Applications on the go

As so often happens in this industry, a new buzzword suddenly appears and everyone is afraid to say they don’t quite know what it means. Web services falls into this category.

What are Web services? They are a way to publish and share not only data, but also applications, across the Internet. Using Web services tools, developers can publish an application as a stand-alone service, or they can plug one application into another and use the first as a component of the second, regardless of operating system or programming language.

The key here is how easily this integration can be accomplished and how seamless the interoperability is. Mike Karasic, CTO of IBM Corp.’s Pervasive Computing division, says that Web services are to applications as XML is to data.

The expense report component, written in Cobol, gets a Web services wrapper, called SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol), and can bind to the SFA (sales-force automation) application, provided you add a Web services layer to your SFA application’s stack. The mapping between the expense report service and the larger SFA module is done via XML; a WSDL (Web Services Description Language) document describes the XML interface.

Is that simple enough? Ron Langer, director of the language division at Fujitsu Ltd., says, “A program, written in Cobol, is compiled with a set of inputs on how to turn it into [a Web service] and expose it as a SOAP protocol. You can compile a program in any language, set some [protocol] flags, and it is done automatically.”

If you think Cobol is far removed from wireless applications, Langer says that wherever Microsoft Corp. wants to take wireless the Cobol programmer will go along with very little cost.

“The [Microsoft] .Net [Web services] platform will let you create or plug into any wireless pieces. [The component] becomes a Web service and looks exactly the same as any other language in the .Net [framework],” Langer says.

Despite what the name implies, a Web service does not have to be hosted. For example, Xerox Corp. has come up with a Web service, scheduled to ship in the first quarter of 2002, that sends printer problem alerts to network printer administrators. The company developed the network printer alert service using a component developed by Microsoft using Visual Studio.Net.

How will you find all the services that are available? Why, that’s easy. You will look them up in one of the UDDI (Universal Description, Discovery, and Integration) directories that will be popping up on the Web as well as on internal corporate servers.

But in order for all this to work, Web services must be adopted by the enterprise. If corporate IT doesn’t see the value in adding a Web services layer to their applications, none of this will happen.

Ephraim Schwartz ( is an editor at large in InfoWorld (US)’s news department.