Web services get off drawing boards

Until now, Web services have been more theory than reality, but users are starting to turn to them as a way to democratize enterprise application integration (EAI).

An early adopter of this nascent application development approach is Wachovia Securities Inc., which is setting up a Web services pilot program with Thomson Financial, a US$2 billion Boston-based information services company.

If the pilot program is successful, Wachovia plans to replicate the services with smaller partners.

“The concept for me is to externalize my internal data sets,” said John D’Agostino, chief operating officer at Winston-Salem, N.C.-based financial services provider Wachovia. “In the past, I would have to set up direct links between myself and my partners or use some third-party vendor to do it.”

Speeding applications

D’Agostino’s criticism of e-business to date is that the applications have been expensive and can force users to mimic the one-to-one links in the off-line world.

“My hope with Web services is that they’ll actually reach that broader audience in a simple but useful fashion,” D’Agostino said.

San Francisco-based Grand Central Networks Inc. will be the EAI vendor in this case, using Web services to get the job done. Applications will encounter one another on the network using the simple object access protocol (SOAP) and be identified using the emerging Web services description language (WSDL).

In a separate initiative, Gaithersburg, Md.-based GE Global eXchange Services (GXS) and Houston-based FuelQuest Inc. announced the creation of a Web services-based EAI program that lets fuel distributors plug into a GXS-hosted trading network of U.S. refiners.

When regional distributors load up a truck at a refinery, they will receive an electronic bill of lading that downloads directly into their financial systems. The bill can then be passed along to the distributors’ customers.

“In an industry where fax machines were a novelty a decade ago, this is a big deal,” said Mary Wilson, vice-president at J.E. DeWitt Inc., a South El Monte, Calif.-based petroleum distributor.

Wilson noted that manual data entry of paper bills of lading has long been a problem in the fuel distribution industry, but previous e-commerce solutions proved too costly, too complex or too cutthroat, she said.

“Some vendors, you could tell by the way they were building their systems that their ultimate goal was to control the customer base and cut me out,” Wilson said.

Off-loading to smaller firms

GXS chief technology officer Frank Campagnoni explained that the new system is just a way to off-load applications to smaller companies.

The standard program interfaces have been defined using WSDL. It’s the first time GXS has used this Web service commercially, but Campagnoni called the EAI program: “the first blush of a strategic initiative that’s going to be implemented inside of GXS.”

“Up until this point, we haven’t really had the access mechanisms from the Internet into our systems,” he added.

Other EAI vendors plan to follow in the Web services arena. Andrea Eubanks, director of products at Tibco Software Inc., said the Palo Alto, Calif.-based company plans in the first quarter of next year to release its own set of SOAP interfaces and WSDL adapters.

Karen Peterson, an analyst at Stamford, Conn.-based research firm Gartner Inc., said that applications would eventually be built using Web services. But the early payoff for users will be in the EAI space, she added.