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A look back at the year in Web services

In this column, we'll take a look back at Web services in 2003 to see where we've come from and in the next column, we'll look ahead to 2004 and see where we're heading.

The Web Services Advisor
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January takes its name from Janus, the Roman two-headed god of beginnings. Janus' two heads looked in opposite directions -- one to the past and one to the future -- and so this month my columns will take their inspirations from Janus. In this first column, we'll take a look back at Web services in 2003 to see where we've come from and in the next column, we'll look ahead to 2004 and see where we're heading.

The year overall
Analysts generally agree that 2003 was a year in which Web services turned from hype into reality. As the year began, the technology had buzz, but not many implementations; by year's end it had started to become firmly entrenched in the IT universe. It was the year that Web services became an established fact.

"At the beginning of the year, there was still a question about whether Web services was hype and it wasn't getting traction in the enterprise," says Ron Schmelzer, senior analyst with ZapThink. "But by year's end, people realized that Web services was a fait accompli. IBM and Microsoft made clear that they were committed to Web services as the future."

As part of that commitment, Microsoft unveiled the plumbing of its next generation of Windows, code-name Longhorn -- and at the heart of it was a communications subsystem called Indigo, which is based on Web services technologies and which will use a service oriented architecture (SOA). The message was unavoidable: If you use Windows, Web services and SOA are the future.

In fact, SOA was key to Web services in the past year, maintains Jason Bloomberg, senior analyst with ZapThink. "The most significant change in 2003 is that people are now serious about implementing SOAs," he says. "Early in the year there was no understanding of what an SOA is, but by year's end there was a broad understanding of what they're for and why they should be used. By the end of the year, we received an increasing number of inquiries from architectural teams starting SOA initiatives or wanting to start them."

Adds Schmelzer, "You saw SOA emerging in more and more presentations and products."

Protocols were important
A lot of the important Web services work took place under the radar, with the nitty-gritty of adopting protocols and incorporating those protocols into usable products. Jeff Mitchell, Managing Director in Integration Services for Bearing Point says that among the most important developments during the year were that vendors adopted Web services protocols into their product stacks, "and so they put into their products the ability to expose functionality through WSDL and XML and to expose aspects of Web services via UDDI."

Patrick Gannon, President and CEO of the OASIS standards-setting body, points to the OASIS Business Process Execution Language (BPEL) standard as one of the more important events of the year, because it will allow businesses to coordinate and automate how business processes are done via Web services and so ties actual business processes to a sequence of Web service interactions.

That's not to say that all was well in the world of protocols -- there was too much squabbling over a myriad of Web services standards, which held back development of the technology, say many analysts. Mitchell says that there was disagreement over protocols for "things such as security, management and workflow…you have probably six different committees working on these kinds of protocols and so they haven't come to fruition." That has been one of the year's major roadblocks to more widespread acceptance of Web services. Gannon says, for example, that it's important that a standard for interoperable messaging be agreed upon -- something that didn't happen in 2003.

The business slowdown
Overarching all was the continuing economic doldrums in 2003, which significantly affected Web services development and acceptance. Dave Sanders, Vice President in charge of Bearing Point's Integration Services for Public Services, says that "the slowdown in tech spending affected Web services last year. Investment in research and development was often cut dramatically…the slowdown meant that people simply weren't doing as much new work. We found that people were just doing things that they found worked before and weren't spending on new, innovative projects."

Web services projects typically involve enterprise architecture and "the problem with spending on enterprise architecture is that there is no immediate ROI on it, it has a more long-term payoff and the spending in 2003 was heavy on immediate ROI. There was very little enterprise architecture work."

Summing up
Patrick Gannon best sums up the year for Web services when he says that in 2003, "We've gotten out of the hype stage and are beginning to get down into reality. But the reality is that we still have a ways to go. The vast majority of Web services implementations have been implemented primarily behind the firewall, with a few notable examples like Amazon. But for the most part, the corporate-level, enterprise, non-consumer Web services activities were in enterprise integration behind the firewall or with very trusted partners. Messaging and security are not in place yet, so you can't deploy reliable, secure messaging using open standards."

How about 2004 -- will that be fixed in the coming year? What else can you expect to see in 2004? We'll look at that in my next column.

Continues in Part Two

For related Articles and Commentary:

About the Author

Preston Gralla, a well-known technology expert, is the author of more than 20 books, including "How the Internet Works," which has been translated into 14 languages and sold several hundred thousand copies worldwide. He is an expert on Web services and the author of a major research and white paper for the Software and Information Industry Association on the topic. Gralla was the founding managing editor of PC Week, a founding editor and then editor and editorial director of PC/Computing, and an executive editor for ZDNet and CNet. He has written about technology for more than 15 years for many major magazines and newspapers, including PC Magazine, Computerworld, CIO Magazine, eWeek and its forerunner PC Week, PC/Computing, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and the Dallas Morning News among others. As a well-known technology guru, he appears frequently on TV and radio shows and networks, including CNN, MSNBC, ABC World News Now, the CBS Early Show, PBS's All Things Considered and others. He has won a number of awards for his writing, including from the Computer Press Association for the Best Feature in a Computer Publication. He can be reached at preston@gralla.com.

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