Technology

Web Services: The Great Buildup

The vision of ''Web services'' is really about software infrastructure, or the lack thereof. In the Web-services model, companies won't buy softwar...
Scott LeibsMay 1, 2001

A grand new vision of the Internet is emerging, at least among software firms eager to sell the building blocks that would make it possible. While dubbed “Web services,” this vision is really about software infrastructure, or the lack thereof. In the Web-services model, companies won’t buy software, they’ll rent it via the Web.

That’s essentially what happens today in the ASP model, but Web services allows the customer to rent components from various sources on the Internet, and mix and match them to create new applications. IT staffers could, in theory, create new applications as easily as they surf Web sites, linking one vendor’s database service with another’s analytic engine, and perhaps augmenting that with still other companies’ credit-authorization or currency-conversion capabilities. Supply-chain partners wouldn’t just swap data, they also would link their systems at the most fundamental levels, achieving integration far beyond what today’s Web-based exchanges allow.

Two trends are converging to make this vision possible. The first is the maturation of several critical interface standards, including XML, SOAP, UDDI, and WSDL, which provide the means by which software modules can work with, and even “find,” one another on the Web. (UDDI, for example, is a searchable directory of all Web services extant.) The other is the enthusiasm for this concept shared by Microsoft, IBM, Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard, and a host of other software vendors that make the tools and programming languages that would underlie this world of Web services.

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While the market for these products barely exists, confusion has set in as various vendors trumpet both their adherence to standards and the superiority of their own products. Microsoft and Sun are most clearly positioned as direct competitors, although as AMR Research senior analyst Peter Urban notes, “a program written in [Sun’s] Java should be able to talk to a program written in [Microsoft’s] C# if they both adhere to SOAP and the other standards.”

What the competition is really about, says Mark Desmery, chief technology officer at Duzine.com LLC, a New Paltz, N.Y.-based firm that offers a currency-conversion product in something like a Web-services model, is “a battle for developer mind share.” Each vendor wants to establish itself early on as the best source of the products that other software firms and corporate IT departments will need to pursue the Web-services model.

While it exists today mostly as an abstraction, there is a compelling argument for Web services: The Internet can do more than simply provide a pipeline for data. It can act as a de facto infrastructure, augmenting or even replacing costly “back office” installations that are virtually synonymous with IT. And software programs could become more robust and provide greater strategic impact, if they could be created quickly by connecting existing, proven components in new ways.

But companies have been burned by grand visions before. The idea of building software quickly and more cheaply through reusable components has been around for at least 15 years, to little effect; similarly, client-server architectures were supposed to spread computing over a network and reap many rewards. Some of that did come to pass, in the sense that the Internet operates that way, but in a larger sense, no one looks back fondly on client-server initiatives.

Still, Web services not only has the support of major vendors (in March, Microsoft opened a new Silicon Valley technology center devoted to the concept) but it’s also already creeping into the market. Duzine’s currency-conversion service depends on client-installed software that can reach into the company’s server and retrieve the latest conversion rates on an annual-subscription basis. It is a Web-based service, certainly, although since clients must buy and install a small software component, it doesn’t follow the pure model espoused by the major vendors.

“To be a pure Web service, we’d have to use standards like SOAP [simple object access protocol], and so would clients,” says Desmery. “And that requires both parties to be rocket scientists.” Desmery says that while “wizards” supplied by Microsoft and others might simplify the use of SOAP and thus usher in an era of pure Web services, “it’s certainly not going to happen this year.”

Open Table, a San Francisco manufacturer of CRM (customer relationship management) software aimed at the restaurant and food-services industry, has begun to offer Web services to its clients. American Express, for example, uses Open Table’s service to allow visitors to the American Express Web site to make restaurant reservations. Susan Lally, Open Table’s vice president of engineering, says, “By packaging our technology as a Web service, we can partner with almost anyone, regardless of their technology.” Any company interested in adding a restaurant-reservation capability to its Web site, or within a software application, can do so simply by “pointing” its Web-based application to Open Table (and establishing some form of licensing agreement or business alliance with the company).

Of course, tapping an existing restaurant-reservation function is a simple concept: no one wants to build that if it already exists. But will companies go further, restructuring their systems so that Web services becomes a critical part of their entire IT capability? Some analysts, such as AMR’s Urban, say yes, and believe the time is now. “Early adopters will be able to integrate internal and external applications,” he says, “and get an advantage over companies that wait to see how this plays out.”

Neil Charney, director of Microsoft’s .Net enterprise solutions group, says that “it’s not easy or obvious how to do it, but the tools are here today. It’s not a future vision.” The release of Microsoft’s VisualStudio.Net developing environment later this year, not to mention a stream of product announcements from other major companies, will ensure that “Web services” remains a hot buzz phrase for many months to come. Whether the availability of so many picks and shovels proves there’s gold in them thar’ hills, however, remains to be seen.

The ABCs of Web Services

XML (extensible mark-up language). This is the single most important standard for Web services, and for any application that requires structured documents to be exchanged over the Internet. It allows various components of a data stream to be properly identified and interchanged, something Web pages written in HTML can’t do. “With XML, my purchase order can talk to your processing system,” is how Microsoft’s Neil Charney puts it.

SOAP (simple object access protocol). This standard allows applications that want to share XML-encoded data to connect with one another and initiate a transaction.

UDDI (universal description, discovery, and integration). This is a specification for Web-based registries or directories of Web services. A UDDI directory would essentially be a yellow pages of Web services. More than 2,000 companies have already signed on. For more information, see www.uddi.org.