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Web Services: Can We Talk?

Web services are getting plenty of buzz, but if they do provide a simple way for applications to talk to each other, the hype may be justified.

By most accounts, Web services will creep into organizations gradually, incorporated into new applications or working quietly behind the scenes in software that companies rent from application service providers (ASPs). That’s the case with CGU Life and its ASP, Impact Technologies. A software application gathers financial data about a prospective client, effortlessly passes that information via the Internet to a secured Web site, where a CGU Life analyst can pass it through several applications at once with a single mouse-click, creating an estate plan without the rekeying of data and other manual processes that hamper customer service.

Connecting applications via the Internet is not new, of course, but what excites many companies is how easy it is to build and integrate software using Web services. Working with new software development tools from Microsoft’s .Net product family (which represents part of the software giant’s $2 billion effort to create the tools that will give rise to Web services), Impact developers achieved a fourfold boost in productivity, says company founder, chairman, and CTO Howard Keziah. And they did it without having to undergo significant new training, which means that 20-year-old Impact is managing to transition into a Web services firm without any wrenching expense or reinvention. Able to do more work in less time, the company is far freer to explore new products and improvements.

Those same benefits should accrue to companies’ internal development efforts. Corporate IT departments won’t have to worry about current staffers becoming obsolete; in most cases, the protocols that define Web services will be built into the development tools they already use, whether from Microsoft, IBM, Sun, or other companies. Programmers already schooled in object-oriented design will find the transition easy, says Keziah. They will be able to write new applications that incorporate Web services capabilities with only minimal training.

Build Your Own?

To be sure, IDC and other research firms expect most companies’ initial exposure to Web services to come via internal development. But new tools that develop applications that talk more easily to each other or to older applications will help some companies tap Web services first through third parties. ASPs, for example, are logical candidates for early adoption, because they host software programs that must, in most cases, talk to other programs to be effective. When an agent for CGU Life, for example, sits down with a client to evaluate his or her financial position, the PlanLab software running on a desktop machine must pass data to and from beefier, server-based applications that Impact hosts on behalf of its customers. But agents may want to tap expertise beyond what Impact can offer. Using Web services, says Keziah, Impact can make its software interface easily with applications from other companies. Someday, Web services proponents say, the technology will facilitate a profoundly modular approach to software development: Instead of writing big applications that tackle all the steps of a complicated process like electronic payments, corporate IT staff or third parties could snap the subcomponents together like so many blocks of Lego.

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