Web services (part 2): Same rules, different game

8 Apr 2003

When Microsoft, IBM, Sun and Oracle sign up for the same forum and get together to share standards, it’s an acknowledgement that talking together is the only way to ensure that their disparate web-based applications can work together.

More fundamental is the realisation that they need to collaborate if they are going to persuade customers to buy into their latest products. The days of complete isolationism and the prospect of selling in an entire one-stop infrastructure are long gone.

Ian Taylor, chief technology architect at Microsoft Ireland, sums up the change in mindset: “When I was developing systems 20 years ago, we just didn’t think about interoperating with other people’s systems. We just talked about getting the application built and out the door. One of the key design goals was to keep your application as small and tight as you could, which doesn’t lead to good interoperability standards!”

Microsoft was among the first to embrace the idea of web services. He adds: “It was a set of standards but no one had put a handle on it until the concept of XML [extensible mark-up language] and web services emerged. We were undoubtedly the first industry adopter of an open-industry standard way of systems interacting with others.”

He continues: “Two years ago we made a bet on XML. Looking back it might not look like much, but it was surprising at the time that someone like Microsoft would say that data representation through XML was the way forward. We put our money where our mouth was and invested in the technology and started building XML web services into products.”

Other vendors see it slightly differently. “From Microsoft’s perspective, web services are the only way that it would be able to survive in the business environment and interoperate with Java,” says Andy Cleverly of Oracle corporate product marketing. “As an environment for business, Java really scared the Windows platform. They could see the whole environment was increasing so rapidly that it was going to seriously affect Microsoft’s ability to grow its business. Its only option was to move from a completely proprietary Windows solution and to provide interoperability — web services.”

As a sign of the times, even Sun Microsystems has signed up to the concept albeit with more caution. “All the base technologies have been there for quite a while,” says Brian Jordan, business development manager for Sun in Ireland. “These are only extensions of different integration approaches and the standardisation on how you get things to talk together.”

From Sun’s perspective, web services are the means to an end. “You still have to develop things at either end that use the standards,” explains Jordan. “It’s the bit in the middle that has been standardised to get things to talk together. But it’s not the whole story.”

For IBM the strategy is based around meeting customer needs regardless of platforms. John Scully, director of global services, talks of business processes rather than technology, regarding web services as tools for giving customers leverage to get more of what they want, quite often using what they have already got.

“We design a solution for the customer that is the best regardless of hardware or software components that are plugged into it – or if it’s not the best it’s what the customer wants, for whatever reason,” says Scully.

How did this managed approach marry with IBM’s other divisions that were presumably trying to sell their own products? “Initially, it was seen as disloyal but they’ve gradually come to realise that it’s the way life is and it won’t always be ‘blue’ from end to end,” he says.

Oracle’s Cleverly is similarly concerned with putting processes before technology but less enthusiastic about the mix-and-match approach: “A standard doesn’t help run the business. It’s how the processes are deployed and how it helps a business make its money that’s the important thing. Oracle’s strength is in products — the databases, the applications, the servers and tools that allow you to develop and deploy web services. We are in the business of the fastest, most scalable and secure way of the doing that.”

For Microsoft, the new approach to application integration is the main plot in its unfolding story. “It’s the foundation of everything we’re doing,” says Taylor, referring to the. Net strategy that is Microsoft’s grand plan for ICT [information and communications technology] architecture. “It’s is about putting XML and web services into pretty much everything we do.”

The distinction here is a clue to the enmity that still presides over the new-found standards. There are essentially two sides in the much bigger battle, as Jordan explains. “In one camp vendors are building web services using Java technologies and on the other side of the house there are those using .Net.” He goes on to identify Oracle, IBM and BEA as exponents of web services that use the open source java language developed by Sun.

“The reality is there won’t be one single platform,” argues Taylor. “I don’t believe there will be one all-powerful technology company on the server side. In the world of XML services the person developing the system can decide on the platform. You can go and look for the best application development method for a particular application. You can go and buy a platform or development technology that suits it best. If everyone subscribes to what comes out of WS-I [the web services interoperabilty group] then it should all integrate.”

“The day of locking in customers to one platform are gone,” agrees IBM’s Scully.

“In most medium to large organisations there is going to be an element of .Net and an element of Java,” reasons Oracle’s Cleverly. “So there is a need for interoperability in business processes and data integration. There is a real need for a common way to interoperate.”

For once, all of the leading vendors share the same view. The next challenge is to extend agreed standards and seamless processes beyond the internal workings of an organisation to external business partners.

By Ian Campbell

Next week: Web services and business-to-business