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Looking back at Web services, part 1

What were the big trends for Web services in 2004 and what can we expect from the technology in 2005? In this column, I'll look at the past year in Web services.

What were the big trends for Web services in 2004 and what can we expect from the technology in 2005? In this column, I'll look at the past year in Web services and in part two, I'll take a look ahead to see what you can expect in 2005.

SOA hits it big
Most experts and analysts agree that the biggest news in 2004 was the emergence of service-oriented architecture (SOA) as the "next big thing" and its increased alignment with Web services. In an SOA, software components can be exposed as services on the network, meaning they can be reused often for different applications and purposes.

"In the past year, we saw companies putting money for SOAs in their budgets, doing pilot projects and getting a working understanding of the concept," said Jason Bloomberg, senior analyst with ZapThink.

Mike Gilpin, vice president and research director for Forrester Research agreed: "This year, everyone working with Web services also wanted to do SOAs, and everyone working with SOAs wanted to do Web services."

He noted that the SOA concept has been around longer than Web services, but SOAs were increasingly aligned with Web services in 2004 because the underlying Web services architecture is an ideal way to build SOAs.

Also this year, Gilpin saw "multi-channel interactions" emerging in SOAs and Web services. In a multi-channel interaction, customers are able to interact with various parts of a company seamlessly, as if it were a single interaction. For example, he said, a customer may begin to order a product on a company's Web site, but then part way through the transaction, call the company -- and the customer service representative would already have all the information from the partially completed Web order.

But SOAs still have a way to go, because they're still a relatively new concept, according to analysts.

"People are still confused by [an SOA]," said Ron Schmelzer, senior analyst with ZapThink. "All vendors say that they're doing SOAs, but not all really are. But at least there's more understanding than a year ago."

Adoption rises
Equally important in 2004 was the increasing acceptance of Web services into the enterprise fold. It became a staple of IT departments and network managers.

"We've seen adoption [for Web services] rise in 2004," said Stephen O'Grady, senior analyst with RedMonk. "It was a very good year for adoption, as well as for broadening of the applications it's used for."

"The genie is out of the bottle," ZapThink's Schmelzer noted. "The size and scope of implementations have grown and are now well into production."

Gilpin agreed, adding that it's particularly important that Web services are being used for more sophisticated applications.

"In 2003 we saw Web services move into the mainstream, but it was for relatively simple usage scenarios, such as point-to-point connectivity inside corporations," he said. "That changed in 2004, and we're now seeing it used in much more sophisticated ways."

Key to that new usage, he believes, was the growing experimentation with the Business Process Execution Language for Web Services (BPEL) standard, which can orchestrate workflow between enterprises, and enables more complex transactions and services using Web services.

"Toward the second half of the year we saw BPEL becoming a more active topic of conversation," he said. "People are still in experimentation mode with it, but it's something that companies are increasingly starting to use."

Complexity backlash
One surprise of 2004, according to several analysts, was a backlash against the growing complexity of the Web services stack and its growing and, sometimes competing, set of standards. Initially, Web services were thought of as a way to simply and easily create services that can be reused. But it has gotten so complex, some analysts said, that some people are looking for alternatives to SOAP, UDDI, WSDL and other Web services standards, but are still be able to build, share and reuse services.

"There was a backlash against formal, rigid standards," RedMonk's O'Grady said. "People have gotten frustrated with how complex the suite of standards has become, and see them as a drag on adoption and ease of use."

Some developers, he said, have begun creating Web services over existing protocols such as HTTP and forgoing SOAP. He sees it more on the consumer side of things, rather than on the business end, and said it is being used for purposes such as syndicating blogs and on photo-sharing sites, as well as developing add-ins (called extensions) for the open source browser Firefox.

Forrester's Gilpin said he has seen a backlash as well, although he sees a different type of trend emerging to solve it. He said there will be an increasing number of tools that will hide the complexity from developers, so they can more easily build Web services.

The wrap up
All in all, analysts said 2004 was a good year for Web services, with increasing acceptance, the emergence of SOAs and the embedding of Web services directly into the mainstream of enterprises. What can you expect for next year? I'll examine that in my next column.

Read more Web Services Advisor columns from the past year.

About the Author

Preston Gralla is an expert on Web services and is the author of more than 20 books, including How the Internet Works. He can be reached at preston@gralla.com.

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