Putting Web Services To Work

CIO Canada: Have your discussions with other CIOs given you a feeling for who is now using Web services?

There are companies that have embraced Web services and are looking for ways to innovate with them; there are companies that are talking about Web services and thinking about implementing them; and there are companies that are probably confused as to what they are. It depends more on the company and the individuals in that company than any other factor – what space they are in, what problems they are trying to solve.

CIO Canada: What has Microsoft been doing with Web services? Can you give us an example of an internal business problem that you have been able to address with this approach?

Like many companies, we have islands of data in our legacy systems. Siebel is what we use for sales force automation, Clarify is the tool we use for providing support to customers, and MS Sales is the data warehouse for our customer and sales history. When our account reps needed to get a 360 degree view of our customers – what are they buying, who are they buying it from, what initiatives do we have with them, and how are we supporting them – they had to go to three or four data sources, pull them together and perhaps view the information in Excel. Web services have enabled us to solve this problem.

CIO Canada: Where did the initial impetus for the project come from?

It originated around Siebel information. If you wanted to look at current Siebel information you needed to be connected to a Siebel server and go through the Siebel process. The request [from our internal business clients] was “Why can’t we do that with a browser?” It wasn’t an issue of having problems with Siebel or that we wanted to change the data structure. It was “Hey, I’m on the road or in an airport or sitting on the Internet in my house; isn’t there a lightweight browser you can give me to get the information I want?” That was the request, and as we looked at it we said, well, the information exists; how do we expose it? The strategy we took was to use the power of XML to expose those objects in a browser-based solution; it was as simple as that. Obviously our internal development organization was an early thinker about .NET, and this seemed like a natural place to try the power of the tool.

CIO Canada: How was the Siebel implementation received by your internal clients, and what has been the impact?

We gave a beta version to some members of the US sales force. Their response was amazing. And even more amazing was the juices that flowed across group when they saw what could be done. If we’re to have a 360 degree view of a customer, there’s lots of other data we need. Where are those data? Can we get them? Can we combine them in that same solution so that it looks like one service? Then of course the question arises “That’s great, but I’ve just come out of the customer account and I want to report an opportunity to a peer sales rep in another country – can I do input?” Well, why not? So we’ve got to think about it again. All this grew from the ground up – from a desire to have a simpler interface to get information that existed in a legacy system.

CIO Canada: How has the project progressed from the initial implementation?

We looked at the success of the Siebel implementation and said “We can do the same thing with Clarify, the same thing with MS Sales, the same thing with SAP. So we ended up building a product called Account Explorer, where an account rep or an executive going on a visit can open a browser, pull up an account and get Siebel information, support information and sales information in one view, which just wasn’t possible before.

CIO Canada: How do you think other CIOs are viewing the strategic importance of Web services?

I think everybody is aware of the power that XML and Web services can provide to the underlying data that the company has. As CIOs, we spend much of our time on infrastructure management, on networks and systems. Many of the peers I talk to don’t spend nearly as much time around information – how we use it and how we move it around. That’s what Web services enables us to do. The term infostructure really resonates with me. That’s the task we have. We’ve got lots of data, lots of business intelligence – how do we get it to the right person at the right time, and can Web services help? Clearly, we believe they can. Web services can quickly allow you to unleash the power in your legacy systems without having to throw out or replace the infrastructure you have. It requires more of a marrying of the business process and the information, so I think we’ve got a challenge in making sure the IT organization better understands the business process that it’s trying to solve. I’ve talked to several customers that are beginning to feel the same way. I’ve seen great uptake in the last six months. There is a groundswell of interest.

CIO Canada: When do you feel that Web services will reach a level of maturity that will see most companies embracing them in some kind of a significant way?

Visual Studio and other products have already enabled many of the features we talk about as the .NET platform, so in some ways I think the maturity is there. The use of the technology in a very broad way is what’s starting. I don’t study marketing trends or try to think broadly about when the industry will say this has been successful. I look at my own space and say, is there value I can bring to the business by using this new technology or this new platform to enable us to provide more predictable service to our customers, to make our business more agile, and to make the information we have more valuable? To those questions I’d answer yes, yes and yes. And that’s why we’re deploying it.

CIO Canada: Having had some experience in implementing Web services, do you have any lessons learned that you would like to share about successfully undertaking this type of task?

The number one lesson learned is that it takes tight integration between the business and the IT organization to understand what it is you’re trying to achieve – that marrying of business process plus technology. Other than that, we’ve been pleased with the rate at which people learn the technology. If people are C programmers they can use C, if they’re BASIC programmers they can use BASIC. It’s not a new development language. Building Web services isn’t about teaching how to program; it’s about how to take the programming you know and use it in a different way.

CIO Canada: What are some of the significant challenges to building Web services?

Like anything, there’s a learning curve with regard to thinking about what the service should be, how you’re going to manage it, and what the security is going to be around that service. But I don’t think there are any specific obstacles that should keep people from trying them and adopting them.

CIO Canada: What about key success factors?

From what I’ve heard from customers who are prototyping and trying things, it’s a grass roots success story so far. Somebody does it and says “Look, I’ve built a service; you can use it”, and that gets other people thinking about ways to improve the solution. We’ve seen it in our own IT department. I don’t have any best practices to share yet. I think it’s a matter of adopting the platform and understanding the power of it, and then figuring out where you can apply it.

CIO Canada: What advice would you give to CIOs contemplating using Web services?

I’d say go! Go try something. Get that first service out to let your IT organization and business organization look at and understand the power of the platform. Let it get started and let that groundswell we’ve seen in other enterprises happen.

CIO Canada: What hurdles still need to be addressed by the industry with regard to Web services?

There are lots of areas that need to be addressed. There’s reliability, there’s security, there’s trustworthiness around privacy – those are all issues that we as an industry continue to work toward. As you build a Web service, just as you build any application, you have to determine who you give access to and what security features must be put in place around that; that’s an issue that needs to be addressed. Privacy is also a key issue – now that you can expose the information, you’d better be thinking about what the information is, and that requires people to be much more thoughtful about privacy. I see that as a part of the evolution of the industry – things we all have to think about and get better at.

CIO Canada: As the ball gets rolling on Web services, how are they likely to impact the IT department?

I think this is an exciting opportunity for the IT organization to get closer to the business, to be part of the business, and to add greater value to the business than we do today. That’s one of the more exciting aspects of the quicker time to market and lighter applications that we’ll be able to build.

CIO Canada: What are the most significant benefits CIOs can expect from this technology?

The most powerful thing about the platform is that it’s not solving a new challenge, it’s a new solution to a challenge every CIO has. Yes, I have an ERP system that I can’t get information out of; yes, my sales database doesn’t talk to my marketing database; yes, I have lots of databases throughout the company that I don’t have an ability to get information out of. Those are investments we’ve made today – all good investments made at the right time for the right solution. Our businesses now need to change more quickly than they have historically, and I think Web services and the .NET platform give them the opportunity to do that.

David Carey is a veteran journalist specializing in information technology and IT management. Based in Toronto, he is managing editor of CIO Canada.