Extending the enterprise

The intense excitement generated by the possibilities of Web services is underpinned by the fact that most enterprises are unclear on the Web services concept.

Do Web services represent new technology, a new process, a set of protocols, or a confluence of all of the above? Vendors have generally agreed on a set of open standards such as extensible markup language (XML), simple object access protocol (SOAP), Web services description language (WSDL), and the universal description, discovery and integration (UDDI) directory. Simply put, Web services allow software interaction as the emphasis is centred on creating services.

Web services’ ability of simplify the process of connecting enterprise systems over the Internet reflects a new direction in process of designing and using software; before embarking on the creation of a Web services strategy, IT organizations need to identify what Web services are and what they hope to get out of them.

Defining Web services

Ask 10 different people what Web services are and there will be 10 different answers said Brian Wilson, chief technologist at Sun’s iPlanet (Americas) consulting services. Web services are a simple way to loosely connect applications within the enterprise behind the firewall – it’s the promise of multi-vendor interoperability, Wilson said.

“If we all adhere to these emerging standards…at least in theory our Web services should to interoperable with each other,” Wilson said.

Toronto-based research firm IDC Canada describes Web services as “a standardized approach to dynamic component connectivity and the interoperability that relies on self-describing components interoperating at run time and open connectivity stand including IP, SOAP and WSDL.” IDC analyst Alister Sutherland noted that more than just doing business over the Internet, Web services can extend the enterprise as they represent a blend of traditional applications with Web-based applications utilizing open standards.

“If you imagine you’ve got an inventory management system and you’ve got a financial system and they’re both completely independent and don’t talk to one other…you can put these (SOAP, WSDL) wrappers on them and make them interoperate,” Sutherland said. “You don’t need Web services architecture to do that but it makes it easier – once an application is enabled as a Web service, it doesn’t have to be done again. Once enabled, similarly enabled systems applications will be able to interpret one another and understand what each other is doing.”

Web services simply transform traditional applications into distributed applications said Paul Tan, president and CEO of Mississauga, Ont.-based Web2XML, an XML developer. “There’s Web services the concept and there is the specific implementation of XML Web services. All it really is doing is creating distributed applications – Web services is an implementation of creating a distributed application and allowing computers and applications to talk to each other,” Tan said.

‘”Fundamentally, Web services are a standard framework for distributed computing, that’s really what it comes down to – this is kind of the Holy Grail we’ve been pursuing for a number of years,” said Michael Martineau at Toronto-based ASP provider xwave.

“(It’s) the notion of distributed computing, of being able to have applications run on all sort of different machines.”

So far the major Web services platforms for building and deploying Web-based applications are Microsoft’s .NET and Sun Microsystems’ Sun ONE Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE) development architectures. Both use a virtual machine architecture, share similar features and APIs, and present a client and server-side component model in the creation of enterprise applications – both allow enterprises to achieve the potential of a new communication architecture and the possibility of enhanced interaction with businesses, employees and consumers.

Tougher than flipping a coin

Experts say it comes down to weighing the pros and cons of the respective frameworks. “I can’t endorse one or the other, and I wouldn’t want to do that. It’s very situation specific,” Sutherland said. “There are security issue with Web services because it uses HTTP for transfer,” Sutherland noted, adding that both Microsoft and Sun have had varying degrees of success when it comes to fixing security problems but the goal of both Java and .NET is for complete interoperability and enterprises that currently support non-Windows based servers such as Unix may wish to side with J2EE and those comfortable with Windows might just look to .NET.

There now does seem to be tremendously unhelpful hype that Web services is either Java or .NET., the thought of which is “stupid,” said James Governor, IT analyst at Illuminata in Nashua, N.H. Governor added that the choice hinges on existing code and enterprise objectives.

“Web services spans both Java and .NET – Web services is defined by the underlying standards that they use to communicate…something that is based on UDDI, WSDL and SOAP,” Governor said. “The ideal Web service environment is where applications talk to one another and we don’t have to worry about XML. Where we can get these applications talking to each other where we don’t have to worry about the guts,” he added.

“Both platforms can coexist – once we shove religion out of the way,” Tan said, adding it all boils down to sticking with a platform that you’re familiar with, as both support a standardized set of programming languages. “The benefits of using XML is something (vendors like) Microsoft, Oracle and Sun have finally agreed upon. Despite the wrangling between the two (platforms) and some people claiming incompatibility, XML is so bloody simple…interoperability is the main strength.”

Richard Elliott, vice-president of strategic initiatives for SAP Canada in Toronto, sees Web services as what will give enterprises visibility across the global value chain. “We’re embracing XML and J2EE and we’re putting emphasis on both,” Elliott said, adding that SAP’s MYSAP.com offers the ability to amalgamate multiple applications.

“It’s an evolution. It definitely has taken off. We’re seeing it in our customer base,” Elliott said, adding that it can result in new products and business processes being developed.

Steven Feingel, director of e-services for Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations in Halifax, agreed, adding that the province is currently using a MYSAP.com portal as a foundation for Web services. “We have a very consolidated service infrastructure from a physical perspective from our clients and that’s the same kind of thing that we’ve been trying to emulate for our clients on the Internet over the last few years,” Feingel said. “What we’ve run into in the last year or so is our current infrastructure just wasn’t going to get us where we needed to be. The Web services approach that’s unfolding in the marketplace today allows us to take a modular view of things and have the flexibility to put different services available in different services available in different places but ties them together through the portal technology into continuous service for the client,” Feingel added.

The first step

Knowing what Web services are is the first step to incorporating initial Web services applications. Sutherland noted that it will probably be within the next 18 months when most IT organizations migrate towards Web services, adding that it will primarily occur behind the organizations’ firewall, as they try to take advantage of existing capabilities and utilize their IT assets more effectively across the organizations between different functional areas.

Sutherland said there are compelling reasons to considering a Web services strategy now. “Typically in enterprise environment there are anywhere from 20 to 50 applications that are completely independent of one another, this will enable companies to utilize those applications and get much more…and increase the velocity of processing within the enterprise,” he said.

“It requires careful consideration…but there are going to be long term benefits to Web services-enabling almost any application within an enterprise. Because it makes the systems ready for interoperability and extending of the enterprise, by extension into the great world beyond the firewall and beyond your trading partners.”

Wilson agreed that some of the first practical Web services applications will be internally focused within the enterprise.

“We’ll see it happen beginning this year,” Wilson said. “We see that right now we’ve kind of in a service infrastructure build out phase. People are enhancing their infrastructure that they have to support Web applications to get ready for Web services.”

This is where companies will experiment with renting out these services to “trusted” enterprise partners, Wilson said, adding

the ultimate goal is for “services on demand, when enterprises extend their services externally and expose them to people they have never done business with before.”

The year to come

Martineau also stressed the next 12 to 18 months will see enterprise experiment with in-house Web services applications. “As organizations start to knit their different systems together…where you would start is adopt a Web services framework and most likely pick up a vendor product

(.NET or Sun ONE) to do that,” Martineau said. “It’s all about planning,” he added.

Although the Web services market is in its infancy – vendors, analysts and customers alike are beginning to realize the importance of creating a Web services strategy. Even though transaction speed, security and reliability don’t yet rival traditional software, having a rudimentary knowledge of Web services’ potential can benefit your enterprise. There is growing interest in Web services as the market advances, noted Russ Freen, vice-president of research and development for Bridgewater Systems in Kanata, Ont.

“The big issue that everybody faces with these Web services is they’re a fairly significant security and access control issue,” Freen said. “The fact that you’ve got a Web service that would allow somebody to order 10,000 pencils, for instance, is a good thing…the only issue comes down to who’s allowed to do that and who did do it in terms of being able to track it.”

Governor noted that enterprises should set a practical and realistic timeframe to making a transition to Web services architecture. “Don’t buy into vendor hype. Don’t believe that you need to buy some huge enterprise framework to do Web services,” Governor stressed.

“Do get to understand XML and begin to understand the implications it will have for integrating in your business. Get to grips with the standards before you make any large infrastructure purchase. Any project which a company is looking at where they want to integrate two applications to create a new value proposition. At least look at the prospect of using Web services in doing so. Don’t think that you need to build a new thing to do Web services. It may well be the integration mechanism for your existing stuff,” Governor said, adding that it might be best to stick with existing vendors.

“Companies have to understand why they want Web services, Tan said. “A lot of the tangible benefits will not be realized until more people start adopting it. If they have a clear vision or an idea of why they want to do it…it makes sense to start implementing it now, even though it’s fairly new.”

“You may never move certain applications to Web services,” and enterprises need to understand that, Sutherland said. “But the benefits to be gained include a rapid turnaround and relatively low cost.”

CIOs need to make a business decision on each application that could be a candidate to be exposed as a Web service and see whether it makes sense, Wilson said.

A Glossary of Web services standards

UDDI (universal description, discovery and integration)

An online directory that permits companies to register and market services.

SOAP (simple object access protocol)

An XML-based protocol for transferring data within a distributed environment.

WSDL (Web services description language)

An XML description of both the service interface and the implementation details of how to connect to and use a particular Web service.

XML (extensible markup language)

The universal format for structured documents and data on the Web.