Web services: The next big thing?
- By John K. Waters
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.''
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Microsoft's .NET home page: www.microsoft.com/net/
(Includes descriptions of .NET elements, tips, tools and a developer community
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.)