The interface concept of the classic R/3 is based on two different strategies: Remote Function Calls (RFC) and data exchange through IDoc message documents. RFC makes direct and synchronous calls of a program in the remote system. If the caller is an external program it will call an RFC-enabled function in R/3 and if the calling program is the R/3 system it will call an RFC-function in another R/3-system or it will call a non-R/3 program through a gateway-proxy (usually rfcexec.exe). BAPIs are a subset of the RFC-enabled function modules, especially designed as Application Programming Interface (API) to the SAP business object, or in other words: are function modules officially released by SAP to be called from external programs.
IDocs are text encoded documents with a rigid structure that are used to exchange data between R/3 and a foreign system. Instead of calling a program in the destination system directly, the data is first packed into an IDoc and then sent to the receiving system, where it is analyzed and properly processed. Therefore an IDoc data exchange is always an asynchronous process. The significant difference between simple RFC-calls and IDoc data exchange is the fact, that every action performed on IDocs are protocolled by R/3 and IDocs can be reprocessed if an error occurred in one of the message steps.
While IDocs have to be understood as a data exchange protocol, EDI and ALE are typical use cases for IDocs. R/3 uses IDocs for both EDI and ALE to deliver data to the receiving system. ALE is basically the scheduling mechanism that defines when and between which partners and what kind of data will be exchanged on a regular or event triggered basis. Such a set-up is called an ALE-scenario.
The philosophical difference between EDI and ALE can be pinned as follows: If we send data to an external partner, we generally speak of EDI, while ALE is a mechanism to reliable replicate data between trusting systems to store a redundant copy of the IDoc data. The difference is made clear, when we think of a purchase order that is sent as an IDoc. If we send the purchase order to a supplier then the supplier will store the purchase order as a sales order. However, if we send the purchase order via ALE to another R/3 system, then the receiving system will store the purchase order also as a purchase order.
This was first published in February 2003