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Sun: Huge Web services gaps must be filled

Before Web services can realize its full potential, canyon-sized gaps in the technology must be filled, contends Simon Phipps, chief software evangelist at Sun Microsystems (http://www.sun.com).

Phipps outlined the issues in a panel discussion with executives from IBM (http://www.ibm.com) and BEA Systems (http://www.bea.com), among others, for a state-of-the-art panel discussion at the Software Development Conference & Expo West 2003, held last week in Santa Clara, Calif.

To a comment from the audience that gaps in the technology were holding Web services back, Phipps quipped, "That's like describing the Grand Canyon as a crack. I'd say we have an extremely long way to go before we have generally standardized business Web services."

To handle the kinds of complex business processes that will drive widespread adoption of Web services, the technology needs standard mechanisms for things like encryption and transactional rollback, Phipps said.

Users are now forced to deploy proprietary technologies with Web services interfaces, he noted.

BEA Technical Director David Orchard said that combining Web services with proprietary technologies is adding a daunting level of difficulty to Web services deployments, but there's really no alternative right now. "The whole XML interface is designed to be extensible," Orchard said, "so keeping out proprietary extensions is really hard."

Sun's Phipps argued that it's not proprietary extensions, per se, that are the problem, but "proprietary extensions that masquerade as standards," which he called "the biggest enemy of interoperability." Phipps accused some vendors of attempting to impose standards on the industry.

"I believe one of the significant threats is the problem of people bringing proposals -- specifications -- forward, which are on restricted intellectual property terms," he said. "And I think the big players who never used to get standards have worked out what the buzzwords are and they're using them effectively against competitors."

Although Phipps refused to name these "big players," Sun's rivalry with Microsoft and IBM -- arguably the two biggest players in this corner of the industry -- is well known. Among other issues, the development of a standard for Web services choreography and royalty-free Web services specifications continues to be a point of contention among the three companies.

BEA's Orchard agreed that true standards are the key to Web services interoperability, which is the key to the future of the technology. "Web services are very much about interoperability across platforms and vendors," he said. "To do that, we need standards and implementations of those standards. We need tested, interoperable implementations, and I think we're a far way from having those kinds of goals reached."

IBM's lead e-business technology evangelist, Mark Colan, agreed that standards issues are important to the overall evolution of Web services, but the current problem for in-the-trenches developers tasked with actually building the services is much more basic. "I would agree that there's all kinds of room for wonderfully new standards and lots of new buzzwords," Colan said, "but developers have their hands full trying to learn the things we've put in front of them so far."

At one point, the nearly 200 audience members were asked whether they are actually using Web services in production applications. About five people raised their hands.

The panel also included Jeff Barr, Web services evangelist at Amazon.com, and Mansour Safai, CEO of M7.

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at john@watersworks.com.

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