In-Depth

Web services: The next big thing?

With all the next-big-thing hype surrounding Web services, it is easy to write off the idea as marketing mumbo jumbo. But those who do miss a very important point: Web services probably are the next big thing. At the very least, this latest model of collaborative computing is the next logical step in the evolution of e-business, and it may represent a fundamental shift in the way we build and use software.

Web services may improve productivity behind and beyond the firewall. Analysts at Forrester Research, Cambridge, Mass., state the business case succinctly on their Web site: ''Web services will drive productivity gains by making collaborating easier for firms -- internally and with business partners -- by interconnecting software systems regardless of the platform they run on.''

Hurwitz Group, Framingham, Mass., puts it this way: ''Web services promises to be the next big technology movement that revolutionizes the way applications are created. By standardizing the way applications, objects and content make themselves available over a network and by allowing businesses to share business processes in an automated manner, Web services will simplify and accelerate business connectivity and collaboration.''

Craig Roth, senior program director at Stamford, Conn.-based Meta Group, said Web services have ''touched a nerve'' in an industry longing for standards. ''There are a lot of problems in computing that would just go away if everyone would agree on a standard,'' he noted, ''even if it's just barely good enough. If we all spoke the same language, think of how much we could get done.''

John Rymer, vice president of product marketing at Iona Technologies, Waltham, Mass., sees the emergence of Web services as the vanguard of a general movement toward viewing systems as services. ''It's all about flexibility, reuse, and separating the service from the business process,'' Rymer said. ''This is an approach that lends itself to that kind of flexibility.''

All the business models have not been worked out, and there is still a lot of wishful thinking in the mix, but Web services are on their way to becoming a crucial business tool. Now is the time for IT professionals to begin paying serious attention to developments in Web services and, in many cases, to start outlining strategies for adopting Web services in their organizations.

Defining Web services
Web services are not exactly a new idea. Companies have been getting their software to connect using Internet standards for years. The concept originated in the early 1990s, when Sun proclaimed ''the network is the computer.'' Other buzzwords followed: thin client, software as a service, e-services, P2P; all of them in similar territory.

What does the term mean today? Gartner Inc., Stamford, Conn., defines a Web service as ''a software component that represents a business function and can be accessed by another application over public networks using generally available ubiquitous protocols and transports.'' According to IBM, Web services are ''self-contained, modular applications that can be described, published, located, and invoked over a network, generally, the World Wide Web.'' Microsoft sees a Web service as ''programmable application logic, accessible using standard Internet protocols.''

This once loosely defined computing trend is coming into twofold focus: as a stack of emerging standards that describe a service-oriented, component-based application architecture, and as a model in which discrete tasks within e-business processes are widely distributed. In other words, said Meta Group's Roth, Web services should be thought of as both a set of technologies and a business concept.

''Web services represent a kind of next best-practice architecture for designing Web systems,'' said Roth. ''The idea is to create coarse-grained services that encompass business functionality, and make them acceptable to platform-independent XML. It's not exactly built into the standard that these things have to be business functionality or coarse-grained, but when you talk about Web services as a best-practice architecture, that's how it works.''

The technology
Technologically, Web services depend on a group of established and emerging communication protocols that include HTTP, XML, Simple Object Application Protocol (SOAP), Universal Description Discovery and Integration (UDDI), Web Services Description Language (WSDL), and ebXML (Electronic Business XML). SOAP provides an interface that Web services can use to transmit commands as messages. WSDL allows Web services to describe each other in formats readable by other Web services. UDDI provides interfaces for building directories of Web services, readable by people or other Web services. ebXML is a modular suite of specifications that uses SOAP for its Messaging Service, but has its own specifications for description and discovery layers.

Pulling these protocols together into a stack, you might think of a Web service as software exposed on the Web through SOAP (the communications protocol), described with a WSDL file (the description language), and registered in UDDI (the directory). A Web service can be developed on any computer platform and in any development environment, as long as it can communicate with other Web services using these common protocols.

The business model
As a business concept, Web services are about exposing application functionality through the Web, a process that will help organizations integrate processes with partners more efficiently, and adapt those processes faster as the competitive environment changes. According to Meta Group's Roth, things like the package-tracking mechanisms offered by less-than-truckload shippers, the online credit reporting mechanisms offered by various credit bureaus and online authorization services like Microsoft's Passport are examples of the kinds of 'services' that could easily be adapted to this model.

And there are still standards to be worked out. Additional elements that support complex business rules are coming, and they must be implemented before Web services can automate critical business processes, noted Roth. Mechanisms for essentials like security and authentication, contract management, metering, quality of service, portal components and others are coming -- some as standards and others as value-added solutions from independent software vendors.

''It's the agreement that's so useful,'' Roth said. ''The more vendors who Web-services-enable their applications, the more useful those applications become. Now I can tie my content management system to my ERP system, and tie that to my CRM system. The more companies that do this, the better off we'll all be.''

The vendors
Many companies are now pursuing Web services strategies, from industry-leading platform vendors to smaller app providers. Many vendors are offering or are on their way to offering products that allow users to create and use Web services themselves (call them enablers), or to offer up the functionality of existing applications as Web services (call that enablement).

Platform vendors have been driving Web services' evolution and garnering most of the press. Microsoft, Sun, HP, IBM, BEA Systems and Oracle have all defined, in varying degrees of detail, a Web services strategy. Most involve entire e-business stacks that customers will use to build and run their systems.

Many early product releases may offer little more than basic functionality for implementation of Web service protocols, but most industry watchers are expecting more useful tools to appear in 2002. Here is where the big dogs stand at press time:

Microsoft: In June 2000, Microsoft announced Microsoft .NET, and before long the company was pitching .NET as ''a platform for Web Services''. .NET is about more than Web services. The .NET framework is a development and runtime environment that includes its own Foundation Class Libraries (FCL.NET) and the C# language. It integrates existing Windows programming technologies, including Visual Basic (VB.NET), Active Server Pages (ASP.NET) and ActiveX Data Objects (ADO.NET).

Web services are another component of the platform, but Microsoft is pushing that aspect pretty hard. ''The goal of the Microsoft .NET Framework is to make it easy to build Web applications and Web Services,'' states Microsoft on its Web site. The company has been one of the strongest and earliest proponents of the Web services model. The company introduced SOAP, and has been active in the standards process for both WSDL and UDDI. A SOAP toolkit has been available as a Visual Studio 6.0 download from the Microsoft Web site for more than a year.

Many observers say Microsoft's .NET Passport authentication service can reasonably be called the first Web service as defined today. Passport is part of a new family of XML Web services called .NET My Services (formerly code-named HailStorm) which Microsoft says can improve customer relationships and operational efficiencies of large and small businesses.

In January, Microsoft brought out the Office XP Web Services Toolkit, which Microsoft said gives developers and corporate users the ability to search out multiple Web services from across the Internet and integrate them within the toolkit's development environment. Developers will also be able to cobble together applications from those Web services within the Microsoft Office environment.

Microsoft expects to ship its Visual Studio .NET development tools suite for Web services in February.

Sun Microsystems: In October last year, Sun Microsystems announced its strategy for building, deploying and accessing application services across the Web. The Open Net Environment (Sun ONE) comprises the J2EE platform, Sun's Forte development tools and iPlanet software. Sun calls it a ''standards-based software vision, architecture, platform and expertise for building and deploying Services on Demand.'' In October, Sun announced it would support Web services standards across the entire Sun ONE architecture.

In December, the company released a set of extensions that allow developers to build and run XML apps on the Java platform. The Java XML Pack was the first certified release of Web services tools for J2EE. Java developers already had some tools provided by the open-source community to allow them to build XML-based Web services for J2EE, but the XML Pack was the first to go through the Java certification process.

In January, Sun agreed to port the Bowstreet Business Web Factory to the Sun ONE architecture, including the iPlanet Application Server and the iPlanet Portal Server platform. According to Sun, the deal allows developers to use Web Factory as a development and assembly platform that can automate the creation and maintenance of Web applications on demand.

IBM: IBM co-developed the SOAP/UDDI stack with Microsoft and others, and the company introduced its own Web services strategy last May. Originally called the IBM Framework for e-business, the strategy was renamed the ''IBM Software Strategy for e-business.''

''IBM's approach to Web services has been practical,'' observed Meta Group's Roth, ''coordinating all its software divisions to ensure a horizontal response to the new technology rather than encapsulating it in a single product.''

In early January, IBM unveiled new software tools to strengthen its Web services play. The IBM Web Services Hosting Technology is a collection of management tools that allow businesses to track the use of Web services so they can bill customers through various subscription-based models. The Web Services Gateway provides security and authentication functions. And Version 3.0 of the Web Services Toolkit includes support for the third version of SOAP: Apache Axis. The toolkit also offers an adapter that allows businesses to easily connect to Lotus software.

IBM is expected to eventually include Web services features in newer versions of WebSphere, WebSphere Studio, Tivoli DB2 and Domino.

Hewlett-Packard: The HP Web Services Platform is a software infrastructure for developing and deploying Web services. It grew out of HP's three-year-old E-speak initiative, which never really went anywhere until now. The platform is standards-compliant, making it broadly accessible. Companies can also create secure private ecosystems to serve a more controlled community, such as a supply chain, using the HP Web Services Registry.

The company released a new Web services platform in 2001 through its new Netaction middleware division.

BEA Systems: BEA took the wraps off its Web services strategy last February. Rather than announcing a new brand name, the market leader in J2EE app servers added Web services support to its BEA WebLogic E-Business Platform, said Meta's Roth. The company's Web services architecture is based on its WebLogic E-Business Platform. The architecture comprises WebLogic Server, WebLogic Collaborate and WebLogic Process Integrator. Process Integrator helps companies to integrate business processes over the Web. The HP Web services platform supports UDDI, WSDL, SOAP and ebXML.

In August, the company announced WebLogic Server 6.1. BEA billed it as the ''Web Services Release.'' Chief among the feature sets is an emphasis on support for the core Web services standards (SOAP, WSDL, etc.), as well as the J2EE Connector Architecture (JCA).

Oracle: Oracle has come to the Web services market late and almost grudgingly. In June 2001, the company announced its Oracle 9i Database Release 2. The update included new functionality called XDB, which provides direct support for XML. In December last year, the company introduced new Web services functionality for its application server and database. It also added support for UDDI and WSDL standards, along with existing SOAP support, to its Oracle 9i Application Server Release 2. Oracle is likely to incorporate Web services technologies to new versions of other products, such as its JDeveloper IDE, sometime soon.

Still, given the company's ever-opinionated CEO's comments on the subject, it is hard to see where Oracle wants to place itself in the Web services space. Last December, company chief Larry Ellison told reporters that Web services were just marketing hype. He said he believed specialist companies established to provide such technologies were ''misleading'' users by claiming Web services could be used to solve application integration problems. ''The idea that Web services solve all known problems is lunacy,'' he said.

Sybase: Sybase has declared its intention to support Web services and associated protocols, but it has not outlined many specific product plans. The company is expected to incorporate Web services protocols into its EAServer, including a template creator to generate WSDL documents for CORBA and EJB components.

SilverStream Software: SilverStream's independence has given it the ability to react rapidly to new technologies, Meta Group's Roth noted, and it has been one of the first firms to the plate with Web services. SilverStream's Web services platform has the new brand name eXtend, and includes its SilverStream Application Server, ePortal and xCommerce products.

''Non-platform Enablers'': Several app vendors -- what Meta's Roth calls ''non-platform enablers'' -- are ramping up new features to help developers create Web services. Virtually all IDE makers, like Borland and WebGain; systems management vendors, like Mercury Interactive; and orchestration tool providers, like IBM (WebSphere Business Integrator) and Microsoft (BizTalk), are adding functions to support Web services development.

Smaller vendors, including Cape Clear Software, Iona Technologies and SilverStream Software, unveiled Web services development tools and runtime platforms last year. EAI players Tibco Software Inc. and Vitria Technology Inc. added Web services to their integration engines. Start-ups Flamenco Networks, Grand Central Networks and Kenamea are proposing Web services ''networks'' to help users deliver XML apps securely over the public network. And there are many others.

Related story: Adopting Web services

Now is the time to be proactive about the adoption of Web services in your enterprise, but it is probably not the time to jump in with both feet. The idea is to experiment short-term, think long-term, and consider the technology and the business model. For IT managers who are beginning to adopt Web services or for those looking into adoption strategies, Meta Group's Roth offers the following tips.

In the near term, from a technology perspective:
Explore Web services being offered in your chosen platform. ''Are you a Microsoft COM shop? A WebSphere shop? Whatever platform you're doing, you can bet they are offering Web services now,'' said Roth.

Look for Web services being offered by your partners and competitors. ''Chances are, you will find yourself waiting on your partners, suppliers and customers as you begin working toward adoption of Web services,'' said Roth, ''but you have to keep an eye on your competitors while you are doing it.''

In the near term, from a business perspective:
Define a handful of publishable Web services at your company. Said Roth: ''Try to abstract out the functionality your department or company offers, and ask yourself what your need is. Do you really need a service for looking up invoices? Or is it something else? It's going to take a lot of time and soul-searching to sum up the functionality that most external users would want out of your system, but it'll be time well spent.''

Do a pilot architecture internally. ''Before you reach out into the cloud, write a Web service-based system internally. Doing it in-house first is a great way to get used to the technologies, and it's a good architecture and good idea anyway,'' he noted.

Query partners about Web services coming or needed. ''If they tell you they would just love to be able to click and drag a service from you into their process that would, say, tell them whether a part was in stock right into our process, that would be great.''

In the long term, from a technology perspective:
Create an architectural standard around Web services. ''Start working on the patterns of how certain systems should be developed, and update those to take a services-based architecture into account.'' said Roth.

Adopt the various Web services technologies offered by your EAI vendor.
Try to leverage some of the public Web services that will be coming out.

In the long term, from a business perspective:
Create a new channel for syndicating content and transaction to partners.

''Even implemented internally, we're talking about the value of Web services as a better way to design your systems,'' said Roth. ''We're saying that you're better off decoupling the presentation aspect of a system from the business logic. Once you've decoupled, you've solved the problem of systems being shoehorned into all these different channels. We're talking about systems that allow all the pieces to be separated and strung together in different ways, depending on which channel needs it. Web services enables you to do that.''


Related Web services resources:

''Web service'' is quickly making its way into the IT lexicon. But not fast enough for many of the top vendors, who are spreading the word on their companies' Web sites. This list is far from complete, but it includes the URLs of some of the top vendors' product home pages, resource sites and knowledge bases. The obvious biases notwithstanding, these sites are well worth checking out.

Microsoft's .NET home page: www.microsoft.com/net/ (Includes descriptions of .NET elements, tips, tools and a developer community access point.)

Microsoft's XML Web services page: http://msdn.microsoft.com/webservices (Includes white papers, articles, tools, tips and related links.)

Sun Microsystems' home page for its Open Net Environment (ONE): www.sun.com/software/sunone (Includes white papers, articles, news, FAQs, success stories and downloads.)

IBM Web services zone: http://www-106.ibm.com/developerworks/webservices (Includes articles, FAQs, columns, forums, white papers and links.)

Iona Technologies' Developer Center: http://www.iona.com/devcenter/  (Includes news, articles, white papers and links.)

3Cape Clear Web services page: http://www.capeclear.com/products/webservices/ (Includes news, articles, online video tutorials and white papers.)

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