The ‘web services’ concept is being touted as the saviour of the high-tech industry. In a technical sense, it refers to a new programming approach for discovering software components, data and services over the Internet, assembling them in loosely-coupled applications, and having these execute in a distributed fashion over the web. But in a broader sense it is software’s next revolution.
Microsoft and IBM pioneered the standardisation of the technology when they defined a series of open standards over the course of 2000 and 2001. The concept they helped develop uses XML technology to deliver applications and data across the Internet from web servers to end-user devices or other applications. This allows web services to be banded and disbanded, allowing the creation of dynamic, on-the-fly applications and services.
As a result, ‘web services’ is widely touted as the way to deliver the financial and operational efficiencies promised by ebusiness. Ultimately, it will allow companies to carry out complex, peer-to-peer interactions with unlimited customers and suppliers, without the need to hard code applications or develop custom translation layers.
It is a compelling concept, promising integration at a fraction of the current cost. But in today’s sober economic climate, scepticism is creeping in. The trivial web services scenarios proffered by vendors have failed to convey the significance and potential of web services. Analysts are beginning to temper bullish forecasts, recognising that much work still needs to be done on standards, security and transactional integrity before enterprises will confidently deploy web services across the firewall.
- Extensible mark-up language (XML), formulated by the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C), underpins every vendor’s web services strategy. It describes the meaning of data and the way it is to be laid out in documents. Ironically, the proliferation of XML variants – more than 400 have sprung up – may hinder the adoption of web services.
- The simple object access protocol (SOAP), based on the hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP) Internet standard, helps systems talk to each other. Specifically, it states how to encode an HTTP header and an XML file so that different applications running on systems can share data. It will eventually be superseded by the XML protocol (XMLP).
- Universal description, discovery and integration (UDDI) is an XML-based registry that enables organisations to locate each other. UDDI provides a standard for registering, describing and searching for web services.
- Web services description language (WDSL) is an XML-based language used to describe the services that an enterprise offers. It provides a way for other businesses to access these services electronically.
Initially, rival vendors such as Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, Oracle, Hewlett-Packard and IBM united behind a goal of devising standards together. But this unparalleled co-operation is showing signs of faltering. And some standards remain in a state of flux.
One of the biggest problems is the lack of standards for security. For example, Microsoft’s WS Security standard competes with the W3C’s XML Signature.
There are no fewer than three separate competing standards for business process: IBM’s web services flow language (WSFL), Microsoft’s Xlang, and business process modelling language (BPML) from the Business Process Management Initiative.
Some vendors are seeking to get around the bickering by offering proprietary web services platforms that will integrate different web services and manage web services transactions. Players in this nascent market include integration vendor Tibco and US start-up Grand Central.
The mechanics of web services
It is easiest to think of a web service in terms of three constituents: a service requester, a service broker and a service provider. The service requester is the consumer of a web service, in this case, a program running on one server in the enterprise. The service requester consults a UDDI repository, the service broker, to see what services are available. Each available service is described in WSDL. Once the service requester has selected a service, it uses the WSDL description to find out how to access the service. Once found, the WSDL description is used to generate a SOAP request message that is sent to an application server that maps it to the business logic processing software on the server, the service provider. A SOAP response is then passed back to the service requester.
The concept of web services has been readily embraced by the leading technology companies. In recent months, however, they have struggled to communicate coherent strategies.
Microsoft is particularly sensitive to criticism that it lacks a clear vision, despite making web services one of the pillars of its .NET initiative and staking its corporate future on the success of this strategy. HP, credited with being the first to conceptualise the web services movement, was falling behind even before the distraction of its planned merger with Compaq. Sun was caught flat-footed, although it now claims to be forging a strategy for its family of software development tools. Meanwhile, claims from Oracle that it will web services-enable its products seem to conflict with comments from CEO Larry Ellison.
Only IBM has maintained a clear message, and it has the broadest offering. Its robust WebSphere suite is rapidly emerging as the product of choice for organisations testing web services developments.
Two start-ups – Bowstreet and Cape Clear – made early inroads but are showing signs of falling back. Bowstreet made a name for itself as a pioneer of web services with its concept of ‘outerware’ as embodied in its application development tool. But €159 million of VC funding later and interest in this pre-bubble creation is waning. Cape Clear garnered much attention with its development environment and application server, which analysts said boasted a nine-month lead over rival products. But it too faces a challenge to keep up.
Undaunted, VCs have carried on investing in recent months. In the US, infrastructure software developer Actional raised €30 million; Sarvega attracted €11.4 million with its XML switching technology; and platform developer Talking Blocks also raised €11.4 million.
Other notable start-ups include Consilient, Conexo, Infravio, Intalio, XML Global Technologies and Corporate Oxygen.
Proponents claim that web services platforms are interoperable by their nature. Yet the rapid adoption of the technology by a large number of software vendors has caused a split in the ranks – raising fears of compatibility problems to come.
To try to counter that divergence, the Web Services Interoperability organisation (WS-I) was launched in February 2002 to promote compatibility between different architectures. WS-I will help software vendors and users navigate the confusing standards environment. It will also certify web services as officially interoperable.
Founded by Microsoft and IBM, WS-I now has more than 60 members. But it currently lacks some other important vendors, such as Siebel Systems and PeopleSoft.
Critics see the formation of WS-I as evidence that web services will become bogged down in years of standards setting, thanks to the proliferation of standards bodies. These include the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS), UDDI.org and the Business Process Management Initiative (GPMI).
There are precious few web services-based business processes in existence today. One pioneering example is an alliance between IBM, oil company Royal Dutch Shell and the UK’s Department of Trade and Industry.
They are trialling a web services tool for regulatory reporting over a period of 12 months. The automated process enables regulators at the DTI to retrieve monthly data from Shell’s internal computer systems. In the past, Shell would have had to collate and format its own data to respond to DTI requests. Web services are good for this type of application because regulators often request different data from one month to the next. Unlike a fixed workflow process, web services can dynamically retrieve disparate data.
The small-scale scheme highlights how competing standards may complicate the implementation of web services. For example, a web services authentication standard does not yet exist. In this project, authentication is provided through Shell’s own public key infrastructure. If the DTI wanted to replicate this connection with other companies, it would have to go to the expense of supporting each of their various authentication systems.
“Even in 2004, web services will still represent a relatively small proportion of the total software interfaces out there – certainly less than 10%. Giga does not expect to see web services represent a majority of B2B interfaces until years later.” Mike Gilpin, analyst, Giga Group.
“The real value of web services will become apparent once the technology matures, the vendors’ business model is robust enough and users have a clear understanding of the applicability. Right now, web services is a solution looking for a problem.” Steve Prentice, VP and director of research, Gartner.
“Web services gets rid of applications per se. In fact, people will forget about the idea of applications and start assembling services from stored processes. Converting from application [thinking] to web services is the mother of all business transformations.” Frank Moss, founder Bowstreet and one of the pioneers of the sector.
“Web services will not foster ad hoc partnerships over the Internet, will not eliminate application integration, will not transform business or eliminate decision makers or the decision that have to be made.” Milind Govekar, Gartner research director.
Web services will herald a dramatic shift in the way applications are sourced, developed and deployed. That will lead to a fundamental change in the way businesses interact with each other.
But potential rows over technology standards threaten to overshadow the compelling logic behind web services. This, combined with an ongoing freeze in corporate IT spending, has made the mass adoption of web services for B2B integration seem a distant vision. Yet fundamentally, customers remain excited about the promise of web services, and in particular its ability to remove the complexities of systems integration. This remains the biggest short-term opportunity for the technology.