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56 Interconnect Mailbag
Control Structures
EDI Value Added Networks (VANs) use the X12.56
Interconnect Mailbag Control Structures (X12.56
Standard) to pass interchanges between each other. Version 1.0
Millions of X12.56 Mailbags are processed each by
day. The fact that the X12.56 Standard is so widely Todd Gould
used among most North American VANs is a March 8, 2010
testament to its usefulness. That it remains
essentially in its original form shows that it was well
thought out for its intended needs.
This is a practical, not technical, overview of the
X12.56 Standard. For the X12.56 technical
specification, please refer to The ASC X12 (X12.56)
Interconnect Mailbag Control Structures
From the X12.56 Standard under Purpose and Loren Data Corp.
Scope: PO Box 600
This standard defines the control segments used Indian Rocks Beach
to start and end a mailbag containing EDI data Florida 33785 USA
to be exchanged between two interconnecting
entities. The mailbag includes zero or more 813-426-3355
interconnect acknowledgment segments and zero
or more EDI data interchanges. The basic
interconnect mailbag consists of an interconnect
mailbag header segment (IH), the EDI data to be interconnect links. It is recognized that other
transmitted from one interconnect entity to point-to-point data tracking mechanisms exist.
another, and the interconnect mailbag trailer The interconnect mailbag control structures are
segment (IT). In addition, an interconnect designed to stand alone in addressing a given
mailbag acknowledgment segment (IA) is interconnect link. The structures are in no way
provided to report complete receipt and safe dependent on the types of data tracking
storage of an interconnect mailbag. mechanisms that may be used in links prior to or
following a link that employs the interconnect
The purpose of this standard is to provide mailbag control structures.
control structures and an audit mechanism to
facilitate the exchange and receipt
acknowledgment of EDI data between How it works
interconnecting entities. The original sender and
the ultimate receiver of the data contained in the Process
mailbag have no responsibility for creating,
managing, or removing the interconnect mailbag The process is an asynchronous send and
segments. This standard is solely for use acknowledge model. VAN-A places one or more
between sites acting as interconnect entities. Interchanges in an X12.56 Interconnect Envelope,
which includes a unique Control Number and a
The X12.56 Standard also recognizes its limitations: count of the number of interchanges included. This
Delivery of data from the original sender to the Mailbag is then sent to VAN-B over the
ultimate receiver may require several preestablished communications channel.

© 2010, Loren Data Corp. X12.56 Interconnect Mailbag Control Structures: Overview
All rights reserved 1-3 v1.0
VAN-B then evaluates the Mailbag to confirm that Acknowledgment Segments (IA) and a repetition of
there is the indicated number of “valid” interchanges the control number in the IH segment.
in the mailbag. The interpretation of “valid” varies
from VAN to VAN, but generally means confirming IA – Interconnect Acknowledgment
a valid Interchange envelope without regards to full Zero or more IAs can be contained in a mailbag.
transaction syntax (this is left for the end-user While they can be combined with Interchanges in
processing). the same mailbag, most commonly they are sent in
If the IH/IT envelope is intact and the count of their own mailbag. The IA contains a reference to
interchanges match, then VAN-B generates a the control number of the mailbag being
Mailbag back to VAN-A with an IA segment acknowledged, a status code (e.g. Accept/Reject)
positively acknowledging the receipt of the VAN-A and if rejected one or more codes explaining the
mailbag. If there is a problem with VAN-A’s reason for the rejection. (e.g. the most common W1
mailbag, VAN-B generates a Mailbag back to VAN- means rejected duplicate mailbag – based on control
A with an IA segment indicating the nature of the number).

Interchanges Real-World Implementation

While an X12 construct, the X12.56 Mailbags Common Usage
regularly contain X12 ISA/IEA envelopes,
EDIFACT UNB/UNZ envelopes and any other The “Mailbag Number” corresponding to the
recognized traditional EDI standards (e.g. Control Number in the IH segment is the main way
Tradacoms). VANs use to verify the receipt and processing of
Interchanges over Interconnects. When a company
on VAN-A sends an interchange to a trading partner
The Segments on VAN-B and the interchange does not arrive, one
of the first requests of VAN-A is, “What was the
For those familiar with the ISA/IEA Interchange
Mailbag Number?”
envelope, the IH/IT Interconnect envelope is very
similar. The second significant benefit of the Mailbag is the
ability to prevent duplicate transmissions. VANs
The X12.56 Standard consists of three simple
routinely reject any Mailbag that has the same
segments. The IH and IT are used to define the
Mailbag Number from the same VAN. The standard
X12.56 envelope itself and the IA is used to send
rejection code of W1 makes it easy for the sending
ACKs and NACKs.
VAN to understand this is a low level warning, and
Without getting into the technical details of the not the case of interchanges that cannot be
Mailbag segments a brief description follows. processed.

IH – Interconnect Header Common Problems

The IH is the very first data in the mailbag structure. By the definition of the standard, Mailbags are to be
Contained in the IH segment is the sending and fully rejected or accepted. In practice, some VANs
receiving VAN information, date/time stamp and a do partially process defective mailbags.
control number.
Some VANs do not send or properly process reject
IT – Interconnect Trailer codes. As mentioned, the most common code is W1
indicating a duplicate Mailbag. Several VANs do not
The IT is the very last data in the mailbag structure. send the W1 code for duplicates but substitute
The IT segment contains a count of the number of another. Other VANs do not process the receipt of a
Interchanges, a count of the number of Interconnect W1 code properly and regularly follow up with a

© 2010, Loren Data Corp. X12.56 Interconnect Mailbag Control Structures: Overview
All rights reserved 2-3 v1.0
support call of the “why didn’t mailbag ### Acknowledgement Turnaround Time
process.” Mailbag Acknowledgments are not returned in real-
Also, since not all VANs properly catch duplicate time, nor is there even a standardized, expected
mailbags, there is a lot of wasted NetOps interaction response time.
and wasted time with the “did you receive Mailbag
##” request. If all VANs properly blocked duplicates
and sent a W1 NACK, it would be a simple process
of automatically resending any missing mailbag. If it
had not been processed the first time, it would get an
ACK, if it was a duplicate a W1 NACK, and if no
response on the second try escalation would be

Limitations of the Current Standard

Partial Transmission
The current standard says that partial transmissions
should not be NACKed as the sending system would
know that the communication line was dropped. As
that is not the case in today’s world, it is necessary
to NACK partial mailbags and this wording should
be removed from the standard.

NACK Codes
In general, the NACK codes (other than W1) often
do not communicate enough information for
recovery and require manual communication
between the two VANs to solve.

The X12.56 Standard only handles a single hop
between VANs. If the payload is forwarded to
another network it uses a new mailbag without any
reference to the original.

A positively acknowledged mailbag does not mean
that an interchange can be delivered, only that it is
intact. Interchanges sent to the wrong VAN or to
terminated mailboxes are not communicated via the
X12.56 protocol.

© 2010, Loren Data Corp. X12.56 Interconnect Mailbag Control Structures: Overview
All rights reserved 3-3 v1.0