Just like other major technology shifts before, the web services concept threatens to bulldoze its way through those software companies that are not ready or willing to adopt it. Those first in line to get squashed are the enterprise application integration (EAI) vendors such as Tibco, WebMethods, SeeBeyond, Vitria and Mercator. Or at least this is a common, and increasingly held, view.
Integration vendors make their money by providing tools and mechanisms that enable otherwise incompatible applications to talk to each other in a structured, controlled way. Web services proponents argue that businesses
will have less need to buy proprietary EAI 'connectors' from integration vendors as they begin to add standard web services interfaces to their existing and new applications.
This threat to integration vendors is more immediate than one might expect from a technology that still exists more in hyperbole than reality. Although there are only a handful of businesses implementing web services today, the majority are using them to ease internal integration and to free themselves from the restrictions of existing EAI systems, says Gartner analyst Massimo Pezzini.
Furthermore, the open standard nature of web services means that many IT departments can implement the technology themselves, without the need to turn to consultants or vendor implementation teams.
Even so, it would be rash to dismiss EAI vendors as dying or already dead.
For one thing, the large installed base of both packaged and internally developed software, coupled with the need to move towards real time responsiveness, still means there is pent-up demand for tight integration.
What's more, EAI vendors are not standing still. The processes at the core of integration – such as data mapping, transformation, and messaging – have been slowly becoming commoditised in recent years as integration technology and its underlying market matures. Mindful of this, most integration vendors have been re-positioning their business since the late 1990s by developing new software, adding new functions or acquiring start-ups.
The common thread in the EAI vendors' strategies is the attempt to move up the 'food chain' by providing higher value applications, and higher integration services, such as business process management (BPM). This enables managers to visually map business processes together to create integrated workflows, and to connect this to the underlying applications through the integration platform.
If EAI vendors can successfully transform themselves into BPM software vendors before web services are adopted by the mainstream, then, they argue, they will be able to rise above the potentially commoditising effect of web services standardisation.
Most EAI vendors and some analysts argue that web services technology is not, and will not be, in direct competition with EAI middleware technology.
Fred Meyer, Tibco's chief strategy officer, says that while web services provide a standard way for applications to communicate with each other, they do not solve the core problems associated with integration.
Breaking this down, the web services description language (WSDL) provides a standard description of what an application does, while the simple object access protocol (SOAP) provides
a standard way to transport data between two applications.
However, web services do not remove the need for translating different types of data from one schema to another. While it may be that XML (extended mark up language) tags, and the XML-based templates currently being developed by many industry bodies, will ultimately help with this, connectors from existing applications will almost always be required.
Even if a business did replace all its proprietary integration connectors or adaptors with standard WSDL interfaces, it would still need a platform to manage the transformation of data formats and data communication between different applications, argues Meyer.
The danger, however, is that EAI vendors will simply enable their products to work with web services alongside other proprietary or legacy data formats. In the short term, this will enable their customers to adopt web services without making their existing applications, or their EAI products, redundant.
But in the long term, there may be a bigger issue. Although their products may be web services 'enabled', whether the EAI vendors are truly prepared for the revolution in software architecture that web services will ultimately precipitate remains open to question.