Web services present host of developer issues

Analysts at a developers’ conference in Sydney, Australia last week identified several issues that developers and companies need to get to grips with before attacking IT projects using Web services.

These include immature standards, security plus a need to build software components that are reusable, loosely coupled and highly scalable to deal with the unpredictable demands of doing business on the Internet.

Questions of developer retraining arise and the complication of whether to build using the competing Java or Microsoft’s .Net platforms.

While the core standards of Web services — Internet protocols like HTTP, the XML mark-up language and the XML-based SOAP messaging protocol — are now widely accepted and likely to be implemented uniformly, others such as WSDL, UDDI and various security standards may not be.

However, the standards are “doing really well”, says Sydney-based Meta Group senior analyst Kevin McIsaac, speaking at the Asia-Pacific Borland Conference, even if many areas are still missing.

This is because vendors are co-operating on interfaces and standards — one of the few occasions in the history of computing, says David Intersimone, a developer relations executive for Borland.

“It’s a watershed event, as opposed to the days of COM versus Corba, or the role of DCE versus RPC …”

In some ways the widespread take-up reduces the differentiation of vendors, says Borland marketing director Nick Jackson, though McIsaac says vendors are allowing this because they have realized it is better to let the development “ecosystem” grow and try to hive off a piece of that. Microsoft gets only two per cent or three per cent of the PC ecosystem, he says.

Return on investment is harder to gauge but that could simply be because the underlying technology is a key enabler, like ASCII or TCP/IP, says McIsaac. “I would suggest the number one reason you’re going to use it is the lower total cost of change.”

Early adopters are ignoring the weaknesses of the Web services approach and jumping in, simply because the benefits are great. ComStrata, an Australian strata titles information business, is using Web services to link its front end and back end and populate data online without going into numerous areas of the application.

It protects legacy systems and user choice, says ComStrata head Gary Stanton. It’s opening up new revenue sources, new ways of doing things, quicker and cheaper change, says ComStrata’s implementers, IT Project Services. You may even go out of business if you wait for Web services standards to keep evolving, says Malcolm Groves of Madrigal Technologies, an independent Australian consultant.

Web services also mean no added infrastructure costs, says John Kaster from Borland in the U.S. They are not a panacea, says Borland’s Jackson; good business practices are still essential. Their loose coupling — compared to the tight coupling of traditional applications — allows easy outsourcing or moving to an ASP model, says McIsaac.

Intersimone, speaking in a later interview, doubts CEOs or even CIOs understand Web services well, as it’s underlying technology and probably a series of small projects hidden among big-ticket Internet spending. But, he says business development executives should be more aware.

Development professionals understand Web services, he says, because the technology can help them do their job more efficiently and is a saleable skill.

“If you can hang your shingle on J2EE and .Net, you can work anywhere, for anyone, at any time.”

Retraining shouldn’t be a huge issue for them, he says, as long as they know XML. Every programmer knows how to call a function or invoke an object, he says. “The fact that that object is connected to Federal Express’s tracking system — the programmer doesn’t need to care.”

The biggest issues are still the same, he says: transactions, security, database scaling, availability and bandwidth management.

Java and .Net will co-exist in large companies, though smaller ones may opt for one or the other. The differences are mostly technical infrastructure. “From a programmer’s point of view, they are very similar.”

Enterprises are likely to use Web services technology inside the company or initially just with partners and customers, he says, due to issues of security and trust. But real growth in the market is expected next year.