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IBM Sees SOAs, Web Services Snowballing

After years of hashing out standards and acquiring various software bits, IBM is looking to extend its technology for Web services and service-oriented architectures (SOAs) to its massive services division, company officials told internetnews.com recently.

This spring the Armonk, N.Y. company will make product and services announcements regarding its progress in tying Web services and SOAs to business processes. It's part of an effort to get its new technologies out to the public sector, said Bob Sutor, director of marketing, WebSphere Software Foundation, at IBM.

The move is indicative of how far Web services, which allow applications to talk to one another to conduct simple and complex transactions, and SOAs, which describe a more general method of fundamentally distributed computing, have come since a marketing explosion in 2000 begat copious trade press coverage.

"What we'll really be focusing on over a several month period is SOA, Web services, and the real business problems they is solving for our customers and what we're doing today, so sprinkled in there will be some product news," said Sutor, who wouldn't provide specifics. "There's going to be a lot of news around educational training. There's going to be a lot of news about what we're doing in services."

Sutor said Web services and SOAs have simmered and stewed for the last few years because of the ailing economy, but noted that general improvements in financial outlooks have mobilized IBM to turn the software architectures, grounded in IBM's WebSphere middleware portfolio, over to the company's IBM Global Services (IGS) division.

Ultimately, IBM aims to serve Web services in an on-demand fashion, consistent with its company-wide mission. This is where Michael Liebow, general manager of Web services for IGS, comes in to play.

Liebow said customers can take comfort in the fact that standards such as WS-Security have now been approved, and that Business Process Execution Language for Web Services (BPEL) is in the works. These, he said, will pave the way for wider adoption of Web services and help vendors tie those services and software to business processes.

Liebow said IBM sees the evolution of Web services and SOAs in four levels.

"In level 1, they're doing little point-to-point Web services, they're downloading an SDK [software developer kit] from [IBM developer site] developerWorks," Liebow said. "When they get to a certain critical mass -- that's level 2 in our view -- there's this notion of service-oriented integration where they start to expose applications that are being connected to other applications and they create a flow of info that wasn't there before without ripping out old applications.

Service-oriented integration, as opposed to enterprise application integration or business process management, is where Liebow said the market is today. In level 3, SOA becomes an enterprise deployment.

"The fourth level is this notion of on-demand transformation," Liebow explained. "How are you going to align the products from the software group and other services to help customers at any level? We're trying to invest in those capabilities."

Redmonk Senior Analyst Stephen O'Grady said vendor offerings and architectures have evolved significantly in relation to the opportunity, and agreed with Sutor and Liebow that requisite standards around security, etc., are maturing and finally reaching prime-time status.

"Together, those factors are making SOAs a more and more compelling value proposition," O'Grady told internetnews.com. "That said, SOAs in our view won't really take off until it's an enterprise pull scenario as opposed to vendor push. While we're certainly seeing demand in particular industries and for particular workloads for SOAs, this demand is not yet universal."

O'Grady said the public will likely see a gradual ramp up in acceptance and adoption, particularly if key players in specific verticals can highlight major successes, in the next year.

Hopping on the services bus

IBM's crystallization of Web services and SOAs isn't entirely unique, even if the company bests other vendors in total software output and resources. For example, BEA Systems recently outlined a plan for WebLogic customers to move their applications and portals onto an SOA model. And Microsoft is working on an SOA project called "Indigo."

BEA's initiative is aimed at managing a common problem in many of today's companies: a "Web sprawl" of applications and portals by software vendors. This leads to poor end-user adoption rates in the enterprise, BEA said.

SOA models aren't the only thing IBM and BEA, which compete fiercely in the application server space, have in common. Both are planning, as part of their SOA strategies, a layer of messaging software that sits atop a messaging infrastructure, such as WebSphere MQ middleware. Messaging software connects corporate systems, shuttling data and transactions between different applications.

Called an enterprise service bus (ESB), IBM and BEA are expected to release messaging software later this year. IT research firm Gartner describes ESBs as application integration middleware that provides Web services, messaging middleware, intelligent routing and transformation.

IBM's Sutor dismissed ESBs as anything new, but rather a collection of bits of middleware IBM -- and other organizations -- pick up as they acquire and develop technology to bolster their software infrastructure portfolios.

Sutor described how and ESB might work. "Let's say I have 2 applications and I want to have them talk back and forth to each other," he said. "I can almost put a string between them because they're Internet connected. They can do things to keep up and running and security is usually fairly simple but there's not, in terms of a communications backbone, a lot of intelligence or depth. What's coming up with services-oriented architecture is this view of, somewhere I have a service that does exactly what I want."

ESBs, Sutor said, supply that intelligence that is lacking between the two applications and helps SOAs and Web services find them.

Sutor continued: "But with everything we've been doing around Web services we have to extend that [ESB] out to greet the Internet, we have to include talking to wireless devices. And so a lot of the top-level concepts we talk about in the heterogeneous network -- being able to deal with traditional messaging, being able to deal with traditional publishing and supply of events, as well as this service-oriented view of the world -- really start to play into this. So, ESBs are something that exist today, but are evolving."

Ultimately, Sutor and Liebow said it is an exciting time to be part of the software development community, where there is a massive shift to fusing service-oriented techniques with business processes.