IBM pledges commitment for Web services

Integration and interoperability were the buzzwords of the day at IBM Corp.’s briefing Monday on its Web services strategy. IT vendors are under such a tremendous amount of pressure from customers to develop and stick to Web services standards that even the industry’s most notorious standards-scourge, Microsoft Corp., is playing nicely with others, said several Big Blue executives.

Microsoft and IBM are among the nine companies that founded the Web Services Interoperability Organization (WS-I) last month, an initiative intended to promote reliable interoperability and offer implementation guidance. Within two years, industry standards oversight groups such as the World Wide Web Consortium and the Organization for Structured Information Standards will have approved around two dozen Web services standards, said Bob Sutor, IBM’s director of e-business standards strategy. What the industry now needs is practical advice for developers on building software to those standards and tools to test software for compatibility, he said. WS-I is attracting broad interest: The group has received 450 membership inquiries in the month since its launch.

Web services is an often nebulous phrase. In IBM’s view, it is enabling technology for connecting via the Internet an array of diverse applications. The goal is to allow customers to interact with their partners, suppliers and clients without worrying about the details of the IT systems with which they’re interfacing.

Such interaction between systems built on disparate hardware, operating systems and programming languages requires an exceptional level of cooperation and adherence to standards – not traits the IT industry is known for. Still, with Web services, vendors understand that it’s in everyone’s best interests to make this work, Sutor said.

“IBM is most certainly going to compete extremely aggressively on the platform choices our customers make,” he said, “but we understand very pragmatically that if they (customers) buy our products and they can’t communicate with the Microsofts, Suns, Oracles and BEAs of the world, we fail.”

IBM estimates that US$4 billion is spent annually on e-business infrastructure, with nearly half that total spent on integration, said IBM WebSphere Director of Marketing Scott Hebner. IBM views itself and Microsoft as the two leading software infrastructure providers, with other vendors such as Sun Microsystems Inc. and BEA Systems Inc. providing “point pieces,” he said.

IBM and Microsoft are working together on development of several Web services standards, including a SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) security extension. But Web services only dictate a common method for how applications on a network discover and interact with each other, not for how those applications are implemented, Hebner said. It’s there that IBM will compete against Microsoft and other rivals. Developers building to Microsoft’s .Net will ultimately only be able to connect machines running Windows operating systems, while IBM’s middleware will allow users to integrate machines running an array of operating systems on hardware from rival vendors, he said.

One customer working on a Web services implementation said things have been running fairly smoothly. Human resources consultancy Hewitt Associates LLC provides outsourced services for a number of its clients, and needs a way to offer easy access to employee data to clients and third-party service providers. That need prompted Hewitt to investigate its Web services options, said Chief Technology Strategist Tim Hilgenberg.

Hewitt used an Apache SOAP implantation in conjunction with IBM’s WebSphere. After several months of development, the company is now live with one client. Standards for security, one of Hewitt’s largest concerns, are “immature but usable,” Hilgenberg said. After some infrastructure development work, Hewitt was able to enable digital signatures.

Overall, initial reaction from clients has been positive, Hilgenberg said. The next innovation he’d like to see is asynchronous processing capability, which is a “major missing piece” in HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol).

“We need an asynchronous interface to control scale and volume,” he said. “Once you get that, that will really enable business-to-business transactions.”

IBM, in Armonk, N.Y., can be reached at