A service-able definition

If Samuel Johnson were alive today, I’d pay him to write a dictionary of IT terminology.

Johnson, an English author and literary critic, completed the first comprehensive dictionary of the English language in 1755, a feat that took him nearly 12 years to complete. But all that time cooped up in a room with only ink and candles as company seemed to make him surly.

For instance, Johnson defined “excise” as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities, and adjudged not by the common judges of property, but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid.” He also defined oats as a grain Englishmen use to feed their horses, but which the Scots use to feed their children.

Now imagine how Johnson might have sunk his teeth into a vague but vogue term like “Web services.” We’ll never know, but it’s something we’ve attempted in this issue of ComputerWorld Canada (see page 12).

Officially, Web services refers to a system of integrating Web-enabled apps over an IP backbone via a whole slew of protocols and standards (XML, UDDI, WSDL, etc.), many of which are still in their infancy. The idea is to allow data to be shared between businesses and their customers regardless of the makeup of each other’s IT systems, and minus all the complex coding. So, under a Web services model, Unix will perfectly “understand” Java and Perl. And no GUI is required.

Someone more cynical than I may choose to define Web services as a meaningless phrase invented by revenue-starved software vendors trying to create a sense of urgency around technology everyone thinks is a great, but which no one intends to do anything about right now or in the foreseeable future, thanks very much.

On the surface, it would appear that definition has more legs. In recent weeks I’ve spoken with two senior IT managers and a veteran IT consultant, and in the course of our conversations I asked all three about their thoughts on Web services. The former said they recently had the concept pitched to them, and though both admitted that it could eventually play some role for them in their computing environments, they also admitted it’s about as relevant to them right now as knickers and top hats.

As for the consultant, well, the best response he could come up with was “Huh?”

But after a sober second look, it’s hard to dismiss Web services as just another buzzphrase. It’s tough to analyze Web services from a macro-perspective, given its broad definition and implications. Analyst firm IDC has tried, however, and it predicts the total software, services and hardware opportunity derived from Web services will catapult from US$1.6 billion in 2004 to US$34 billion by 2007.

Plus these are only early days. IDC says Web services hold a lot of long-term promise as a key piece of the new computing architecture, but may only be an emerging form of middleware over the short term.

Earlier this summer a conference dedicated solely to Web services, called XML Web services One Conference & Expo, was held in San Jose, Calif. There, attendees expressed cautious optimism about the technology. “My perception is Web services is easier. It’s expensive to acquire humans who do CORBA and DCOM and smile while they do it,” quipped one attendee.

Yes, there are still a host of issues to be addressed, not the least of which are questions around security and whether or not Web services interoperability will truly transcend vendor brands. That said, anything that promises to free up legacy data and move it around pain-free is worthwhile.

Few are more used to separating the hype chaff from the valuable wheat than you, our readers. So, if you’re confused, give our section a read. Then I’ll leave it to you to tell me when Web services, whatever form it takes at your organization, has truly arrived.