What is a protocol?
Protocols are used to exchange data between individual communication partners. What used to be handled via so-called “Value Added Networks” (VANs) is nowadays done almost entirely via the internet and is mapped via freely accessible communication protocols, which have to be selected appropriately depending on the application and the system. Aspects such as reliability, security in the form of encryption or digital signature options, transmission speed, availability of confirmations of receipt, etc. can be taken into account in this decision. Of course, it must also be verified in advance that both communication partners are technically capable of using the selected protocol. It is therefore always a matter of negotiation between the parties involved which communication protocol is actually to be used.
How do protocols work?
For each protocol, it is precisely defined which possibilities it offers – for example, file management and transmission (send/receive/delete/copy, etc.) – and which commands are necessary for mutual information or which messages must be exchanged between the communication partners. Usually these specifications are described in so-called “Requests for Comments” (RFC), for example RFC 4130 for AS2 or RFC 959 for FTP. These requirements or standards are managed and monitored by various consortia such as IEC, IETF.
The communication protocols used in electronic data interchange (EDI/EAI) are almost always client-server systems. This means that the former actively connects to the server as the requesting side and – usually after successful authentication – executes the required commands. In other words – the client sends a request, the server evaluates it and sends back a response. The network connections are established via the transmission control protocols “Transmission Control Protocol” (TCP) and “Internet Protocol” (IP), and the data transmission itself is encrypted in the vast majority of cases – often via “Transport Layer Security” (TLS).
As a rule, the user of a communication protocol does not have to deal with the details of an RFC, for example, since there are now many standard applications for both the client and the server side, such as the Lobster_data middleware.
Challenges of protocols.
A common challenge lies in setting up communication via a protocol for the first time. This is especially true if the information is not exchanged in the same network, for example within a company, but between different companies via the internet. In order to protect wireless digital communication and prevent unauthorised access from outside, extensive security mechanisms such as DMZs, firewalls, proxy servers and virus scanners are usually installed in between. It is therefore important to consider disabling these security applications for desired communication, but keeping them active for unwanted communication and to prevent any misuse. To ensure smooth interoperability while maintaining security, it may therefore be necessary to have detailed knowledge in this area. Further information on this is provided by the example of the “File Transfer Protocol” (FTP):
With the FTP data transfer protocol, a TCP/IP connection is established between client and server on port 21, via which commands are sent to the server. Accordingly, the control port must be enabled in an intermediate firewall, otherwise the connection will not be established. In addition, further data ports are opened for subsequent file transfers, which must also be enabled in the firewall. And that’s not all – depending on whether the FTP is active or passive, incoming or outgoing connections must be taken into account in the firewall. Here, a “port range” can usually be set in the FTP server software. It restricts the possibilities for outgoing connections so that only one port range must be enabled in the firewall. Problems with the use of communication protocols can also arise when software products from different manufacturers are used that do not adhere 100% to the options agreed in the RFC standard. In such a diverse IT landscape, communication works in the vast majority of cases, but occasionally it “goes on strike”. In order to avoid such breakdowns as much as possible, it is advisable to use standard software that is widely spread and therefore frequently used. On the other hand, before purchasing software, it is important to check for certification by recognised bodies such as the Drummond Group and thereby ensure that the software complies with the AS2 standard in all areas.
Finally, the scenario is worth noting that once connections have been set up, successfully tested and used in productive operation, they suddenly no longer work. In the vast majority of cases, this fault is due to the fact that either on the server or client side, settings in the network configuration or the security devices have been changed. A situation that unfortunately occurs more often than anticipated, since network configuration and the software used for data transmission are often managed by different people or departments due to the increasingly complex IT landscapes.
Benefits of protocols.
The advantages of using communication protocols for companies are also obvious:
- Data transmission is usually fully automatic and without human intervention, which reduces both their susceptibility to errors and costs.
- Protocols function reliably for the most part due to their worldwide distribution and, in some cases, decades of use.
- The transmission can be encrypted and often also signed, so that both the data security time and the integrity of the sender are considered secured and improper access from outside to valuable company data can be prevented.
- Standard software is now available for all common protocols, eliminating the need for custom programming.
- The large number of protocols currently available cover the vast majority of use cases in companies and can therefore also be used between a wide range of communication partners.
What solution does Lobster offer?
With its three products: Lobster_data for data integration, Lobster_pro for process automation and Lobster_pim for product information management, Lobster offers software solutions that provide all common communication protocols as standard and support both client and server-side. All other types can be purchased as required. The proven use of Lobster_data in all sizes of operations and industries ensures reliable and low-interference communication. Some Lobster modules, such as the AS2 module, are also certified by recognised external organisations (Drummond Group).
Lobster_data also provides an integrated “Asynchronous Sending Module” (ASM) for efficient message transmission, which can collect messages and then transmit them “in one go” in a resource-saving manner.
Likewise, a DMZ system with considerable advantages in the area of security is available from Lobster. Here, a Lobster integration server is installed in the “Demilitarised Zone” (DMZ), i.e. incoming communication in Lobster_data is only forwarded via a proprietary protocol. Outgoing communication can also take place via the DMZ in many cases.