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Web Services Moving Beyond the Hype

Are Web services just hype? Such a stance is becoming increasingly difficult to justify as large, important companies around the world have begun announcing the adoption of Web services -- or, as some prefer to call it, advanced application development for the Internet -- over the past month.

Just Wednesday, Deutsche Telekom, Europe's largest telecommunications company, made public its plans to work with Microsoft to enable Web services across its mobile and solutions businesses. DT wasn't alone. Walldorf, Germany's SAP AG and Texas-based Vignette Corp. forged deals with IBM Corp. to utilize its WebSphere portal -- IBM's answer to Microsoft's Visual Studio .NET and Sun Microsystems' Sun Open Net Environment (ONE) initiatives. And webMethods Wednesday announced a number of customer wins, including Charter Communications .

Further, IDC Wednesday predicted that the total software, services and hardware opportunity derived from Web services would rocket from $1.6 billion in 2004 to $34 billion by 2007.

"It certainly contributes to the building wave of enthusiasm and the idea that Web services is not a flash in the pan," said Dana Gardner, research director at Aberdeen Group. "For those people who did think that this was a flash in the pan, I think they can set that aside. But it's also not a silver bullet."

So what's the deal? What do these firms see in Web services?

XML Web Services are a new standardized way of integrating disparate systems and applications connected through an Internet protocol (IP) backbone. The standard relies on XML as a language for tagging data; Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) for transferring that data; Web Services Description Language (WSDL) for describing the services available; and Universal Description, Discovery, and Integration (UDDI) for listing what services are available.

Perhaps one of the most important things Web services can offer businesses is a streamlining of middleware integration. Web services allow for "dynamic integration" -- the ability to integrate new applications with one another without time-consuming custom coding -- between suppliers, partners and customers. In other words, businesses can integrate business processes beyond the firewall with suppliers, partners and customers without having to understand how those suppliers, partners and customers built their own IT systems.

It can also aid in integration within the enterprise, especially when linking units or divisions that utilize disparate platforms.

"If [customers] buy our products and they can't communicate with the Microsofts, the Suns, the Oracles or the BEAs of this world, then we failed," Robert Sutor, director of IBM's e-business Standards Strategy, said at a Web services briefing on March 4.

He added, "If you're only going to talk to other people who use Java or Windows or whatever, you're limiting yourself."

To help prevent customers from finding themselves in such a scenario, IBM got together with a number of businesses with interests in Web services -- including BEA, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Microsoft and SAP -- in February to form the Web Services Interoperability (WS-I) Organization.

Since its inception in February, the organization has received more than 500 inquiries from businesses interested in becoming members.

WS-I's goal is facilitating the development and deployment of interoperable Web services across a variety of platforms, applications and programming languages. Sutor roughly outlined IBM's view of the three phases the organization is undertaking to pursue that goal.

The first or "connection" phase involved laying out the core, baseline standards: the XML Schema, SOAP, WSDL and UDDI. With these standards -- which actually enable Web services -- in place, WS-I turned to the second phase, "security and reliability." In this phase, WS-I is working on critical Web services specifications like XML Digital Signature, XML Encryption, HTTP-R, SAML and XACML. WS-I is currently addressing those specifications, Sutor said. Once those are complete, the organization will move onto the third, or "enterprise," phase, which will address provisioning, transactions, workflow and systems management.

Aspects of those phases are overlapping, and the specifications are being hashed out in a number of standards organizations, including OASIS and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). For instance, OASIS has already established a working group focused on provisioning -- the process of actually setting up a Web service.

So, since not all the specifications are in place, is it too early to get into Web services?

"I don't think it's too soon to step into the waters," Aberdeen's Gardner said. "But I think it's important to realize that these standards are fresh, not fully cooked and there are needs for more standards. [You have to be careful] not to get too far into the technology. Web services is something you should try out and use in pilots [pilot programs] inside the firewall. But when it comes to mission critical activities, particularly those outside the corporate boundaries, [it's not ideal]. It's too soon to look beyond the firewall except if it's something that couldn't make or break your business."

IDC's Dr. Anthony Picardi, senior vice president of Global Software, agreed that companies should be careful when assessing Web services, and make sure that implementation of the technology serves a real business need.

"A rush to market with complex solutions that fail to provide business benefits at reasonable costs for small businesses will, in fact, increase near term opportunity, but severely reduce the long term potential of the technology," he said.

Sutor seconded both Gardner and Picardi, noting that not all businesses are ready to be early adopters.

"We would absolutely recommend that [businesses] start small here," Sutor told InternetNews.com Wednesday. He added, "It's a normal part of the industry that standards will go through multiple versions. While ideally everything will always be backward compatible, that's not always true."

He recommended that businesses first apply Web services to non-mission critical operations to test the waters.

-- This article was written by Thor Olavsrud with contributions from Ryan Naraine, Robert Liu and Clint Boulton.