Services Pending

Could vendor wrangling delay -- or even kill -- Web services?
John P. Mello Jr.October 14, 2003

In July, executives at Hewlett-Packard Co. announced that the company had submitted its framework for the development of Web-services management. HP submitted its proposal to the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS), one of the two major global consortia overseeing the development and adoption of extensible markup language (XML)-based business-computing standards. The other group, the World Wide Web Consortium, is known as W3C.

In announcing the submission, HP executives noted that a number of high-profile technology vendors backed the company’s plan. The corporates on HP’s endorsement list were indeed impressive, and included Ascential Software, BEA Systems, Informatica, Iona, Oracle, Sun Microsystems, Tibco Software, and WebMethods.

There was just one problem with HP’s list: IBM and Microsoft weren’t on it.

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The omission, some observers say, speaks volumes about the difficulties currently bedeviling the Web-services movement. Long ballyhooed as a revolution in business computing, Web services, in which different software applications actually talk to one another, has been slow in coming. Three years ago, once-bitter rivals IBM and Microsoft surprised the tech world by announcing their joint support for Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP), a messaging protocol vital for the development of Web services. To many, the teaming of Big Blue and Big Bill signaled that Web services had arrived.

But some vendors reportedly worried that the powerful twosome would eventually come to dominate the Web—services agenda—and tilt the playing field in their favor. Fueling those concerns, the tech titans jointly released “Web Services Framework,” a proposal that mapped out a dozen functional components necessary for the creation of true XML-based business-computing standards.

A good idea, it seemed. But since that release in 2001, several groups of vendors have submitted standards to OASIS and W3C for a number of the 12 functions mapped out by IBM and Microsoft. Without the blessing of the duo, however, it now appears some of the proposed standards may never gain acceptance.

If executives at marquee companies such as Oracle and Sun perceive that IBM and Microsoft are looking to unfairly capitalize on Web services, they may push hard for their own agendas. And experts warn that any falling out among the top software vendors could deal a crippling blow to Web services, which cannot truly succeed without open and agreed-upon standards.

Given all this, it’s not surprising that the initial excitement over Web services has given way lately to a fair amount of pessimism. Observes Ben Gaucherin, chief technology officer at Sapient, an IT-services firm based in Cambridge, Mass.: “There was a lot of noise around Web services about a year and a half ago. That’s sort of gone away.”

Whose Table Is It?

This is not to say Web services is doomed. In fact, in an interview with CFO, a spokeswoman for IBM played down the company’s seeming lack of support for HP’s proposal. “We’re pleased that HP has put its thoughts on the table,” says Karla Norsworthy, director of dynamic eBusiness technologies at IBM. “We have some thoughts to put on the table, too, and we anticipate that working together with the standards committees, we’ll come up with some good answers for our customers.”

Customers would like that. Despite the jockeying over Web services, its premise—applications communicating with other applications—holds tremendous appeal for corporate buyers of computer software. “If you talk to CIOs,” says John Kiger, director of Web services for BEA Systems, a San Jose, Calif.-based application-infrastructure software company, “a long-standing headache has been the cost and complexity of integrating their different applications as they seek to automate business processes and improve the efficiencies of organizations.”

Efficiencies is the key word in that sentence. Web-based integration of internal software—and fee-based access to the best external programs—will likely generate substantial savings. “With increased concerns about competition and managing IT costs,” notes Kevin Pollari, a partner with consultancy Accenture, “Web services is being viewed as a key part of the effort to reduce IT costs.”

The early reports are good, that’s for sure. Take Avnet, a $9 billion distributor of electronic components and enterprise network and computer systems, which rolled out a Web-services program about a year ago. So far, CFO Ray Sadowski estimates the company has saved $9 million on an investment of $1.3 million. “The Web-services team delivered more than the ROI committed to initially,” he notes. Phoenix-based Avnet is planning to invest more money in Web-services projects next year.

A number of other companies are in the throes of rolling out XML E-business initiatives. “We’ve talked to about all the Global 2,000 companies,” claims John Hanger, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Alpharetta, Ga.-based Flamenco Networks, a maker of software for managing Web services. “And I would say that well over 80 percent of them have some sort of Web-services project going on today.”

Executives in the travel industry, in particular, seem to have embraced Web services wholeheartedly. The reason? Says Doug Chait, CFO at travel-information aggregator AgentWare: “[The travel business] lends itself to a Web-services approach where you can aggregate information from disparate sources on a single screen.”

Still, the number of Web-services projects currently in production does not come close to the hype surrounding Web services. Many of the ongoing initiatives are pilot programs; most are internal company projects. “The viability of Web services and the financial benefits of using them are there,” asserts Sapient’s Gaucherin. “But everyone isn’t building Web services for their businesses just yet.”

Lots of Letters

That lack of enthusiasm may continue for a spell. Right now, the general business take seems to be that XML-based E-business is a technology whose time has not yet come. “There’s a feeling that Web services is for the brave and bleeding edge,” concedes Hanger. “It’s important for that perception to pass and for companies to feel comfortable with Web services.”

Clearly they aren’t comfortable yet. The technologies behind Web services—alphabet-soup abbreviations that include XML, SOAP, UDDI, and WSDL—remain complex concepts for all but the most tech-savvy executives. While that complexity may not keep Web services from being deployed, it will most likely hinder postdeployment expansion. “It’s still very technical and runs through an IT front,” notes Chris Valentine, CFO and CIO of Champion Exposition Services, a trade-show organizer in Middleboro, Mass. “I wish it were easier for the rank and file to use so it could be as big a component for communicating with co-workers and customers as E-mail.”

The current wrangling over specifications won’t exactly ease corporate concerns about Web services, either. Industry watchers warn that the lack of a solid set of standards could keep many customers on the sidelines. “End users are waiting for things to settle out,” asserts Robert Mick, vice president for emerging technologies at ARC Advisory Group. “One of the inhibitors has been [that] all the standards associated with Web services haven’t been on the table yet and are still evolving.”

It remains to be seen whether those standards evolve—or unravel. According to Dwight Davis, vice president and practice director for Summit Strategies, a Boston consulting firm, the perceived domination of the Web-services movement by IBM and Microsoft threatens to torpedo the spirit of vendor unity. In a recent report, Davis wrote that Microsoft and IBM’s “seemingly iron grip on the evolution of Web services has engendered more than a little resentment among other industry players.”

He flagged as a danger sign the duo’s apparent opposition to proposed standards in business-process flow/choreography and reliable messaging—proposals submitted by two distinct vendor coalitions. Davis said IBM and Microsoft not only opposed the proposed standards but also countered with proposals of their own. “This sequence of events has alarmed some industry participants, who fear that the unity vendors have exhibited on the initial Web-services standards may be on the verge of disintegrating,” he noted.

But some technology watchers believe IBM and Microsoft’s influence over E-business standards won’t send other vendors packing. “I don’t think too many people are blinking real hard on that,” claims Eric Openshaw, a partner in the San Francisco office of Deloitte Consulting. “You pick a direction and go. And you assume that if it’s coming from one of the bigger players, it’s going to be around for a while.”

For his part, Sapient’s Gaucherin believes corporate adoption of Web services is actually following a fairly typical script. After a technology emerges, he argues, hype builds to a crescendo. Then users discover the reality of what the technology can and can’t do, and the technology’s cachet dips. Finally the technology plateaus, and people use it without giving it a second thought. “Web services, like any other technology, is following that curve,” he says.

Backers of Web services are no doubt hoping the curve doesn’t eventually turn into a flat line.