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Web Services: the Next Big Thing?

The term "Web Services" has begun to take on a familiar ring, becoming accepted in the business landscape as jargon to mean anything and everything delivered over the World Wide Web. But apart from their generic marketing use, the words have evolved into a more specific definition.

So what exactly is a web service? Quite simply, it is a fundamentally new approach of developing a software application that can share information through Internet Protocol (IP). What makes all of this so revolutionary is that these newly created systems would be able to interact and exchange information regardless of the platform or environment.

In doing so, the Internet would evolve from being simply a place that you log onto in order to retrieve information. "We will begin to think of the Internet as a communications infrastructure that allows us to communicate," said John Patrick, the former vice president of Internet technology at IBM who retired after a 35-year tenure. He is the author of Net Attitude.

The one commonly cited example of web services to illustrate the innovation is the calculator that has been pre-programmed to know every jurisdiction's tax code in the U.S. Assuming this calculator was placed on the web and programmers knew how to find and remotely access it, a company could simply tap into this fictitious calculator for a nominal fee with their Great Plains accounting software. In doing so, the company could figure out exactly what net income and cash flows were at any given time.

Now, you might think: "Big deal?!? My Quicken 99 has been able to download data from the Internet for years!"

But then you'd be missing the point. If that communication could occur no matter what the operating system or regardless of what language the application is written in, that would simplify systems integration and seamlessly open new doors for business and even consumers.

At the heart of the innovations lies a new standard that has been in development for years but painstakingly slow to actually deploy called Extensible Markup Language (XML). As opposed to Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), which describes what a web document looks like, XML tags data in the proper context to tell you what that document means. With the backing of the entire industry, XML creates advantages that are so obvious that even its biggest critics can understand the operating efficiencies.

Yet, corporate leaders and IT managers aren't completely convinced that web services are the next major IT revolution on the horizon. Analysts like Forrester Research and Gartner believe deployment will continue at a snail's pace this year. As proof, despite massive marketing efforts by IT giants, a staggering 75 percent of InternetNews.com readers (which constituted primarily corporate managers and IT executives) said they are either not interested or just looking now at implementing web services, according to a recent, informal poll.

That has led some people to argue the promise of web services have been over-touted by the software development kit (SDK) vendors as well as by the general media and investors. IT executives and corporate managers have been slow to embrace the concept fearing a reprise of the dot-com bust especially in light of economic uncertainty. But while very few individuals, if any, have started a business selling commercially developed web services on call for corporate portals, companies like NetEdge Software of Wake Forest, N.C., have flourished helping companies use web services internally to integrate their clients' legacy systems.

"We are pitching web services as an enterprise play. The goal is not to build services off of eBay or something like that but build interoperability behind the firewall," said Jay Pitzer, vice president of sales and marketing at NetEdge. For example, the company has used Web services to help a major pharmaceutical giant integrate results from clinical trials.

"Interoperability is very important because in clinical trials, data is coming from different systems. Web services is a beautiful play because you can build a web service using WebSphere and as long as they are WSDL compliant, it should work where ever you are," Pitzer noted.

How does XML speed integration? And what can it NOT do? See Page 2.