Will Web services deliver?

These tools lay the groundwork for the future of e-commerce

Web services are heralded as a revolutionary new concept that will gain huge competitive advantages for their users, reinvent the Internet as we know it and produce revenues of about $32 million by 2010.

Despite these credentials'or possibly because of them'it seems difficult if not impossible to find a single crisp answer as to what Web services are and are not. The definitions vary according to the people you ask.

'Web services are not the Web and not services, but Internet middleware enabling you to link to customers, partners and operating groups,' according to George Colony, president and chief executive officer of Forrester Research Inc. of Cambridge, Mass.

'Web services encompass a vision of a fully integrated computing network that includes PCs, servers, handheld devices, programs, applications and network equipment, all working together,' said Enrique Castro-Leon of Intel Corp., writing for WebServices.Org, a consortium of Web services vendors and users.

So what do Web services do differently, and how can they help businesses and other organizations communicate better?

To answer this, we have to look at what today's Web technology is lacking.

Riding the waves

Nowadays most Web sites, even the most advanced, are a jumble of force-fit components, Castro-Leon said. Even the most powerful PCs are underused, having been reduced to the role of dumb terminals running Web browsers, he said.

He pointed out that the ultimate purpose of most Web sites, with all their complex technology, is to present the end user with a screen, which he called dead pages.

But what if, when you log on to a Web site, your software sends out an executable message that allows for true interaction with the site? For example, if you are looking for information on solar greenhouses, instead of a Yellow Pages listing of companies making them, you receive interactive training tools that help you set up a page with a pricing schedule for the best options from leading manufacturers.

Or what if, using Web services software, you set up an enterprise Web site that provides in-house users with behind-the-firewall product information, customers with spec sheets and order forms, and business partners with site-by-site parts information so that your inventory would be automatically refilled by the right parts provider?

This new type of super Web is what the proponents of Web services promise.

The Internet already provides the physical communications medium, but Web services need standards in order to work as advertised. Opinions vary about which standards need honing, and the omnibus Web services offered by vendors such as Microsoft Corp., IBM Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc. and Oracle Corp. have developed some proprietary standards that may or may not be accepted by the world community.

But most industry participants agree that Web services solutions developed by the World Wide Web Consortium and other standards bodies should incorporate at least the following:
Extensible Markup Language is similar to the HTML that's used on most Web sites, and it will be the lingua franca for Web services. XML, designed specifically for Web documents, is ideal for sharing information over the Internet among different applications and businesses.

Simple Object Access Protocol is a lightweight, XML-based protocol for exchanging information in a centralized, distributed environment. SOAP consists of three parts: an envelope that describes what is in a message and how to process it, a set of encoding rules for instances of application-defined data types, and a convention for representing remote procedure calls and responses.

Web Services Description Language is similar to XML. It treats network services as a set of endpoints operating on messages about documents or procedures. The operations and messages are described abstractly, and then bound to a concrete network protocol and message format to define an endpoint. Related concrete endpoints are then combined into abstract endpoints, or services.

Universal Description, Discovery and Integration, a global registry of Web services, is an essential search tool. Version 3.0 of UDDI is the latest registry specification, supported by more than 200 members of the UDDI consortium, at www.uddi.org. UDDI gives organizations and Web services a universal way to convey information about themselves over the Internet.

Meanwhile, BEA Systems Inc., IBM, Microsoft and other companies are making other specifications available free to W3C members.

These include WS-Addressing, WS-ReliableMessaging, WS Acknowledgement, WS-CallBack, WS-MessageData and others. This growing list of universal specifications is designed to fill perceived loopholes in existing protocols and deliver Web services better.

Web services are still a work in progress, but because they are written to standards, all software designers can work from the same basic design.

Systems integrators, developers and in-house IT departments can then add value to the basic design to meet the needs of their customers and partners.

Before jumping into Web services wholesale, it's a good idea to assess how you're going to use this new technology. Ask yourself about your clients and vendors, present and future, to determine what your Web services will be. Many users will want to start small with single-point solutions that don't put their entire operations at risk.

For such purposes, several fairly comprehensive integration programs already exist. Other products are designed around leading Web services platforms now in the marketplace, such as Sun's Java 2 Platform, Enterprise Edition Web Services and Microsoft's .Net Framework 1.1.
Suites of Web services testing and monitoring products, such as Empirix's e-TEST Suite and Mercury Interactive's SiteScope 7.7, also are available.

Gartner Dataquest, a research company in Stamford, Conn., has conducted a number of surveys showing that systems integrators are unwilling to wait for Web services standards to solidify and for other concerns about security to be resolved. Accordingly, they favor such programs as Microsoft .Net, Sun Java/J2EE, IBM WebSphere and Oracle9i Developer.

J.B. Miles of Pahoa, Hawaii, writes about communications and computers. E-mail him at jbmiles@hawaii.rr.com.

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