The Microsoft/IBM axis
I have spent much of my career involved in one way or another with standards
for communication. In particular, I've focused on protocols above the transport
layer, an area where broadly supported standards for application-to-application
communication have been hard to come by. Without these standards, networks are
nowhere near as useful as they might be. Once they exist, though, the world
opens up like never before.
SOAP-based Web services are opening the world today. But SOAP isn't enough.
Basic communication is essential, but real systems require much more. And
through the WS series of specifications, Microsoft and IBM are working together
to create the standards we need to make this a reality. These specifications are
the future of Web services.
The joint Microsoft/IBM specs in this series include WS-Security, an
essential addition to the basic SOAP protocol; and WS-Inspection, a simple way
to discover the WSDL definition or other information about a Web service
available at a known location. When you read this, more specs will likely be
available. Each firm has talked publicly about its interest in transactions, and
in reliable messaging and other critical aspects of building an effective,
interoperable Web services environment.
And let's face reality here: Microsoft and IBM own Web services. While the
two firms eventually cede control of the technologies they create to more formal
standards bodies (SOAP goes to the W3C, while WS-Security goes to OASIS), the
truth is that the creation of those technologies is in the hands of just two
vendors. Is this a perfect situation? Maybe not. Is it the one most likely to
produce widely accepted Web services standards? Probably. Is it going to change
anytime soon? Clearly not, so we may as well get used to it.
Microsoft refers to the WS series of specs as the Global XML Web Services
Architecture (GXA), and initially published GXA specs on its own. The truth,
though, is that these specs didn't really matter until IBM's name also appeared
on them. Microsoft's original WS-Security spec, for example, has now been
superseded by a jointly produced version with the same name. Whatever your
opinion might be of the specs' technical merits, the simple fact that two
software giants agree on them makes them all-but-guaranteed to succeed.
Wire-level interoperability, with competition reserved for the
implementations, is the model that has made our modern distributed world work.
After years of at least partially resisting this model, Microsoft and IBM seem
to have bought into it. The two vendors will surely continue to compete
fiercely, as the ongoing battle between .NET and IBM's Java-based WebSphere
shows. This is a good thing: Competition forces the combatants to either improve
And from the evidence so far, both companies appear committed to
interoperability. Having gone so far down this path, each side now has a great
deal to lose if they deviate from it. The world we're headed for appears to be
one with two dominant programming environments -- .NET and Java -- but
one common set of communication protocols. As more WS specs appear, and
implementations of those specs work their way into products, multiplatform
environments will become easier to deploy. And since neither .NET nor Java is
going away anytime soon -- most large enterprises will have both --
this interoperability is critical.
Of course, once these two giants have defined the standards, every other
vendor (this means you, Sun) is effectively forced to fall into line. The
likelihood that even Java application servers will use Web services to
interoperate -- the Java specs themselves don't define much in this
area -- is a great irony. Who would have imagined that technologies whose
creation owes so much to Microsoft would ultimately solve the problem of
interoperability between Java-based products?
Which vendor -- IBM or Microsoft -- is the major force behind the
WS technologies? Are they equal contributors? I don't know and I don't care. All
that matters is that both have committed to implementing them in an
interoperable way. I've been waiting my entire career for
application-to-application standards. Now that they're finally arriving, I
couldn't be happier.
David Chappell is principal at Chappell & Associates, an education and consulting firm focused on enterprise software technologies. He can be reached via E-mail at email@example.com.