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New Web Services Specs Hit the Scene

While advances in Web services for businesses has accelerated behind company's firewalls, the ability to define standard business processes is considered by many to be a cornerstone in the adoption of Web services beyond the firewall.

Three major players in the Web services market, Microsoft, IBM, and BEA systems, hope to help fill in some of the pieces of the puzzle and jumpstart adoption rates through the release of three major specifications Friday, which would allow an enterprise to integrate its network with partners, suppliers and customers.

"If you look at the stack of capabilities that are needed to integrate applications either within an enterprise or across multiple enterprises, the areas of transaction and business processes have been unfulfilled as of yet," said Mike Gilpin, a research fellow at Giga. "The emergence of these new standards fills out the stack for Web services, so that as they are implemented they can compete with existing proprietary integration technology more effectively."

The first specification is a programming language called Business Process Execution Language for Web Services, and will be used to define how to combine Web services to accomplish a particular task. BPEL4WS, a language combining IBM's WSFL and Microsoft's XLANG efforts, is based on an XML flow language, and can involve processes contained within or between enterprises.

BPEL4WS allows companies to describe business processes that include multiple Web services and standardize message exchange internally and between partners.

The other two specifications, WS-Coordination and WS-Transaction, provide companies with a means to handle multiple Web services interactions, regardless of the underlying computing infrastructure.

WS-Coordination describes how individual Web services within a defined task interact. The specification supplies standard mechanisms to create and register with transaction protocols that coordinate the execution of distributed operations in a Web services environment.

WS-Transaction is used to ensure that transactions all complete successfully or fail as a group. The standard ensures this by providing for short- and long-running transactions in which resources cannot be locked for the duration of the business process. It takes advantage of the structure WS-Coordination provides to enable all participating Web services to end the business process with a shared understanding of its outcome.

"This represents a real convergence in the industry," said Karla Norsworthy, director of dynamic e-business technology at IBM. "It brings forward the best of (WSFL and Microsoft's XLANG), as well as addressing a number of other requirements. This really lets us get to another level of business process problems."

The new specifications come on the heels of a number of recent efforts to establish standards for Web services.

In February, Microsoft and IBM, created the Web Services Interoperability (WS-I) Organization, a group promoting Web services compatibility. BEA joined them shortly after.

In April, Microsoft, IBM and VeriSign released WS-Security, a specification that encrypts information and ensures that the data being passed between companies remain confidential. The security specifications were widely supported by most of the big players in the space, including Web services rival Sun Microsystems, who chimed in at the last minute, despite a long-standing rift between it and Microsoft over its potential role in WS-I.

Sun itself, along with the Liberty Alliance, last month released technical specifications for online "identity management" systems aimed at Web Services on the consumer side.

"We're hoping the industry, including Sun, will align behind us in much the same way they did WS-Security," said Steven VanRoekel, Microsoft's director of Web services technical marketing.

According to Gilpin, while Friday's announcement, along with the flurry of other specifications released this year, solves a significant aspect of the enterprise Web Service puzzle, a major piece remains unresolved.

"All of these standards that we've been talking about in the Web Services context are standardizing the pipe and the mechanism around the pipe, but they don't standardize what flows through the pipes, and that's actually the hard part," said Gilpin. "Standardizing what flows through the pipes is really specific to each vertical industry domain."

Some vertical industries, such as financial services and high tech manufacturing have made an effort to drive to a set of standard XML formats for representing transactions within that business.

Gilpin notes, however, that even in these cases, it is still going to take years and lots of money to enable transitions to those new formats.

According to John Kiger, BEA's director of product marketing, getting the horizontal infrastructure in place is helping lay the foundation for industry specific standardization.

"Once we are able to move this forward and get the infrastructure standards in place, then we will have the framework within which to look at industry specific problems," said Kiger. "All of the companies (involved in the announcement), as well as other that will join in this initiative as we move forward, will have deep involvement in a number of the verticals where this will be attractive."