Web services (part 3): business integration

18 Apr 2003

There was a certain irony when Microsoft recently walked out of a World Wide Web (W3C) working group on web services. The main objective of W3C is to set up an environment whereby IT companies can agree on standards, except that this time they couldn’t agree. Microsoft joined IBM in exile from the group, a rare example of camaraderie between the two arch-rivals. It remains to be seen how much of a blow this will be.

Web services have encouraged rare moments of unity among the vendor community. Everybody wants it because everybody needs it, so why the stumbling block?

The problems have arisen as exponents of rapid integration software applications have approached their biggest challenge – to extend their reach from an organisation’s internal business processes to interoperating with other partners in the supply chain. Many see this as the holy grail of business processes.

John Scully, IBM’s director of Global Services, outlines the challenge: “You might be able to insist that an internal department conforms to a centralised standard, but you have no way of insisting what a supplier can work on.”

He develops the point with a brief history of corporate IT infrastructure. “In the early days, IT managers contained everything and there were all these islands of automation within a single enterprise. The next stage was to put layers on top of them adding a degree of internal integration, which yielded great benefits,” he explains. “Web services are really giving an organisation the ability to take it outside the enterprise so you’re not just able to connect sales to stock control, for example, but you can also connect to your customers and suppliers in a seamless manner as well.”

Describing web services as a way of “getting rid of the complexity”, he acknowledges that making them effective between different organisations is in itself complex. To this end, Microsoft and IBM have conducted business-to-business trials using web services to connect their own systems.

“Ourselves and IBM have been most instrumental in the adoption of web services and standards, which makes us funny bedfellows because we compete on so many other fronts,” says Microsoft’s chief technical architect Ian Taylor. “On integration we’re working really closely together to make sure the standards don’t fragment.”

The problem is that they may be talking to each other, but no one else is joining in – at least as far as the business-to-business standards are concerned. “We don’t care what the standard is as long as everyone can work to it,” says Oracle’s Andrew Cleverly, unimpressed by Microsoft walking away from the W3C group. He does, however, share the view that web services are crucial in the next stage of development for web-based business processes.

“The internet is moving from a communications protocol through to an information sharing protocol to an integrated application platform,” he says, “and web services are a very important part of that.”

Taylor sums up the big challenge: “Today, it’s pretty easy to do web services inside the firewall, but you wouldn’t necessarily deploy an enterprise application on the internet right now because there are things missing that aren’t there such as reliable messaging, addressing, security and routing.

“Once you go ‘live’ onto the internet you need these enhancements to the specifications as they were initially designed,” says Taylor. “With security, for example, we have tested and proved we can send a SOAP [simple object access protocol] message across to an IBM system and they can read the security information. We’re getting these features into the products before the competition. But if we’re the only ones that can do it, that’s no good.”

Sun Microsystems refutes the suggestion that Microsoft is ahead of the game and claims to be leading the way with the Java community at integrating processes and reinforcing security issues. “It’s the raw stuff that comes out first in terms of the specification and how one should do it,” says Sun’s business development manager, Brian Jordan. “Then we have to make the development tools easier and the whole thing more reliable. There is a lot more to this jigsaw than the web services components.

“We’re leading the charge in a number of areas with other vendors,” says Jordan. “If you’re going to introduce web services they have to be bullet proof. With a variety of vendors, including Fujitsu Siemens, Hitachi, NEC and Oracle, we’ve published the web services reliability specification draft. At the moment people who are writing web services pretty much have to cater for themselves. These kinds of things should not be in the hands of the programmers. Reliability has to be built into the network.”

There is clearly a lot of work to be done but the potential benefits to the business community are vast. Up until now the most common method for inter-company information exchange is EDI (electronic data interchange). Such customised computer-to-computer access makes it possible for companies to exchange orders and transactions, feeding directly into each other’s business processes. But for many smaller firms it has been an expensive and prohibitive solution, making it impossible for them to partake in larger supply chains.

The new standards that underpin web services will replace the old way of doing things and bring many more companies into the process.

“Companies used to demand that partners in its supply chain adopt expensive EDI solutions,” says Scully. “Now, using XML [extensible markup language] you can talk with anybody. You don’t have this prescriptive way of doing things. And in the old way the company at the top of the supply chain would lose out because they had a smaller selection of suppliers looking for their business.”

The caveat is that selling this concept to companies might be difficult and runs the risk of being dismissed as just another in a long line of over-hyped IT solutions.

“People spent so much money on technology in the late Nineties and 2000 and are wondering what they got for it,” agrees Scully, but he argues that ability of webs services to integrate legacy systems in a modular way makes all the difference.

“With web services you can show low costs and a proof of concept that leverages the investment they’ve already made,” says Scully. “That’s the way you’ve got to sell to customers today.”

By Ian Campbell