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Meta: Web services are "disruptive" but worthwhile

An analyst who spoke at Meta Group's Summit on Web Services says the technology isn't the Holy Grail some believe it to be, but it can protect companies from the pitfalls of legacy technology. However, attendees questioned whether Web services have evolved enough to play a major role in the enterprise.

BOSTON -- According to a top Meta Group analyst, XML Web services will not only become the common threads sewing new enterprise technologies together, but also the fabric that protects companies from the pitfalls of legacy software.

Nick Gall, a vice president with Stamford, Conn.-based Meta and the opening keynote speaker at Meta's Summit on Web Services, told attendees Tuesday that Web services should not be considered enterprise IT's latest Holy Grail because "nobody knew what the Holy Grail's real value was or what to do with it if they found it."

"Web services are one of the most disruptive technologies out there" because of their potential impact on so many different vertical markets, Gall said. He also noted that the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) standards group has yet to officially define what a Web service is, even though almost every major technology vendor is adopting a Web services strategy.

However, instead of viewing them negatively, he said technology decision-makers should see Web services as a safety net for integration because XML data representations can make it much easier for disparate systems to communicate.

"I can't think of a [Meta Group] client that isn't in construction with an XML application or piloting one," Gall said.

In fact, Gall said Web services support Meta's advice to clients, which is to build technology infrastructures not with the goal of saving money or optimizing performance, but to handle constant and sustainable change.

Web services are like the giant freight containers used on cargo ships, Gall said. Even though the contents inside may vary from container to container, or message to message, because they are all packaged and transported the same way, dealing with the contents is easier and cheaper. So when technology changes are required involving systems that use Web services, the impact is minimal since the information, encoded in XML, is dealt with in a uniform way.

Still, not all attendees were ready to leap wholeheartedly into Web services development. David Conroy, chief executive of Big Picture Software, headquartered in Dublin, Ireland, said that designing technology infrastructures for change is a good idea but questioned whether Web services are ready for the task.

"Web services make a lot of sense," Conroy said, "but the range of additional services, like security, need to be worked out." He said his company may implement Web services early next year when more support specifications have been defined.

Brian Steele, a consultant with Cambridge, Mass.-based business intelligence vendor Painted Word Inc., said Web services are a "tough sell" because corporate decision-makers aren't interested in spending on anything that can't produce an immediate return on investment.

Grading technology on a curve

According to Meta's technology adoption paradigm, a company's use of a technology -- anything from basic client-server computing to advanced ebXML -- evolves in three stages, or curves, and Gall said Web services will be no different.

First, a company's workers discover how a technology works, and relatively little progress is made. Before long, a lengthy innovation stage begins, and not only does the technology help innovate various aspects of the business, but worker productivity also curves dramatically upward.

Unfortunately, Gall said, the technology eventually reaches the legacy stage, when it becomes too complicated or antiquated to be beneficial to the company.

Gall said companies are continually choosing which old technology investments to abandon, which new ones to pursue and when to do it, but XML Web services could end that cycle. He said that a Web services layer can stretch over a company's legacy software and prolong its usefulness, ensuring that data always has a basic way to move between systems.


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