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Web services and Open Source

This column looks at the pros and cons of Open Source software when it comes to developing Web services.

The Web Services Advisor
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Web services and Open Source
When most people think about Web services software and tools providers, they think of the usual big names: IBM, Microsoft, BEA, and others. But businesses may find that they'd be better off using Open Source software and tools rather than being tied to a single vendor or sets of vendors. In this first part of a two-part column, we'll look at some of the most popular Open Source Web service tools and at the pros and cons of Open Source software when it comes to developing Web services.

Why go with Open Source?
Some businesses may be leery of going with Open Source software because of its wild-and-wooly reputation, but they don't, in fact, recognize that nearly their entire networking infrastructure is built on top of it, notes Thomas Murphy, senior program director for Meta Group consulting firm.

"Consider the fact that Web services themselves are built on top of Open Source technologies like HTTP and TCP/IP," he says. "People don't realize the amount of Open Source technology that underlies everything that they do."

He adds that many companies use Open Source technology areas other than Web services without giving it a second thought, and so should open themselves to using the technology for Web services as well.

"Look at the Internet — the most predominant server is Apache, which is Open Source, and so people don't really have problems running Open Source software. And look at the underlying protocols; they're all Open Source as well."

Murphy points to several reasons that businesses should consider Open Source technologies when developing Web services. The first is licensing costs. Basic tools are free, he notes, and so offer a substantial savings over going with a proprietary vendor. Secondly, Web services is a rapidly evolving technology, and he believes that Open Source, with its widespread community involved in Open Source creation, can much more easily keep up with rapidly changing technology than can a single, proprietary vendor. Additionally, proprietary vendors typically have to release upgrades in product lifecycles determined by marketing and sales considerations, while Open Source upgrades happen constantly, he says.

The view from the Open Source community and developers
Among the Open Source Web service tools that are becoming popular are the Apache Tomcat servlet engine (https://jakarta.apache.org/tomcat/); the JBoss J2EE-based server (http://www.jboss.org); and Apache AXIS, a Java toolkit for building and deploying Web service clients and servers (http://xml.apache.org/axis).

Those involved in the Open Source community, not surprisingly, tout the benefits of Open Source tools for Web services development. Marc Fleury, founder and president of JBoss says that many commercial Web service tools are "pricy implementations rushed to the market with poor quality." He believes that because of this, most commercial vendors will disappear over time, but that Open Source technology will survive because of its superior quality. Additionally, he adds, Web services technology is a "moving target. Many implementations are fighting for standard status. Going with a free software implementation guarantees you the maximum probability of going with a standard." It's not only the Open Source community and analysts who believe that Open Source technologies are the best solution to Web services development — those involved in Web services creation and deployment are backers as well. For example, FiveSight Technologies (www.fivesight.com) provides comprehensive Web services workflow integration and software tools, and they've built those tools using Open Source software.

Paul Brown, president of FiveSight, says that "Without using Open Source, we wouldn't have been able to launch our company…If FiveSight on its own, or any other company, had to implement XML schema or WSDL or any other number of Web services technologies in combination, it would be an impossible task. The Open Source community is a catalyst for innovation in software, and so I know things like where we can get a good Open Source implementation of a transaction manager. It's an opportunity to solve a hard problem by building on work from the community at large. We've used Open Source in our development work, from the first piece of software we deployed. We didn't have the money to pay for developers and staff," and so instead turned to Open Source software, which already had the software available, to do the job.

Looking at the drawbacks
All this isn't to say that Open Source doesn't have drawbacks. It does. The Meta Group's Murphy notes, for example, that when companies devote themselves to using Open Source technology for Web services, they're taking on responsibility for product support and management, since there is no commercial vendor that takes care of that for them. That means no technical support, and no clear upgrade paths. There may also be legal issues involved with Open Source licenses, and so businesses need to have their legal staffs examine the implications of using Open Source before committing.

Another issue is that the Open Source community has yet to fully embrace Web services technologies with open arms. JBoss's Fleury, for example, says that "Web services isn't real so far. We see zero — not one or two — zero dollars in Web services." There are signs, however, that that is changing, and an increasing number of Open Source tools and developers have turned their attention to Web services.

What does all this mean? Open Source technologies hold out great promise to businesses looking to develop Web services, but they have to choose carefully which tools to use, and how to use them. In my next column, I'll look at how a company can weigh the pros and cons of Open Source and decide whether it's the way to go, or whether it's best to instead stick with a proprietary solution.

Continues in Part Two

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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