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Will Web services slip or leap?

This article provides an overview of the unique features of Web services technology, peeps into the key players' roles and discusses the challenges needing tackling before Web services can be accepted in true business sense.


Will Web services slip or leap?
The hype and hoopla surrounding Web services seems to be never-ending. On one end, Web services have been criticized as another technology wave that will soon face doom like the dot.com wave. On the other end, analysts believe that Web services are a new technology revolution and are going to stay and change the whole paradigm of electronic business arena. Though Web services are in the very early stages, vendors large and small have lots of expectations for them.

This article provides an overview of the unique features of Web services technology, peeps into the key players' roles and discusses the challenges needing tackling before Web services can be accepted in true business sense.

The concept...
Web services (WS) can be anything in this world that can be accessed online, anywhere and anytime. They can be airline/bus/train reservation processes, restaurant menus, a travel directory, online grocery shopping, billing, ordering, catering, a hospital exposing its services, etc. If the latest technology really takes off, it might move far beyond our imagination and even turn our lifestyle into a cyber lifestyle, when we will do each and every thing online. In an article on News.com, Bob Sutor, IBM's director of e-business strategy, envisions a future where people will be able to access their personal information online on any device and do everything from shopping and banking to checking their e-mail or calendar through WS.

The features...
Web services possess some unique features which have created a sense of joie de vivre among the business fraternity. We have tried to list some of the features below:

  • Multiple data and services: Web services allow integration and personalization of data and services from multiple sources. For example, if a customer wants to book a ticket for his holiday, he might have to browse several World Wide Web sites for the best offerings. Web services, by contrast, would bring best-of-class offerings directly to the user's desktop.
  • Reduced time and integration cost: Systems integration is a sector where most of the companies spend a lot of time and money. With Web services, companies can reduce their application integration budgets.
  • Platform and language independence: Web services can be developed using any programming language and can be deployed on any platform.
  • Applicable anywhere: Web services are applicable to any kind of Web environment--they can be used on the Internet, intranet and extranet.
  • Multiple types of interaction support: Web services can support business-to-business, business-to-consumer, department-to-department or peer-to-peer interactions.
  • Variable users: A Web service customer can be a human being accessing the service through a desktop or wireless browser, it can be an application program or it can be another Web service.
  • Access anywhere: Web services can be accessed through any device that has Internet access, including cellular phones, hand-held computing gadgets, desktop and notebook computers.
  • Focus on services: Web services allow organizations to concentrate on services without getting distracted by implementation details. They allow organizations to sort out problems from the start and get the design of the business service right, before getting into details of implementation.*
  • Business vision: Web services give a concrete technical representation of the business vision in the shape of a service that can be executed, tested and connected with applications, where the services takes the most prominent spot.*

The initiators
Technology giants Microsoft, IBM and Sun Microsystems are the pioneers of Web services technology. They have invested heavily in this sector so that their technologies get widely accepted. It has been estimated by many research firms that the Web services market will be worth billions by 2006.

With the recent launch of WebSphere 5, IBM aims to help enterprises integrate business processes to make transactions among vendors, suppliers and customers more fluid. The product comprises a technology for developing Web services across networks and transport protocols, such as HTTP and instant messaging. The product also claims to possess a speedy technology that processes Web services SOAP requests three to four times faster than was previously possible.

Evans Data Corporation's North American Developer Survey series report said that out of 600 developers surveyed, 40% of developers are now creating applications for .NET of Microsoft, and 63% will develop applications using the .NET framework a year from now. In turn, while 51% developers surveyed currently write with Java of Sun Microsystems, some 61% said they planned to take it up in 2003.

But, the way the Web services concept was initiated by the above giants was not kept up in the times that followed. Web services also require efforts from other key players, vendors, industries, developer community and the consumers at large to give it a real meaning.

The roadblocks
We have tried to list some loopholes or roadblocks on the way to Web services. To realize Web services in a true business sense, the following issues should be addressed.

  • Lack of common standards in areas of reliable messaging, transactions and work flow.
  • Risk of sensitive data being shoveled out of the door through a Web services interface.
  • Authentication challenges in machine-to-machine interaction--especially when Web services are used to link systems with different authentication architectures.
  • As Web services are likely to span the Internet, who will take care of the link security risk in such a case?
  • Web services will consist of multiple numbers of customers. There is a chance of transactions getting garbled -- who will take responsibility for paying the bill?
  • How can a user be sure that the data and information meant for a customer/client is only visible to that customer/client and no one else?
  • Who will make sure that data stored on the network or systems are not altered?
  • Will all the users be identified before being granted access to resources?
  • Will all the requests made by the users will be authorized based on their roles, responsibilities and enterprise policies?
  • Users should not be able to deny transactions made by them.
  • Who will protect the privacy of the communication between a customer and the service provider?
  • Any message on the Internet can be intercepted and modified. Who will notify recipients of the message, if the message is tampered with?
  • Web services may have multiple application support on the same server; then security of the critical application could be threatened. Will there be a permission-based access to systems areas and directories to protect the data in the system?
  • Web services do not have SLAs built in. So, migrating mission critical applications with predictable response time to a Web services model may not be easy.
  • How will responsibility be shared for fixing Web services when they break? Since Web services are not locally hosted, it's not clear who controls the source code, how the service works or even where the service is hosted.

Thus, to attain the attention of consumers, the key players should try to build 'trust' and 'reliability' among the consumers towards the service.

Henceforth, the industry should get to a point where people can build systems the way they want to build them but still talk to the rest of the world.

Conclusion
In these clouds surrounding Web services, we do see a silver lining, as the World Wide Web Consortium has recently announced that the Web services choreography standard is just 18-24 months away.

But Gartner Group analysts predict that Web services will have a mainstream impact only by 2004. Another view says that it would take another 10 years to realize Web services in a true sense. Again, there are those who say that the concept will die in a year or two.

However, with the likely emergence of new standards, we can say that Web services are a promising new technology wave that is definitely going to sustain, but before that it needs to tackle the challenges to assure a safe and sound ambience for better dealings. Will Web services be able to do this? Will they slip or leap? We will have to just wait and watch!


* Reference: Web services: An elephant in the dark by Suhayl Masud.


About the Author:

Copyright 2002, Reprinted with permission. Mitali Kalita, Manager, Pinnacle Research Group. Pinnacle Systems Inc. is an international software development and consulting firm established in 1995. Pinnacle's core strength lies in providing IT services to large and medium enterprises in the areas of Application Development, Integration, Re-engineering/Migration, and Maintenance.

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