way in helping enterprises keep these digital processes intact, many small and midmarket companies have found them either too complex or difficult to integrate with the other software applications they use, and thus not cost-effective.

To address the needs of small and midmarket businesses, Microsoft announced at the 2003 APICS Conference and Expo today the availability of Microsoft Business Network (MBN). MBN is a combination of onsite software and hosted Web services that facilitates connecting to and exchanging business documents with customers and trading partners. A Microsoft .NET-connected solution, MBN is designed to integrate with the Microsoft Office System, Microsoft Business Solutions applications or Microsoft BizTalk Server.

PressPass spoke with Marcus Schmidt , lead product manager for Microsoft Business Solutions — the Microsoft business group that provides business management software and services to small and midsize organizations — to find out more about Microsoft Business Network, how it works, and how it can help companies manage their supply chains more efficiently.

PressPass: What is Microsofts goal for the Microsoft Business Network?

Schmidt: Microsoft Business Solutions wants to provide small and medium-sized companies with inter-company solutions that streamline how businesses collaborate with their customers, vendors and other business partners. To reach this goal, Microsoft built several key software components, tools and community-building services, all of which are a part of MBN. Together, these components help companies automate, connect and expand their customer and supplier network and integrate their business applications, so that in the end they’ve lowered the total cost of ownership for collaborating.

PressPass: What are some of the components of this solution?

Schmidt: There are four core components of MBN. The first is a Web services network, which provides reliable, security-enhanced and private delivery of business documents between partners. Web services are the basis for another component of the MBN solution, called process templates. MBN includes a library of these templates, which are industry specific and integrated with other Microsoft Business Solutions applications, such as Microsoft Business SolutionsGreat Plains products, and with the Microsoft Office System.

Another component is a host of connectivity options to suit all types of partners in the supply chain. We consider this to be a core value of MBN — the fact that it allows a business to connect to all of its partners, regardless of their size. For example, smaller and mid-sized partners can connect to the supply-chain network using Microsoft Outlook and Excel.

Finally, MBN includes Partner Network Provisioning Tools and Support, or what we call “community building” resources. These are a set of hosted services and support to help companies expand their trading-partner network. For instance, the MBN partner-management tool helps companies invite, provision and manage their partners, and Microsoft and its industry partners will also help companies expand their trading network if they want that.

PressPass: What are some of the other technologies that play a role in the Microsoft Business Network?

Schmidt: MBN is a .NET-based solution. .NET is a set of software technologies for connecting information, people, systems, and devices. MBN includes built-in support for Web services and Extensible Markup Language (XML), which is a standard that synchronizes previously incompatible data and applications.

PressPass: Can you elaborate on what Microsoft has done to ensure that MBN is a secure solution?

Schmidt: Microsoft’s Trustworthy Computing initiative makes security a number-one priority for all Microsoft products. With that goal in mind, MBN was designed from the ground up to be secure, reliable and private.

Using MBN, companies are authenticated with the MBN Web services and partner directory, using Microsoft Passport. In addition, MBN-hosted servers run Microsoft Windows Server 2003, which includes the high-level security features of the Active Directory directory service, as well as constrained delegation, which lets administrators specify particular services from which the server can request resources. Using constrained delegation, you can prevent attackers who compromise a server from accessing resources beyond the limited scope of that servers range.

Microsoft Business Network also uses client-side digital certificates to digitally sign and, optionally, encrypt business documents. Client-side digital certificates verify the identity of a user and provide a more secure solution for user authentication than the traditional user-name and password combination.

And finally, MBN provides what’s called “nonrepudiation” between partners using digital signatures. In general, nonrepudiation ensures that partners in the supply chain can’t deny the authenticity of their digital signature on a document or the sending of a message they originated. This is a key benefit for companies that use MBN to transmit their business-critical documents over the Internet.

PressPass: Can you provide more details on why Microsoft is targeting MBN for small and midmarket businesses?

Schmidt: Companies big and small currently face a number of problems with their supply chain. They might use multiple methods such as EDI, XML and faxing to receive orders and send related documents. And, of course, not all methods can integrate with one another. A business might use a lot of manual steps across the supply chain, ordering via fax and so on. There may be a lack of integration between their ERP system and business processes in general, so they’re forced to manually re-key a lot of data, which often results in errors. And this can also mean wrestling constantly with ad-hoc updates because the process of mapping from one format to another can be difficult and time-consuming.

A lot of supply-chain management solutions are geared toward enterprise customers, so they can be more complex than what smaller and midmarket companies need. In addition, for small and midmarket companies in particular, integration is a big issue. A lot of these companies run their businesses using Microsoft Office System applications. If we can provide a supply-chain management solution that’s heavily integrated with Office, then it’s all the easier for them to get started and effectively use such a solution.

PressPass: How is MBN different from other supply-chain management solutions?

Schmidt: We believe integration with other applications is a key area in which other supply-chain management solutions have lost their footing. MBN is fully integrated with the Microsoft Office System and the Microsoft Business SolutionsGreat Plains products.

This means, for instance, that all business documents sent to and received from a partner are can be viewed in Outlook. Outlook provides a familiar user interface for users that allows them to organize business documents into folders. It also provides a convenient “Conversations” view that correlates business documents related to a specific base document such as an order form. If a company is a Microsoft Business Solutions customer, MBN documents may also be integrated directly with back-office applications, but they will always be visible within Outlook.

MBN also leverages Microsoft Excel by providing an Excel add-in that works with any MBN collaborative solution. This add-in turns Excel into a business document editor in which users can view and create business documents such as orders, invoices and ship notices, and then view the history of a document that is part of the overall process template. So, for example, you could quickly search for and view all the business documents that are related to a given purchase order.

This level of integration and the fact that we’re paying close attention to the needs of small and midmarket businesses are what set the Microsoft Business Network apart from other solutions.

PressPass: What kind of trials has MBN been through prior to its release?

Schmidt: Although MBN is in its first version, it’s partially based on a business-to-business subscription service run by Microsoft bCentral small-business service in Mexico and Argentina. The service provides an Outlook messaging and collaboration client-based
“business mailbox,”
and enables smaller suppliers to easily connect to large retailers using EDI over a value-added network and XML directly over the Internet. The bCentral service has been running in production for two years in Mexico. It currently has 25 of the largest retail trading partners in Mexico online, as well as 4,000 smaller trading partners. So, all the lessons we learned from that project have helped us get a jumpstart in developing MBN version 1.0.

PressPass: How difficult is MBN to deploy?

Schmidt: You don’t need to be a sophisticated IT professional to set up MBN, which is a key benefit for small and midmarket companies. This solution is easy to set up and easy to use. If you have a network that connects to the Internet with a browser, you can start using MBN right away. You don’t have to set up a complicated firewall with an Internet server on the other side of it, and so on. As long as you have a connection to the Internet and a Web site, you’re good to go.

PressPass: What are Microsoft’s plans for the MBN of the future?

Schmidt: Mainly we’re looking to add more integration with other Microsoft Business Solution products, but we’re also going to focus on expanding the availability of MBN beyond Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States, which is where it’s available now. Two major geographical areas of focus will be Europe, where we’ve received an incredible amount of interest and inquiries regarding MBN, and the Pacific Rim. Countries like China and Taiwan, where a lot of products are manufactured and then shipped to retail stores in the United States, provide a great opportunity for us to help bridge the gap between the small and midmarket companies that are producing and distributing those products and the larger retailers here in the United States.

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