Apps on tap

A mix of development environments and niche products can get your Web services up and running

Government agencies are increasingly turning to Web services to speed application development, share data and conduct transactions more easily.

The move complements existing federal and state efforts to standardize IT on open standards, such as the Federal Enterprise Architecture and the object-oriented software repositories states use to share and reuse code.

As a universal, cross-platform, multivendor standard, Web services'at least in theory'also help agencies meet the twin goals of data security and IT efficiency by keeping their databases securely in-house, rather than moving them around. There may be security concerns at the outer layers'that is, the Web'but data is centralized, while the software to access it consists of widely distributed, easily programmed Web services assembled like building blocks to make larger applications.

New buzzword

The Web services philosophy is reflected in the new buzzword, service-oriented architecture, a high-level theory of how to build an architecture out of independent business processes that share messages with each other. Web services are just one component. A key element within an SOA is the enterprise service bus, a new kind of messaging middleware for Web services.

The tools in the accompanying chart (Page 36) purport to do most of the development work for you, taking your existing Java or .NET code and objects and automatically converting them to Web services.

But in fact, the development environments that many programmers use to build Web services aren't especially geared to the new technology. They are the somewhat generic integrated development environments with standard programming languages, such as Microsoft Visual Studio and Borland Software's JBuilder, or more automated, visual rapid application development products. Both types predate the late-1990s genesis of Web services.

Some of the latter type, including Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Java Studio Creator, can only 'consume' Web services written elsewhere, but can't write them, Sun admits. Others limit where you can deploy the Web services you've written.

'Some BEA tools are proprietary,' said Robin Smith, a product line manager in Sun's Java Studio group, referring to BEA Systems Inc.'s WebLogic Workshop, which deploys only to that company's WebLogic Server.

Obvious move

Though vendors of existing development tools point out that adding Web services support was hardly a no-brainer, the technology often gets second billing to more popular programming platforms such as Java and Visual Basic. What's more, it's clear that as an open-source technology, Web services are creating strong demand for free and inexpensive development environments.

'The No. 1 Java development tool on the market today, in terms of developers, is Eclipse, and it's free,' said Mark Driver, research vice president at Gartner Inc. of Stamford, Conn., referring to a Java development environment that also supports Web services.

Another important type of development tool hails from the world of enterprise application integration. Web services programs, with their ability to standardize the interfaces between different brands of software, have long held the promise of making EAI software obsolete. So it's not surprising that established EAI tools from the likes of webMethods Inc. of Fairfax, Va., and SeeBeyond Technology Corp. of Monrovia, Calif., have added significant Web services support.

In fact, a newer class of tools from Cape Clear Software Inc., among others, emphasizes integration of existing applications, rather than new development. Such tools are marketed to help agencies use Web services to implement enterprise services buses to standardize data sharing and workflow.

This year will see major new upgrades from key vendors. Macromedia Inc. has released the Blackstone version of its ColdFusion application server, which along with the Dreamweaver Web-site tool is widely used in government.

Dubbed ColdFusion MX 7, the upgrade largely automates the longstanding challenge of processing forms on the Web, and bolsters Java support to improve the links between mobile devices and Web content. In beta since last June, ColdFusion MX 7 has 'had a huge participation from government organizations,' said Dave Gruber, a Macromedia senior product manager. 'Agencies say this is easier to learn. They're looking at drastically shortening the time it takes to develop applications.'

The San Diego County Department of Child Support is a good example. Senior IT engineer Darius Fattahipour said the department used both Macromedia products to 'consume' two separate Web services from the Postal Service and another company to verify names and addresses, a mission-critical operation in an agency that must stay in touch with constituents throughout the child-support process.

Minutes versus hours

'In Dreamweaver, you call a Web service via a Cold Fusion tag,' Fattahipour said. 'It's like five lines of code in ColdFusion, and we can verify all our addresses on the fly.'

He said the same job in another environment his shop also uses would take a couple of hours, compared to a few minutes in Dreamweaver. In the other system, 'you're writing to a lower level'you're writing the [Simple Object Access Protocol] code,' he said, rather than in the simpler ColdFusion Markup Language, which handles the Web services translations for you. Next on the drawing board is a Web service for remote procedure calls, so agencies can swap data without having to ship CDs, as they do now.

Meanwhile, Microsoft will release Visual Studio 2005 later this year. It will support the new SOAP 1.2 standard, which has added security features. And BEA's next major upgrade, WebLogic Server 9.0, codenamed Diablo and in beta since December, will enable service-oriented architecture development with enterprise-class messaging.

The bottom line is that while Web services development tools are now widely available, the technology has yet to take off. 'We haven't seen a whole lot of adoption and desire among our user base in authoring Web services,' said Jim Guerard, a Macromedia vice president.

David Essex is a free-lance technology writer based in Antrim, N.H.

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