Firms jockey for WS edge

A battle between software vendors for control of Web services standards could undermine the enterprise’s confidence in the technology, according to industry observers.

“It’s something we’ve been quite vocal about over the last year – the risk of diverging rather than converging standards,” said Alister Sutherland, an analyst with IDC Canada Ltd. in Toronto. “I think the industry risks sending out a confusing message to potential clients and adopters of Web services.”

He added, “Anything that inhibits…assurance is going to inhibit adoption.”

The latest skirmish pits BEA Systems Inc., IBM Corp., Microsoft Corp. and Tibco Software Inc. against Oracle Corp., NEC Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc. et al. for control of “Reliable Messaging” (RM) – technology designed to make Web services dependable.

Sun’s crew earlier this year formed a Web Services Reliable Messaging (WS-RM) technical committee (TC) within the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS), an e-business consortium.

IBM and its partners did not join the WS-RM TC, choosing instead to continue work on a separate RM standard.

“When the technical committee formed, we were several months into our work,” said Karla Norsworthy, Raleigh, N.C.-based director, dynamic e-business technologies with IBM, explaining why Big Blue eschewed the WS-RM TC. “We…decided there were good reasons why we should complete our work and publish it. Don’t be confused to think it’s anybody’s goal that we end up in any other place than a set of single standards.”

“That’s absolute rubbish,” said Ed Julson, group manager, Web services standards and technologies with Sun Microsystems Inc., explaining that IBM and its partners have developed 17 Web services specifications, but only a few of them were submitted to groups like OASIS for standardization.

“My personal opinion is there’s a play for market position, that [IBM and Microsoft are] trying to get a proprietary advantage with products. That kind of activity is just bad for the standards process. It destroys the integrity.”

Enterprise IT managers should be forgiven for thinking Web services standardization is a pipe dream, said IDC’s Sutherland, pointing out other examples of divergent specifications.

For instance, IBM and others completed a spec called Business Process Execution Language for Web Services (BPEL4WS), which allows Web services to support business transactions. It also happens to compete with the Web Services Choreography Interface (WCSI) backed primarily by Sun. Sutherland said BPEL4WS “has not been ratified or submitted to any group” like OASIS for peer review.

Why don’t software vendors work together to create Web services standards? Because they’re competitive by nature, Sutherland said. “They all have vested interest in a number of areas – not only in ensuring standards, but also in being competitive and differentiated from one another. Those two things are always at odds.

“That said, I think there’s a bigger risk of perception rather than reality of standard divergence,” he said, explaining that down the road, the duelling camps might learn to play nice, even if that seems unlikely today.

Whit Andrews, an Omaha, Neb.-based research director with Gartner Inc., figures software vendors are jockeying for position in the Web services sector to atone for past mistakes with another significant computing environment: the Internet.

“The Internet worked just fine, thank you very much indeed,” Andrews said. “It didn’t need standards to be driven by the vendors, therefore a lot of opportunity (for vendors) was lost.”

“The worst possible thing for the vendors would be for [Web services] standards to be cobbled together, defined by use instead of by planning. Then they can’t figure out how to build products ahead of time to take advantage of the standards.”

What’s an enterprise to do in the face of this Web services war? Start practising for a more peaceful future, Andrews said.

“You should get started using SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) and start practising WSDL (Web Services Definition Language). By the time you’ve got those down, you might want to be using UDDI (Universal Description Discovery and Integration) or SAML (Security Assertion Markup Language). You might even want to explore external Web services, either in terms of consuming them from the outside or providing them to somebody on the outside.”

That should keep the enterprise occupied until advanced Web services specifications like WS-RM shake out – and they will shake out, said IBM’s Norsworthy. Standardization is the goal, no matter how convoluted the path might seem.

“It takes time to get convergence, but in the end we believe the industry and our customers end up with a stronger specification.”

Sutherland also believes, to a degree, that standardization will happen. “I think what will start to evolve is interoperability between different types of topologies being developed to accommodate different systems and technology. It may well all come out in the wash.

“And it may not. There might be some competing standards that do emerge. We believe that would inhibit Web services adoption and implementation, and that’s not good for the industry.”