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Are Web Services More than Just Hype?

Will Web Services become the Next Big Thing or are they fated to turn into the Edsel of the 21st century?

The Web Services Advisor

Are Web services more than just hype?
Will Web Services become the Next Big Thing or are they fated to turn into the Edsel of the 21st century? Will they transform computing and the enterprise, as backers promise, or end up as just another piece of forgotten marketing hype, the answer to a trivia question, as some of the more cynical detractors say?

For now, the answers to these questions to a great extent depends upon what you expect to get out of them, the size of your company, and how soon you hope to reap the benefits of the emerging technology. Because while Web services aren't yet for every company, some businesses have already spent serious time and money deploying them, and should soon get some payback. In this column, I'll strip away the hype and let you know what Web services are and who's getting the most out of them today - and who should stay away.

What Web services are
First, let's take a quick look at what Web services really are. Throw away all the hype, and they're simply modular software components wrapped inside a specific set of Internet communications protocols, and that can be run across the Internet. They can communicate with other components automatically without human intervention. They can be used on an Intranet inside a firewall, or out across the greater Internet. Web services can do things as varied as automate business processes and tie together disparate components of an enterprise-wide system, or deliver alerts to individuals about stock prices and the weather. The components themselves can be written using a variety of different development tools.

Big deal. What's so revolutionary about that?
The revolution is in the underlying standards including XML, UDDI, WSDL and SOAP. The promise is that if built to these standards, Web services can be used by anyone, anywhere, any time. (We'll cover these standards in some detail in my next column.) And therein lies Web services greatest promises and greatest drawbacks. Because these standards, and other related ones still to come, really aren't quite "cooked" yet, the promise of universal interoperability may remain a promise in name only for some time.

Who's using Web services today?
Despite that, there are some pioneers willing to build them because even the initial benefits are worthwhile. To date, early adopters have included sizable businesses looking to use Web services as a way to tie together disparate computing systems, including legacy hardware and software. These pioneers are looking for inexpensive ways to connect their different computing systems - and software vendors are rushing to help them. So not surprisingly, Web services have already made a mark in the application integration market. For example, Iona Technologies, a maker of enterprise application integration (EAI) software, has entirely reorganized the company around Web services. And other EAI vendors, including Tibco and Vitria, have incorporated Web services into their integration schemes.

Companies that have begun integrating their enterprise applications using Web services include the online retailer Nordstrom.com, which has used Web services to connect its online E-tailing site to the company's legacy enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications. Nordstrom's computing architecture includes everything from Web storefronts to mainframes, Web servers and Java application servers, and Web services have been able to span them. The company has started off small, tying together only a few systems, but its holy grail is to build a single inventory system that ties its Web inventory systems to the inventory systems at the company's brick-and-mortar retail stores.

Web services also promise to be a cost-effective alternative to EDI and a way to tie companies more closely to their suppliers. Imperial Sugar, for example, has been using Web services to create a more effective supply chain. It has used Web services to build an extranet application connecting important suppliers to its order management system.

Who shouldn't be using Web services today
All that's to the good. Does that mean that everyone should be using Web services today? Far from it. There are very serious holes and problems with the technology, which is still immature. Let's start with a basic problem: solid security still isn't built into its key protocols. So if you're thinking of generating direct income from customers using Web services any time soon, think again. Reliability remains a major issue. If your Net connectivity goes on the blink - or the connectivity goes out at the firm that hosts your Web services - your Web services will be unreachable. Does your company have guaranteed, always-on, high-speed Internet connectivity that never falters? Are you ready to bet your business on it? I didn't think so. Even with excellent Internet connectivity, Web services are not yet well suited to applications which require uninterrupted sessions - in other words, applications in which dropping a piece of data would cause serious problems, such as using Web services to conduct online banking by tying into a legacy application. So cross that off for a while. Making all this worse is the major league food fight that Microsoft and Sun have engaged in over Web service standards. But I won't get into that here - that's fodder for a future column.

So what's the bottom line?
What's the bottom line for using Web services today? If you're at a major company looking to integrate enterprise applications, or to do business with a trusted business partner, it'll be well worth your while to consider it today. If you need to build a secure application for your customers, however, you should wait. Everyone else should start testing the waters, because while it may not immediately revolutionize computing the way we know it, it's certainly no Edsel - and at some point you'll want to kick its tires and take it out for a test drive.

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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