Web Services Tour heeds misconceptions

Web services are coming to a network near you whether you are ready or not, and some industry giants are betting more than the farm on the new technological dark horse.

A common misconception is that Web services mean simply conducting business on the Web, but the action of Web services is more complex than that. Web services are Web-based applications that dynamically interact with other Web applications using open standards, including XML, universal description, discovery and integration (UDDI) and simple object access protocol (SOAP). Microsoft’s .Net and Sun’s Sun ONE are so far the major development platforms that natively support these standards.

According to IDC Canada Ltd., Web services enable interoperability between legacy or disparate systems.

“The way in which it is being done is relatively new,” said Alister Sutherland, director of software research for IDC Canada in Toronto. “Typically the way in which it has been done is by using some type of middleware to tie two applications together. But if you wanted to add a third application, then you would have to either write directly to the middleware with an API (application program interface), which wouldn’t be very successful, or more likely write a new set of APIs and middleware components so they all talk together. That makes it a very cumbersome, time-consuming process.”

Sutherland continued that Web services is an architecture that embodies an application layer. Once it is enabled, anything that is similarly enabled will recognize and interpret that application.

Although a new concept, Web services have enjoyed early adoption in private environments where large enterprises need to exchange data with their divisions and subsidiaries or with partners and clients.

And in attempts to bring the technology into mainstream adoption, three industry leaders brought their Web Services Tour to Toronto last month to educate customers on the business benefits of Web Services. Cisco Systems Canada, along with Telus Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Canada, held an information session detailing the efforts each company is making in the Web services spectrum.

According to Cisco Canada’s Andrew Sage, director of Canadian Marketing Operations in Toronto, Web services ultimately aim to increase productivity by automating business processes, while cutting overhead expenditures. However, he noted that businesses really need to understand the potential value services like sales force automation and Web hosting can offer.

“[The Web services concept] is not just doing business on the Web,” Sage said. “It is the specific task of communicating between Web applications. That is a new idea for a lot of people. If you can get your head around that, then the opportunity is to take all of those applications you’ve got and get them talking to each other inside your business.”

For example, Sage offered that businesses with financial applications opting for Web services would have the ability to exchange information with financial applications within other businesses.

“Telus talked about its ability to provide packaged applications and host those applications for small- and medium-sized businesses,” he continued. “The example of unified messaging (applications) is a great one. Telus would manage that unified messaging application (for a business)…and provide services to help you customize it exactly the way you want it in their hosting environment.”

However, outsourcing Web services to a provider is just one way of doing it. According to Telus’s Craig Richardson, assistant vice president of hosting solutions, businesses should look at what applications are mission-critical and which are business-critical; this can help them understand which services they may want to consider outsourcing. Richardson explained that mission-critical applications are core to business survival such as a corporate information database, whereas business-critical applications include things like provisioning and support of e-mail.

“If you overlay that idea of business-critical being those applications that you would want to outsource, like e-mail or Web hosting, what you end up with are smaller initiatives that are very important to keep your business up and running, but they are not your core business,” Richardson said. “What some larger (customers) at Telus are now doing is Web-enabling their expense management capabilities and travel management as smaller initiatives that are ultimately going to have a positive impact on the company’s cost structure and productivity.”

At least one Telus hosting customer has found a solution for its service woes. Larry Herd, president of Calgary-based Pixxures Canada Inc., an online mapping services company, said that the company was looking to expand its Web site capabilities and did not want to have to build the infrastructure internally.

“I was really reluctant to build that internal expertise because of timelines and cost,” Herd said. “I am very aware of the real cost of doing that. The benefits are that I have not had to build a facility. I don’t have to have a failsafe power supply or hire the appropriate IT people to manage it on a 24/7 basis.”

Although Pixxures does not incur the cost of hosting its own site, Herd said the trade-off has been in terms of access and control.

“I can see that Telus is still thinking from the old telco perspective and not so much from the new business strategy that they are undertaking,” he said. “For example, it is very difficult for us to get (digital) access at a level where we could effect change quickly. You have to go through a ticketing procedure and it enters you in a cue, and if you are lucky, you might get a phone call four hours later and away you go. If it was sitting in our own shop, someone could walk over and flip a switch and it would be done.”

That said, Herd maintained that Pixxures is satisfied with its dealings with Telus and said he feels Telus is making sincere efforts to recognize the company’s requirements.