Comdex attendees ask: whither Web services?

As a senior technology analyst with Ontario’s Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, Dave Wilkins is seeking a remedy for the province’s ailing data transfer systems. Ontario’s ministries are quarantined, cut off from each other’s computers and unable to share information seamlessly.

Wilkins figures Ontarians would prefer the government’s sections to work more closely together, so when residents who use his department’s services call to change addresses, they don’t have to call the Ministries of Health and Transportation separately. They’d rather call just one number and have an intricate back-office system make the address change across the board.

Wilkins said Web services might be the answer – Web-enabled platforms that allow different computers and applications to talk to one another.

“We’re trying to build them right now,” he said. But it’s a slow process and, since the term ‘Web services’ is relatively new, it’s difficult to know how to go about implementing such platforms. Should Wilkins buy or build the system? If the latter, should he go the open-source or proprietary route? What does the future have in store for Web services technology?

Wilkins attended a Comdex Canada conference last week called “Technology Performance – Getting the Most Out of Your Investments” to learn more about Web services. Martin Crawford, the conference leader and an administrative director with Toronto-based workflow automation firm Bemis Technologies, tried to address Wilkins’ concerns with this overarching mindset: when it comes to starting new technology projects such as Web services in the enterprise, sussing out the right answers depends on asking the right questions.

Consider the “buy-versus-build” debate. Should Wilkins turn to an established provider for the province’s Web services needs, or should he and his team build the system from the ground up?

Crawford said there are certain things to keep in mind. Wilkins might find it easier to provision the platform from a vendor, but licenses can be pricey and because of the one-size-fits-all format, “often there are tweaks required,” Crawford said. “Vendors try to throw their own consultants in to help with that. It can get expensive.”

Wilkins could build a Web services platform and forego the licensing fees, but he would add the cost of in-house developers to the equation. And starting from scratch takes more time than buying a pre-built system, Crawford said.

Check out the different Web services platforms for further insight, Crawford said. On one hand Wilkins could use the open source Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE) platform created by Sun Microsystems Inc. On the other, he might choose Microsoft Corp.’s Web services entrant, .Net.

Based on an established programming language in Java, J2EE counts as the more proven platform, Crawford said. It’s “vendor neutral,” in that a number of companies, including IBM Corp. and Borland Software Corp., develop with J2EE. As well, J2EE is an open-source program, so licenses can be obtained for free.

On the other hand, “J2EE is not an easy thing to use,” Crawford said. “You have to go through every step to make it work.”

Microsoft’s .Net is relatively easy to use, Crawford said, adding that certain work-arounds built into the system make for quick development. Also, .Net understands many languages, including Visual Basic and C#, so developers can work in the language of their choice.

However, compared to J2EE, .Net is “unproven,” Crawford said. And its multilingual nature offends his own development philosophy: “I’m a big fan of picking one language and sticking to it,” he said, adding that it makes development less complicated.

Did Crawford’s presentation give Wilkins the answers he sought? Frankly, no, it didn’t. After the conference Wilkins said he wanted to learn about the future of this newfangled term “Web services” – where is the technology headed? Who will use it? How will it affect the enterprise?

“I didn’t see any of that here at all,” Wilkins said.

Perhaps it’s because as far as Crawford is concerned, Web services may be a new term, but it’s far from a new concept. If Wilkins wants to know about its future, maybe he should consider the past.

“It’s basically transferring data around a network,” Crawford said. “‘Web services’ is just a fancy word for what we’ve already been doing.”