Just like other major software technologies that have emerged before it, web services threatens to bulldoze its way through those software companies that are not ready or willing to adopt it. And this time, 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 that enable otherwise incompatible applications to talk to each other in a structured, controlled way. However, web services proponents argue that businesses will have much 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.
The threat to integration vendors is not far off. Although there are only a handful of businesses that are implementing web services, the majority are using them to ease internal integration, in order to free themselves from the
restrictions of existing EAI systems, says Gartner Research analyst Massimo Pezzini.
Furthermore, the open standards nature of web services means that many IT departments are able to implement the technology themselves, without help from consultants or vendors.
It would be rash to dismiss EAI vendors as dying or already dead, however. First, 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. And second, the vendors are not standing still. The processes at the core of integration, such as data mapping, transformation, and messaging, have slowly become commoditised in recent years as integration technology and its underlying market matures. Mindful of this, most integration vendors have been re-positioning their businesses 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 integration services, such as business process management (BPM). This enables managers to visually map business processes to create integrated workflows, and to connect this to underlying applications using an integration platform. If EAI vendors can successfully transform themselves into BPM software vendors before web services are adopted by the mainstream, then they will be able to rise above the potentially commoditising effect of web services standardisation. That, they argue, will be good for them and good for their customers.
EAI's first defence
Most EAI vendors, and some but not all analysts, argue that web services technology is not, and will not be, in direct competition with EAI middleware technology.
Fred Meyer, chief strategy officer for EAI vendor Tibco, makes this point. Web services, he says, provides a standard way for applications to communicate with each other – but it does not solve core integration problems.
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 applications.
However, web services does not remove the need for translating different types of data from one schema to another. While it may be that XML (extensible 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.
Some say that, ultimately, web services will eliminate all non-standard interfaces. But even if a business did replace all its proprietary integration connectors or adaptors with standard WSDL interfaces, says Meyer, it would still need a platform to manage the transformation (of data formats) and data communication between different applications.
This is where the EAI vendors are taking their products. The lack of transformation and messaging standards has been the driving force behind the web services strategies of existing EAI vendors, as well as a new generation of web services-based integrators such as the US-based companies Grand Central Communications and Flamenco Networks.
These suppliers' approaches can be roughly divided into two camps, although they overlap considerably. First, there are the companies that provide tools to manage the flow of transactions by providing services such as data routing, security and auditing. These companies are trying to make web services more resilient and reliable by providing the missing messaging components of web services integration. Among those suppliers tackling these issues are messaging vendors such as SpiritSoft, integration vendors such as webMethods and Tibco, as well as start-ups such as Grand Central and Flamenco.
The second approach, taken by many of these vendors, is to provide tools to aid the translation of data and a workflow framework for accessing and using that data. Many of these functions are encapsulated in the business process management (BPM) tools that EAI vendors have developed over the past two years. By adding the ability to accept SOAP and create WSDL, vendors such as Iona, Tibco, and Vitria, can offer the ability to map data from different sources together, whether or not they have been designed with web services in mind.
All these tools are important for bridging the web services and non-web services worlds. But some analysts think these initiatives need to be put in perspective. They say that all these EAI vendors have done is to enable their products to work with web services alongside other proprietary or legacy data formats. In the short term, this will enable customers to adopt web services without making their existing applications or EAI products redundant.
But in the long term, there may be a bigger issue. Although their products may be web services ‘enabled', the question of whether the EAI vendors are truly prepared for the web services revolution will ultimately remain open.
EAI's new threat
EAI (enterprise application integration) vendors make strong and credible claims that they have embraced web services, and that the technology does not represent a threat to their middleware products. Some may even credibly argue that the emergence of web services is likely to increase sales.
But one of the strongest criticisms of EAI vendors' web services strategies comes from Neil Ward-Dutton, a research director at market research company Ovum, based in London. According to Ward-Dutton, the web services standards that EAI vendors have added to their platforms do not come close to representing a proper web services strategy.
Modularisation of applications, and their delivery as a service, is the biggest change that web services will create in terms of enterprise applications architectures, argues Ward-Dutton. Web services standards will enable the packaging and dynamic re-use of applications and processes within
business and between business partners, he says. The majority of EAI vendors' existing web services strategies do not support this view of web services however. Their approach is more focused on the continued use of enterprise applications.
Ward-Dutton uses the integration company Mercator as an example of a business that could fully exploit web services. Mercator's main strength is in complex and robust data transformation; however, unlike its peers, Mercator has not been as successful at moving up the food chain towards providing BPM tools.
This, perhaps paradoxically, gives the company a distinct advantage in a web services architecture, claims Ward-Dutton. For example, Mercator is planning to wrap up components of its transformation engine in web services protocols. Theoretically, this will enable the company to sell its integration broker as a web service to customers. Otherwise, they would have to implement an entire platform from Tibco, Vitria or webMethods.
EAI vendors may face an even bigger challenge in the coveted and emerging BPM market. Application server and development tools vendors such as IBM, BEA, Microsoft, and Silverstream, to name but a few, have already released web services development tools that are better suited to creating flexible business processes than the BPM tools provided by EAI vendors, says Ward-Dutton.
The fundamental difference between development tools from EAI vendors and application server vendors is the level at which they function. According to Ward-Dutton, EAI vendors' BPM tools are designed to work at the data integration level so that they can leverage the underlying EAI platforms provided by traditional integration vendors.
However, to fulfil the true potential of the dynamic enterprise, Ward-Dutton argues that customers should use the application-level tools that are provided by ‘pure' web services vendors. Ovum's point is credibly argued; however, its analysts should brace themselves for a howl of complaints.