TECH TALK: Web Services: What are Web Services? (Part 2)

Michael Skok (ZDnet):

Today’s imperative of system-wide profitability requires analysis across the entire value chain. Yet today’s monolithic vendors–like SAP, Siebel and i2–each with their dozens or hundreds of different applications, lack interoperability and require separate application program interfaces. Earlier promises of interoperability through distributed and component-based models, which would link monolithic enterprise operations, never materialized.

However, a new approach–Web services–promises to revolutionize not just e-commerce, but every business. The true promise of Web services for enterprises is that they allow the integration of complex business processes using select and appropriate application services, openly exchanged across the Internet.

Jim Ericson (Line 56):

Web services are functions that allow businesses to share proprietary processes over the Internet, eliminating the need for costly and fragile one-to-one integrations. Once created, these processes can be accessed by an authorized party by way of an application that suits the user. What Web services promise is a revolution involving the components used to enable business processes, not a new way of doing business. “It doesn’t inflict a new business model on anybody,” says Larry Perlstein, Gartner Group vice president and research area director. “It says, ‘Now you’ve got a set of technologies that are flexible to support doing business the way you want to do it.'”

John Hagel III and John Seely Brown (Harvard Business Review, October 2001):

Constructed on the Internet, the Web services architecture is an open rather than a proprietary architecture. Instead of building and maintaining unique internal systems, companies can rent the functionality they need – whether it’s data storage, processing power, or specific applications – from outside service providers. At the foundation are software standards and communication protocols that allow information to be exchanged easily among different applications. These tools enable applications to connect freely to other applications and to read electronic messages from them. The standards simplify and streamline information management – you no longer have to write customized code whenever communications with a new application is needed.

Ganesh Prasad:

Web services are a way for applications to advertise their own
capabilities over the web, find other such applications, and call each other to perform transactions without prior or ongoing human intervention. There are Internet standards for these, such as WSDL (Web Services Description Language), UDDI (Universal Description, Discovery and Integration), SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) and the newer ebXML (e-Business XML) suite. All of these are XML-derived languages, and can be communicated over the ubiquitous HTTP protocol.

A different viewpoint comes from Clay Shirky:

Web Services are being sold not only as improved plumbing but also as a way to create fantastic new software, seamlessly and automatically connecting any two business processes or applications anywhere on the network as if by magic.

A bit too much as-if-by-magic, in fact, because against the backdrop of inflated claims for automatic interoperability is the usual set of mundane but intractable problems that plague any grand vision. While these problems are complex and various, their essence can be summed up fairly simply:

Two old men were walking down the street one day, when the first remarked to the second, “Windy, ain’t it?”

“No,” the second man replied, “It’s Thursday.”

“Come to think of it,” the first man replied, “I am too. Lets get a coke.”

If two parties are out of sync, communication can seem to be happening, without much really getting communicated.

Web Services is a background technology, a plumbing technology, a way to lower current thresholds, not Yet Another Paradigm Shift. And that in itself is enough to be a big deal. Lowering the effort and costs associated with interoperability is a good goal. Let’s just hope the real advantages of sending data between small or private groups doesn’t get swamped by the hype of perfect but unachievable automation.

So, are Web Services the Next New Thing? Or just another scheme to sell more computers and software by the IT companies? How much is real and how much is fantasy? We will take up these issues next week, starting with an understanding of the standards that underpin Web Services (XML, SOAP, UDDI and WSDL).

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.