Web services: Coming to an organization near you
Analysts at Bloor have recently been discussing the impact that XML has had on the business world. XML - standing for Extensible Markup Language - is a communications language that allows computers running on different operating systems and software to understand each other. It allows data interoperability between disparate systems.
This type of interoperability provided a level of connectivity between computer systems, allowing people to perform such collaborative functions as sharing files, storage or printers. And three to four years ago XML was seen as the next big things. However, software vendors realised that, whilst XML allows data to be exchanged, a means of proving a deeper, richer level of inter-system connexion was still required since early efforts were still too manually intensive.
Efforts to extend the business possibilities afforded by XML led to the development of SOAP - Simple Object Access Protocol - which describes how to code XML data, or HTML headers, so that a computer running on a different operating system can read, pass on and react to the information being exchanged. SOAP is a variation of XML that is used to package and send programmatic data around computer networks. This extension of XML to the SOAP protocol means that companies now have a much deeper level of interaction - rather than merely passing information around, they can now invoke commands to actually manipulate data without the need to program disparate systems individually.
The development of SOAP led to the development of Web services. Based on XML, Web services allow users connected to the Web, or a corporate network, to gain access to a range of services, on whichever operating system they are running. Web services enable data to be moved around and provide the ability to connect and relate all disparate sources of data. For example, Web services can be used to instruct a computer to turn secure messaging facilities on - automatically, without the need for a programmer to write any code. In another example, end users inputting a client's contact details into a handheld device can use Web services to automatically synchronise that data to all the other computer systems that they use via Web services capabilities - meaning that they will always be working on the latest version of the data without the need to organize files to delete older versions.
Over the past 18 months or so, Web services have reached sufficient maturity to enter the mainstream. Companies such as Microsoft are embedding Web services into all of their new products, from servers, to development tools, to end-user devices such as games consoles. Speaking on behalf of Microsoft, Steven van Roekel, director of platform strategies for the firm, believes that Web services are now at the level of maturity where they are being used to write richer business applications, securely, in a multi-vendor world. Van Roekel gives the example of a stereo system - whereas some years ago we would buy one huge system with all the components built in, the development of the RCA jack allowed us to chop and change components to upgrade, for example, the amplifier alone. In the business world, Web services enable all sorts of software components to work together and to react on the content that they receive.
At this point, end users are just beginning to think deeply about adding Web services to their technology stacks. Over the past six months or so, Microsoft has been seeing end-user organizations beginning to develop Web services centres of competence. Rather than piecemeal implementations, companies are looking at how Web services will be a part of the technology stack on which their entire business is run. In manufacturing, this will allow devices on the shop-floor level to communicate with supply chain systems, providing companies with greater visibility throughout their operations.
So, my take on the argument about the importance of XML is that its evolution is the development of Web services. XML is necessary to describe data and make it interoperable, but Web services are used to describe what can be done with that data. And most of the technology vendors around today have caught on and are embedding Web services in their products. The days of any one vendor recommending that companies should use all of their products in isolation to achieve interoperability are over. Web services are mainstream.
Copyright 2004. Originally published by IT-Director.com, reprinted with permission. IT-Director.com provides IT decision makers with free daily e-mails containing news analysis, member-only discussion forums, free research, technology spotlights and free on-line consultancy. To register for a free e-mail subscription, click here.
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