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Be careful: What every business executive needs to know about Web services

Sometimes, the mistakes of youth can haunt a person later in life. If you aren't careful, the same could happen to your business with high-tech's latest industry game changer: Web services. It is the next phase in e-business and something every executive should be considering. If the first phases of e-business focused on extending existing business systems to the Web, this next phase is about linking your systems with those of your suppliers, customers and partners. This will save time and money, and could change the competitive landscape.

As general manager of IBM's Application & Integration Middleware Division, John Swainson has global responsibility for strategic middleware technologies -- Web application servers, e-commerce servers, transaction systems, application development tools and new speech-based technologies, used to transform business into e-business for customers worldwide. Most of these technologies fall under the brand umbrella of WebSphere, IBM's e-business infrastructure platform.


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Be careful: What every business executive needs to know about Web services

Sometimes, the mistakes of youth can haunt a person later in life. If you aren't careful, the same could happen to your business with high-tech's latest industry game changer: Web services.

It is the next phase in e-business and something every executive should be considering. If the first phases of e-business focused on extending existing business systems to the Web, this next phase is about linking your systems with those of your suppliers, customers and partners. This will save time and money, and could change the competitive landscape.

Web services are nothing more than Web-based interfaces to applications that enable them to communicate and collaborate on tasks without human involvement. The magic is that by using an interface based on industry standards (you may have heard of some of them, such as XML) you can rapidly open up a closed technology infrastructure, and turn it into one that can be accessed in a variety of different ways. This is equally useful for integrating applications inside a company or between them.

Take the travel industry, for example. With Web services, an airline could publish information about flight status and schedules. If a flight were delayed, the airline could quickly notify not just the passengers (via phone, e-mail or pagers) but also other companies in the "chain," including hotels and rental car companies, with the passengers' revised arrival times, and reschedule connecting flights affected by the delay.

One reaction might be: What's the big deal, can't you do this with existing technology? The answer is a qualified yes. Given enough time and determination, you could figure out all the different interfaces and protocols that the hotel, rental car company, other airlines and customer used, and negotiate with them to provide the information. It might take months or even years to do this, which for many applications is the kiss of death. With Web services, using standard Internet technology, you can publish this information once, and anybody can pick it up, without changing their existing systems.

Health care is another industry that will benefit from Web services. Hospitals, labs, pharma companies, universities and doctor's offices all generate large quantities of information about patient care and disease prevention. Web services provides a way to start accessing that information, and bringing it to bear on solving individual medical problems. For example, heath care providers could use Web Services to gather diagnoses, lab results and other relevant information about a patient and make it available to the doctor, even at the bedside. It is important to realize that these data may be generated by completely different systems, with different data formats and different capabilities; Web services allows them to publish their data in ways that others can use, without forcing the individual sources to all work the same way.

But you could get off on the wrong foot with Web services, and regret it for a long time. Some Web services will be reusable on any hardware platform running any operating system. That means you can reuse the application on any device, from a pacemaker to a mainframe. But others will only be able to run on one operating system and one hardware platform.

This seems innocent enough on the surface, but consider the inner-workings of a typical car manufacturer that wishes to implement Web services to integrate its ordering system with its supply chain. Dealers will enter new orders from wireless devices or desktop PCs. The new orders will interoperate with a database on a mainframe that will arrange to have the cars sent out. From there a message must be sent to a database from a different vendor running on a mainframe from a fourth vendor to send new parts down to the factory floor. Those parts will need to be replenished via orders to various suppliers. Management uses desktop computers and wants to view all transactions.

If the desired Web services applications are built to a proprietary software architecture, any machine using these applications - from wireless devices, to laptop computers in the field, to mainframes -- would all need to be replaced with machines running the same proprietary software and hardware.

But if the Web services applications are built to an approach based on open standards, nothing will ever need to be replaced. That's the beauty of Web services. Adopt an open architecture once, and you don't have to keep rebuilding it as business conditions change and the Web keeps evolving.

Open or proprietary? That's the key question to ask as you embark on Web services. Plot your future wisely.


Copyright 2002, reprinted with permission. IBM is the world's largest information technology company, with 80 years of leadership in helping businesses innovate. IBM Software offers the widest infrastructure software for all types of computing platforms, allowing customers to take full advantage of the new era of e-business.

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