Learning to play nice

The Web services arena is a big playground in which there are a lot of big, rather powerful, kids – making it sometimes difficult for everyone to play nice.

But play nice they’ll have to if Web services are going to work, since the premise of Web services is based on giving applications of all sorts the ability to talk to each other. This means vendors such as IBM, Microsoft and Sun, normally tough competitors, must agree on a set of standards in order for Web services to have any impact. But with most of the specs still to be standardized and vendors proposing competing standards designed to accomplish the same goals, things do sometimes get tense. Vendors, analysts and users alike, however, are hopeful.

“There’s a lot of conflict, as there always is in situations like this, but they’re playing a lot nicer than they have in the past, and they’re certainly giving a lot of lip service to all the right things,” said Kevin Fogarty, an editor at analyst firm Illuminata in Nashua, N.H.

IBM and Microsoft, especially, are pushing much harder and much more openly for standardization than one might assume, given some of their previous behaviour, he said. “A lot of that is motivated, though, by a desire to create a larger market for Web services into which they can sell their own products. So it’s in their own best interest to make sure that there’s a good basis of standardized products out there.”

The possibility of vendors not eventually agreeing on a set of standards is the biggest threat to the success of Web services, said David Senf, a senior analyst at IDC Canada Ltd. in Toronto. “There’s an interesting tug of war in developing standards because all vendors have different needs, they have different products, they have different functionality that they need to see reflected in a standard.”

Mine’s better

Currently, there are some competing efforts being carried out in Web services choreography and reliability, though to listen to the vendors, all is right with the world of Web services.

IBM Corp. and Microsoft Corp. are championing one Web services choreography proposal, the Business Process Execution Language for Web Services (BPEL4WS), while Sun Microsystems is championing another, the Web Services Choreography Interface (WSCI). BEA Systems Inc. is backing them both.

IBM, Microsoft, BEA and Tibco Software are working on a spec for reliable messaging standards and refused invitations to join the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS), which is developing a similar standard, Web Services Reliable Messaging (WS-RM), being backed by Sun, NEC Corp., Oracle Corp. Hitachi Ltd., Fujitsu Ltd. and Sonic Software Corp. To add confusion to the already complicated world of Web services, both sets of competing standards have almost identical names – the IBM/Microsoft effort is called WS-ReliableMessaging.

Yet Microsoft and IBM deny that there are any reasons for concern.

“I really don’t think there’s a massive competition at the actual standards level. I think it’s a perception thing based on the vendors that are involved,” said Ben Watson, a senior product manager for Web services at Microsoft Canada in Mississauga, Ont.

Despite these competing efforts, analysts such as Senf remain optimistic.

“I think that it’s at a nascent enough state and there’s still that willingness among vendors to play nice,” he said. “I think, at the end of the day, these standards can be reconciled and brought together (to) allow Web services to function beyond the firewall.”

Technology is far more commoditized than ever before, he said. “No one vendor can push proprietary software and hope that it’ll be able to gain tremendous market share.”

The process almost has a will of its own that supersedes individual vendors such as Microsoft, he said. And although there are splinter groups being formed, at the end of the day, all of the technology is built on XML.

Morteza Mahjour isn’t worried either. The senior vice-president of enterprise information and technology services for the RBC Financial Group has faith that Web services will succeed. In fact, he predicts it will be a transformational technology. Web services will allow applications to talk to each other in much the same way TCP/IP standardized the communications protocols for the Internet, allowing it to grow rapidly.

The benefits in terms of productivity and time to market will be tremendous, he said. Web services will allow applications to talk to each other without having to build a specific bridge between those two applications.

But some kinks still have to be worked out. The Liberty Alliance, a group of vendors working together in the Web services arena, support Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML) for authentication based on tokens. Microsoft, on the other hand, is backing WS-Security.

“Well, Microsoft has never done any work with SAML, so there was no work done with the WS-Security spec to interoperate with a SAML platform,” Watson said.

“There’s a lot of ways you could, from a programmatic standpoint, deliver an authentication or authorization piece within Web services architect – you could actually use the WS-Security spec and then you could easily program an interface to interoperate with a SAML database.”

But Microsoft felt SAML wasn’t widely adopted or necessary to engage in Web services security, Watson said.

Web services are really a distributed computing technology that’s independent of implementation technology, said Arthur Ryman, a senior technical staff member and a development manager for IBM Canada in Toronto. It’s a way for heterogeneous servers to communicate with each other.

A vendor can’t unilaterally eliminate or add features, because the rest of the vendors wouldn’t be able to interoperate with its technology, he said.

“The market would rebel. The market would reject this type of approach. You can see that there’s a real need for interoperability.” That’s what has driven Microsoft, IBM and the other vendors to work toward interoperability, Ryman said. As such, virtually every major vendor is a member of the Web Services Interoperability Organization (WS-I).

Eeney Meeney Miney Mo

Part of the problem, said Illuminata’s Fogarty, is that there is more than one group to which vendors can go to turn specs to standards – the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and OASIS.

The question of which organization to send a spec to depends largely on the amount of control that vendor wants to keep of the specification, he said.

“If the vendor wants to keep control, they would probably go to OASIS.”

The development process of the two organzations are quite different. At the W3C, all 400 plus members get a chance to put in technical comments, and the working group in charge of the spec has to consider all of the comments it receives. It also has to communicate with groups within and outside the W3C working in the same area. This makes for a much slower process than at OASIS. That organization is designed to create specifications, definitions and lexicons which companies within vertical markets can develop to interoperate, Fogarty said.

With OASIS, any three members can form their own technical committee and create a specification and get a lot farther down the road to standardization a lot quicker, he said.

Most organizaitons work with both organizations and have the same individuals going to both OASIS and W3C.

“There’s a certain amount of game playing in deciding which organization to go to with a certain spec. And a lot of that has to do with how much control they want to have with a spec,” Fogarty said.

OASIS and W3C “are pawns in the game more than competitors,” IDC’s Senf said.

But OASIS president and CEO Patrick Gannon in Billerica, Mass., sees the two organizations filling two different needs.

The W3C’s mission is very broad in terms of infrastructure and support platforms, he said. OASIS supports activities designed to facilitate electronic business interactions.

He doesn’t have any fears of conflicting Web services standards being created.

How Much?

At Sun, the concern is about keeping Web services standards royalty free, said Mark Hapner, the Web services strategist for Java Web services software for Sun in Santa Clara, Calif. “That’s what customers demand.”

But he does believe that, in the end, vendors will be able to sit together at the same table and come to agreements on standards.

Despite the growing pains, analysts such as Senf believe it’s OK for enterprises to begin working on Web services behind the firewall.

The RBC certainly has moved ahead. It has implemented a number of Web services apps, Mahjour said. In Royal Bank’s banking and insurance businesses, it implemented a Web services solution that allows its online retail banking clients to purchase travel health insurance products. Clients don’t have to be sent from one site to another but can buy insurance products by connecting to one interface, he said.

The applications talk and satisfy the client needs, he said. “We find the potentials tremendous.”

Although the industry has tried other collaborative computing projects before with only limited success, Mahjour said Web services will be different because the Internet now exists as a foundation to build upon.

“This is the natural evolution of optimizing that environment.”