Still Waiting for the Web Services Miracle

They haven’t changed the world yet, but there are ways to make them work.


If you flip though the technology magazines of a year ago, you’ll likely find a lot of stories touting Web services as the next big new technology you need to know about. The promise: programming standards that would allow different applications to talk to each other over the Internet . Just as browsers connect with websites to download pages, applications could connect with one another and exchange information.

Assuming it all came together as planned, companies would be able to “rent” applications only when they needed them. Looking to display some information visually? Don’t buy a whole spreadsheet application — just connect with an online graphing component via Web services, graph your data, and then disconnect. For programmers, the dream was even more exciting: With the ability to assemble standard components from a variety of sources, all available online, building business applications would become as easy as clicking Lego pieces together.

Time for a reality check. According to a recent report by Rikki Kirzner, research director at IDC, it will be at least 10 years before companies can actually build applications out of online components in this manner. “All of that’s not doable today, or next year, or the year after,” Kirzner says. “There’s a big pitfall for those who believe that this kind of capability will exist next year.”

That’s not to say the technology is 100 percent hype. A few basic programming standards have already been established, like the simple object access protocol (SOAP), which defines the way applications can request and deliver data using extensible markup language. SOAP has already achieved wide acceptance in the past year, with SOAP-compatible software-development tools available from Borland (BORL), IBM (IBM), Microsoft (MSFT), Sun (SUNW), and many others. When I covered the topic one year ago, SOAP and similar standards were in their infancy, and IT managers were viewing Web services with interest, but also with justifiable skepticism. (See “A Common Language for the Next-Generation Internet.”)

But integrating your Java-based application with someone else’s 20-year-old Cobol program still takes time, coordination, and a team of programmers. That’s because so many different elements all have to match up. (Think about how hard it is to get software integrated within a single company, let alone integrate it with the software of other companies around the country.) Current Web services standards help, but they don’t solve the problem outright — and what’s more, they lack many of the features required by enterprise applications, such as ironclad security, the ability to guarantee the integrity of transactions, and a seamless way to exchange information in real time.

If you forget the grandiose promises, there are some things Web services are good for right now, and most of them take place not over the Internet but within a company’s intranet. That way it’s all inside the firewall, and your IT staff controls exactly what’s being connected and what’s getting exchanged. For example, Web services are helping companies tack new capabilities onto old, so-called legacy software. “Instead of replacing legacy applications, you’re now extending the life of those applications through Web services,” says Alan Boehme, executive vice president and chief information officer at Best Software.

Gartner, another research firm, identifies the corporate portals — those Web-based “dashboards” that combine information from a variety of company information systems — as one area where Web services are finding traction. To employees, the portal looks simple enough, but when they make requests or enter information (to, say, change their 401(k) preferences or view the previous quarter’s sales reports), different applications kick in to execute those commands. Behind the scenes, Web services are increasingly being used to send such commands to the various applications and to consolidate the results onscreen.

Baby steps, to be sure, but right now it’s better than nothing. And as corporate offices put the technology to work in-house, software companies are gradually upgrading their programs to speed the process along. According to Gartner, makers of enterprise software are rapidly adding Web services capabilities to their existing products, which will ultimately simplify the process of linking those products with the rest of your IT infrastructure. This charge is being led by Microsoft, with its .Net initiative; IBM, with its WebSphere product line; and BEA, with its WebLogic products.

Sun Microsystems has added Web services support to Java and to its Sun One software line, but until recently it has not played a strong role in defining and promoting Web services. However, Sun last week joined the Web Services Interoperability organization, a key consortium responsible for defining Web services standards, which may indicate that the company is taking Web services more seriously than ever.

These makers of enterprise software clearly believe in the future of Web services — and their customers are starting to pay attention. But for now, Web services are more of an evolutionary change than a true revolution in computing. It will be a long time before you can build your own enterprise applications out of components that you pick up at the software mall.

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Still Waiting for the Web Services Miracle