Web Services Part 3: The road ahead for web services

26 Feb 2004

Opinions on the future potential of XML-based (extensible markup language) web services seem to fall into two distinct camps. On the one hand there are those who believe their impact will be confined to the plumbing of corporate networks allowing previously incompatible applications to speak to each other. This will revolutionise how businesses manage their IT infrastructure and interact with other businesses but the impact on the wider community will be negligible.

The other camp accepts this view but says the impact will be much wider. Consumers will be able to pull down web services to their wireless device. So for example if I was travelling and got sick I would be able to find the nearest doctor and view their diary to see if they had a free appointment. It’s pretty futuristic stuff. In reality the truth probably lies somewhere between the two.

Sean McGrath, chief technology officer (CTO) of XML specialists Propylon, is one of those questioning the vision of all-pervasive web services. “We will never see the day when there are zillions of re-usable web services on the web,” says McGrath. “There are significant problems when it comes to scale and you can’t design away the network. London and New York will always be 30 milliseconds apart — that may not sound like much but it’s an eternity for this kind of thing.”

Arlene Adams, software and solutions director with Sun Microsystems UK and Ireland, suggests that web services could be the catalyst for smart devices that communicate without user intervention. “At the moment a field engineer can use web services to get information in the field across a secure connection from a mobile device,” says Adams. “In the future the device could use web services to transact without using people — a meter could be talking back to a utility company to tell it there’s a problem.”

The introduction of Longhorn, the next version of Microsoft Windows, in 2006 will give a huge boost to the adoption of web services. It has a web services sub system called Indigo that will mean Windows will be a fully compatible web services client. This means Windows applications will easily be able to connect to other applications on services over the internet. For example, if you have just completed your accounts in Excel and want to file them to the Revenue Commissioners as part of your tax return. With web services you’ll be able to send it directly from Excel and get a receipt or notification if you’ve left out any required information.

What is certain is that organisations of all sizes are going to start deploying this technology and are going to need some sort of system for managing it. If a company makes services available to partners it will need to have rules about who can use each service, what security will be applied, how to retire existing web services without impacting the other ones it runs. That clearly creates an opportunity for new software companies to rise to the top.

Certainly the adoption of more standards regarding more sophisticated features will be vital if web services are to deliver on the promise. Iona Technology’s CTO Eric Newcomer believes that a resolution has almost been reached on a reliability standard, but the current emphasis on complex issues such as orchestration and choreography (which allow for the creation of highly fluid web services drawing data from a range of sources) is happening too soon.

“The market is not ready for that,” says Newcomer. “We’ll need them later on. It’s the grand vision once all the web services are in place and you want to create new applications out of them. That will be the next big battleground.”

Freddie Kavanagh, CTO with Novell EMEA, suggests that organisations planning to use web services internally shouldn’t wait around for the standards to catch up. “If it’s just internal you can take steps without having to adhere to standards, you have to be aware of them but it shouldn’t hold you back,” says Kavanagh. “The potential has got ahead of the standards.”

While Microsoft seems to have realised the need to embrace the new technology not all major players are being as responsive, even if they are sure to include web services references in their marketing materials. In fact web services fit the classic model of a disruptive technology. It may not currently be as good as competing technologies but it’s faster and cheaper. As usual many established players are ignoring the upstart that is giving it the breathing space to improve. Eventually it should reach a level where it displaces the existing wave of technology that could drag some of the old school technology vendors down with them. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

By John Collins