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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.

Applications built with Web services standards such as SOAP (simple object access protocol) in a sense describe themselves to each other so they can link up automatically. That has big implications for intercompany integration, because while companies today can help their own applications talk to each other by standardizing on certain technologies or platforms, they have little or no control over what their business partners use. If everyone writes to a Web services standard, though, supply-chain integration could take a huge leap forward. Companies that already have a working relationship through electronic data interchange, E-procurement, or other forms of electronic communication will be able to extend that through Web services.

These “contained external users,” in the parlance of IDC, represent a likely second phase of Web services adoption. A pilot program between Royal Dutch Shell and the British government, with help from IBM, is one example. Volumes of data pertaining to drilling activity, once provided to the government in paper form to satisfy regulatory requirements, will now be passed along automatically from Shell’s computer systems to the government’s, using Web services communication protocols.

Plug and Pay

The longer-term possibilities entail “dynamic search and use,” in which companies buy and sell (or, more likely, rent) applications modules in a vast electronic bazaar. In this vision, a technology known as UDDI (universal description, discovery, and integration) would act as an automated yellow pages, alerting the software builder to the existence of, say, a claims-processing module here, an electronic remittance module there. Plug them together, add other functions as needed, and you could build a complex application on the fly. And if you happened to build a module in-house that others might find useful, post it via the UDDI and let the world beat a path to your door. While one part of your IT shop operates in a newly lean and mean manner, another becomes a profit center.

That vision is years away from reality, and depends on not only further refinement of the standards that would let applications snap together but also issues pertaining to security and identity — just who are you buying that module from, anyway, and will that company support it?

Even if Web services never reach full flower, they promise great benefits. But it’s not a foregone conclusion that they will evolve smoothly. For one thing, efforts to create standards within the IT world almost always encounter strife, and Web services are no exception. At press time, Sun Microsystems, whose Java technology is among the most dominant software-development environments in the world, was still debating whether or not to join the newly formed WS-I (Web Services Interoperability Organization). Sun says it was invited to join only a day before Microsoft, IBM, and other companies announced plans for the organization.

Beyond the Sniping

Not that IBM and Microsoft are particularly cozy: both will compete mightily in the near term to sell software tools that allow companies to build applications that adhere to Web services standards. “We don’t advocate a rip-and-replace approach,” says Bob Sutor, IBM’s director for E-business standards strategy. “We think Web services will penetrate IT shops stealthily; Microsoft, on the other hand, has come out with new programming languages and new servers.”

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