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Figuring Out Web Services

By now, most of us would have been bombarded with the word 'Web services' in the media and in our discussions with vendors. Like with all new buzzwords, confusion surrounds the term and some are unclear as to what it is or what it can do.

To show what Web services can do, Hewlett-Packard (HP) gives a simple example of how a consumer can book a taxi, restaurant and theater for four over the Internet with ease. Instead of calling all three companies, he can now send his requests via the Internet and a HP Web Services Transactions (WST), for example, will automatically coordinate his requests with the other relevant transactional Web services.

Should any of the requests filed by the consumer fail, the Web server is able to detect that and an automated notification will be sent to the requestor via his choice of device, be it the PC, mobile phone or personal digital assistant (PDA). In the notification note, it will ask the consumer for a confirmation if the other two requests should proceed or be aborted altogether.

In a nutshell, Web services opens up a world where we are able to share and request for information with those we want with ease and speed like we never did before because it is designed to solve current back-end integration and automation challenges. Do we really need it? The vendors seem to think so.

Vendor Or User Driven

"Although there seems to be a lot of 'evangelism' about Web services by the vendors, the truth is that they are also driven by users who need an open standard to address the present integration problems," said Jasmine Soo, senior analyst, integration services, IDC Asia-Pacific.

The present IT infrastructures of many companies actually cripple their ability to adapt to market changes quickly. The introduction of a new application may require several days or even months for it to be integrated with legacy systems. In addition, companies may find it hard to integrate their current infrastructure with those of their partners and customers because of the different standards used. This can be a drawback as information sharing has become key in increasing one's competitive edge in the market.

And for some companies, they may be in a rut and find it difficult to phase out certain technologies because of the huge investments poured into it in the past.

Web services is designed to free companies from such constrains by allowing them a cheaper, faster and easier alternative to integrating applications, be it with their customers or partners. It also allows them to change their business model quickly because applications in the Web services sphere can be used and reused.

As stated by The Stencil Group: "Web services are reusable software components ... Rather than requiring programmers to write one start-to-finish set of instructions after another, the component-based model allows developers to reuse the building blocks of code created by others to assemble and extend them in new ways."

Although enterprise application integration (EAI) have helped solved some of the integration problems, it is still proprietary in nature, Soo commented.

They are also expensive and time-consuming to implement. Overall, EAI is merely force-fitting disparate applications together. Web services, on the other hand, are self-contained modular applications that are open, independent of hardware, operating systems and programming environment," said Shaun R. Connolly, director of product management, Hewlett-Packard (HP) Middleware division.

The core components of Web services, according to the Meta Group, are the Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP); Universal Description, Discovery, and Integration (UDDI) and Web Services Description Language (WSDL). Extensible Markup Language (XML) will be the foundation for WSDL, stated Whatis.com.

Don't Expect Miracles

Web services, despite its promises, is not a miracle cure for a company's integration woes although it is a better alternative to EAI at this point in time.

Before Web services can realize its full potential in 2008 or 2009, several issues have to be addressed.

Although companies such as BEA Systems, HP, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Oracle and SAP have formed a consortium to work out on the interoperability standards, users are still concerned about some other issues. This includes the immature standards and technology, finding and training skilled staff, security concerns and getting partners and customers to adopt Web services standards as found in a Web Services Survey conducted by IDC with 152 companies.

In Asia, Soo sees the different languages used by different countries as roadblock to Web services deployment.

She said: "Localization has to be addressed."

It probably will, as with the Internet that started off as an English-based vehicle. Today, the Internet also supports sites that use, for instance, Chinese, Korean and Japanese characters.

In IDC's opinion, Web services will go through a three-step evolution. First, Web services will be deployed within the firewall and this will happen from now until 2003. During this period, there will also be a lot of development work going on.

As the technology becomes more mature and more vendors become conclusive about similar standards of interoperability, companies will extend Web services to partners and customers in 2004.

Between 2005 or 2007, we will probably see some subscription-based services, casual ad-hoc use of the services and even new business models being generated as Web services adoption become widespread. The use of Web services by then, would also be extended beyond the traditional devices to include wireless gadgets. By 2008 or 2009, Web services will reach its full potential, said IDC.

However, Asia may lag behind by two years in the best possible scenario, or four in the worse case scenario. Reason being that Asian users are generally more cautious of how they are going to spend their money on new technologies when compared to the US, said Soo.

Considering how fast a technology can be rendered obsolete these days, or how the evanescent of the dot.com boom was quickly followed by a dot.com doom, it may not necessarily be a bad thing for companies that do not have the resources to test trial a technology to adopt a wait-and-see attitude.