Web services (Part 1): Setting standards

1 Apr 2003

The promise of the internet and e-business was always tantalising, but the implementation of new systems and applications has challenged the budgets as well as the brains of chief information officers. The common consensus is that integration has been the biggest problem for organisations looking to embed their business processes on web-based systems.

The notion of a seamless platform for employees in different departments, for disparate business processes and ultimately for information exchange with external business partners, has turned out to be the stuff of dreams for most organisations. Put simply, one set of solutions frequently hasn’t worked with another.

Two or three years ago, the rumblings began about an affordable cure. Some credit the term ‘web services’ to Microsoft, others say it’s just a fancy name for something they had been working on for years. But just about all the vendors agree that they are the panacea for integration woes that have been costing them customers and slowing down the roll out of new business solutions.

So what exactly are web services? The deceptively simple phrase is a generic term that describes applications that are able to work with other diverse applications in a web-based environment regardless of platform. To create such an environment, the industry came together and agreed a series of common protocols such as simple object access protocol (SOAP), universal discovery description and integration (UDDI) and web services description language (WSDL). But the common thread is that they all speak the same language: extensible mark-up language (XML), to be more specific.

Developed by WC3, XML is an open standard that uses ‘tags’ in the same way as HTML (hyper text mark-up language), but rather than use them to simply define how an element of a web page is displayed (bold or italic, for example), they define what the elements contain.

So it becomes possible to pool together different components from the backend of a business, such as a financial data or product descriptions, as if they were a single virtual database that can be accessed and distributed as needed. This is possible because XML is able to apply some rigid codes to notoriously complex processes.

If you extrapolate this into a company running an array of real business processes, it means that the customer relationship management (CRM) system no longer needs to be isolated from sales and the supply chain management software can be connected to financials and human resources.

But the big sell for the web services concept is that it’s not prohibitively expensive. A few years ago organisations were asked to buy into big bang infrastructure solutions that were costly both in terms of money and the time it took to get them to work. Basically, web services offer lower risk technology adoption.

“Web services allow people to use existing systems and infrastructures and communicate and protect the original investment,” says David Ehnebusk, one of IBM’s web services experts. “They enable whole new classes of computing, making things that people can’t afford, affordable. They enable things to happen that couldn’t happen before.”

In the past, bigger IT projects have been the sole preserve of enterprise application integration (EAI) vendors. The trouble is they don’t come cheap, not least because such integration strategies demand skilled people to customise codes. Web services are more economic because they bypass the need for expensive ‘black belt’ programmers to make projects happen, saving time and money.

For Barry Morris, CEO of Iona, the pitch for his products becomes simpler and, more importantly, it makes them more affordable to more potential customers. “With rapid integration solutions and lower costs you’ve got something that’s appropriate to US$500m range companies,” he says.

Cape Clear, another Irish software company, is singing from the same song sheet. “Using EAI and J2EE [Sun’s platform for enterprise applications] to solve application integration is like studying medicine to cure a headache,” says CEO Annrai O’Toole. “Web services simply change the economies of integration. It doesn’t require an army of experts, it’s based on open industry standards and it inherently spans the internet, corporate networks, existing applications, J2EE, .NET, CORBA and even COBOL. Web services enable organisations to integrate their applications, documents and processes quickly and easily without the cost and the pain.”

Significantly, it’s not only the middleware players like Iona and Cape Clear that share this view. The real buzz around web services stems from the fact that nearly all the leading IT companies have sat down together to pursue common standards.

Why? Because they recognised they had to. The hard lesson learnt from the dotbomb days and the subsequent failure of e-business adoption to happen as quickly as some analysts would have had us believe, is that no single company is going to dominate the enterprise market when it comes to integrating business processes.

Next week: How the IT giants differentiate their web services