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TECH TALK: Web Services: Software Lego

November 9th, 2001 · No Comments

So, are Web Services the Next Big Thing or the Next Great Hype? A practical view on Web Services comes from Wylie Wong, writing in News.com:

The Web services concept deserves examination if only because its most vocal evangelist is Microsoft, whose marketing prowess alone can turn an obscure idea into an entire industry. Although the notion of Web services has been bandied about for years, the software giant has given the idea new popularity with its grand .Net strategy, which is taking its first steps in the marketplace with the release of the Windows XP operating system. Microsoft is selling software that companies can use to build services while also offering a set of hosted services to businesses and consumers for a fee.

Microsoft, of course, is not alone. Many of the leading players in the computer industry have all been pushing their visions of Web Services. So, like all revolutions, expect a lot of hype, but this one has a lot of hope also built in.

My answer to the hype-hope question: Web Services are close to being the next wave in the ongoing revolution in computing, and especially software. The Internet helped ease the process of communications between people and computers. What Web Services are doing is building on the Internet to take connectivity between applications, business processes and enterprises to the next level. Just as the Web was built on standards like HTTP and HTML which sparked off rapid adoption worldwide, Web Services too have the standards in place to enable quick uptake. This time, though the change is going to be less visible to us from the outside as much of the action will take place within and across organisations.

An illustration on how things will change comes from John Hagel III and John Seely Brown (Harvard Business Review, October 2001):

Loan processing is a complex procedure requiring at least six steps (data gathering about an applicant, validation of data, credit scoring, risk analysis and pricing, underwriting and closing) and involving interactions with a number of other institutions (checking an applicant’s credit rating, verifying investment and loan balances, and so on). With a traditional IT architecture, the process is usually supported by one, very complicated application maintained by an individual bank; like a Swiss Army Knife, the integrated application does a lot of things, but it may not do any of them particularly well.

With the Web services architecture, loan processing becomes much more flexible, automated and efficient. Leased lines are replaced with the Internet, and open standards and protocols take the place of proprietary technologies. As a result, the bank can connect automatically with the most appropriate institution for each transaction, speeding up the entire process and reducing the need for manual work. And rather than maintain its own integrated loan-processing system, the bank can take a modular approach, using specialized Web services provided by an array of providers.

For software developers, the change will be as dramatic as, in the words of Kevin Werbach, “the Web changed publishing and information access.The idea is the atomization and re-integration of software, moving from monolithic whole to piece-parts that can be pulled apart or put together as needed.Developers like Web services because they can make the process of creating software faster and simpler. They like the idea of re-using components, as well as the promise of reducing thorny integration and scaling challenges. Furthermore, code written by an independent developer may now take advantage of – or be called by – a huge array of existing software.”

Many of us grew up building homes, cars and airplanes out of Lego blocks. Little did we know then that one day, developing software would be quite the same!

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