Web Services Part 2: A vision of things to come

19 Feb 2004

Five years on from when they were first proposed the promise of XML-based web services has yet to be realised. Certainly the vision of linked consumer web services managing everything from travel to medical appointments, as featured in an early Microsoft promotional video, is still just a vision.

The real action is currently happening behind the corporate firewall where savvy IT managers are using the technology to solve the problem of integrating data from diverse applications.

John Caulfield, solutions director with Oracle, sees the move to web services happening out of the public gaze. “It’s not as obvious as the move to the web was,” he says. “Web services breaks things down to a low level of granularity so you don’t necessarily see it.”

Oracle has recently released Customer Data Hub, an enterprise-wide customer relationship management system that comes with 60 pre-packaged web services. As Caulfield points out, Oracle does not necessarily know whether organisations buying the product are using the web services, whereas when application programme interfaces were used for integration customers came back to Oracle for services and support.

Caulfield’s view is reinforced by the fact that few Irish organisations have gone public on their use of web services. Vodafone is a notable exception — it is using Cape Clear’s products for a range of applications that require integration of its data systems.

“Managing the sea of data that flows between applications on the network or between third parties is a significant challenge,” says Kieran Murphy, technical manager at Vodafone. “If we want to provide the latest status on a business line or customer service function, we need to be able to take all that data and integrate it with our reporting systems. Cape Clear Data Interchange gives us an easy, yet powerful means of integrating all that information and delivering it to our applications in a format that works.”

Online retailer Amazon.com is one high-profile exponent of the technology and provides a set of web services that allows third parties to integrate dynamic information from Amazon into their websites and other applications.

John McGuire, senior vice-president with Cape Clear, sees three main areas where the technology is currently being applied: providing business-to-business links; connecting to customers; and integrating internal applications. The financial services sector and mobile phone operators have been the first to use web services to connect to customers — primarily because they are under pressure to introduce new services to customers.

According to Maurice Martin, lead developer and platform with Microsoft Ireland, web services are primarily being used internally because integrating applications is the biggest challenge facing IT departments. “Web services is being used in large live production systems for internal integration,” he says. “The reason they are not being used externally is security — for electronic transactions between parties you need tight security between the end points.” Public key infrastructure has long been touted as the enabler of such end-to-end security but the complexity of deploying such systems has confined the technology to point applications.

Sean McGrath, CTO of Propylon, agrees that control over end points is key. “Critically, what you have behind the corporate boundary is control over end points,” he explains. “If you expose your web services to the world at large you can’t control the other end of the link. The two end points are talking but you don’t control one.”

Underlining the fact that public web services are still relatively immature is the Xmethods website www.xmethods.net. It provides a directory of publicly available services, which tend to be curious technology demonstrations rather than useful business tools. Current services listed include a random zen quote generator, the ability to get weather forecasts based on US zip codes and software that sends SMS messages over the web.

While the process of creating industry standards for web services has been slow and occasionally fractured, Arlene Adams, software and solutions director with Sun Microsystems UK and Ireland, does not believe concern over standards is holding back adoption. “People are more comfortable with web services now,” she says. “They are asking questions like how do I integrate and migrate, what will it cost and will I get a return on my investment.”

McGuire admits that the technology is still in the early adopter phase but one that is markedly different to previous ones. “It’s not like the old days; the projects are for real and are being driven by a business decision,” he says. “They end up going to deployment and are not just an experiment.”

Next week: Where to from here — the future for web services

By John Collins