Web services touted to boost integration, data flow

In a rare public display of camaraderie, Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates and IBM Corp. software chief Steve Mills further cemented the commitment of their respective companies to work together to accelerate the creation and adoption of key Web services standards.

At a joint presentation in New York on Sept. 17, they offered a demonstration of an application that can link an automotive parts supplier, an auto manufacturer and its dealers via Web services. The demonstration, the first of its kind according to Gates, exploited “advanced Web services,” which used a combination of IBM and Microsoft products, ranging from Microsoft’s Windows Server 2003, SQL Server and IBM’s WebSphere, to the Tablet PC. In the spirit of cooperation between the two companies a Linux-based server was also part of the demonstration.

The two companies demonstrated early protocol code from WS-Security, WS-Reliable Messaging, and WS-Transaction that served as the foundation for the auto supply chain demonstration. Both Gates and Mills said they intend to submit the specifications as “royalty-free standards” to the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards, more commonly known as OASIS, as well as the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

While neither would commit to a time frame about specifically when these standards would get presented to standards organizations and subsequently incorporated into their respective core products, they indicated that would be accomplished over the next year.

The two companies have been working together closely for three years to establish the initial set of Web services protocols including XML, SOAP, WSDL and UDDI, which both companies fully support in existing products such as Windows and WebSphere. The new advanced layer of protocols will “take Web services to a new level,” Gates said.

“We think whatever [buyers] spend on Web services to do things like connect up supply chains offers them tremendous payback,” Mills said.

Integration problem solved

Web services technology has brought easy and cost-effective integration to Future Electronics, an electronic components maker in Pointe-Claire, Que.

Brad Hudon, director of IT development for Future Electronics, says his company had been using custom-developed Cobol-based systems, but in the last few years had created satellite systems with disparate technologies running on them.

An integration problem became obvious after Future bought a software package and realized there was no platform to connect the product to the rest of its applications. As part of its search for a solution, Hudon brought Fairfax, Va.-based integration platform vendor webMethods in for a test run. The three test scenarios included: real-time database synchronization; the use of an application programming interface (API) to connect an HP NonStop Himalaya server to Future’s legacy systems; and connection of business logic on five legacy servers to Future’s systems using SOAP (simple object access protocol), via Web services. It was through this third test that Future found the value of Web services.

The “skeleton” of the Web services implementation was finished in five days, not including what was completed during the proof-of-concept stage, which concentrated mostly on opening up the firm’s legacy order processing system to the Web. “We then had to flesh out some business rules and add some complexity,” Hudon said.

Four to six weeks of analysis followed, during which Future did some digging into technical problems. “There were some minor irritants – like the SOAP adapter that we were using was relatively new, and it was accepting and returning invalid characters.” But in the end, the technology wasn’t much of an issue, Hudon maintains.

Vendors usually tout the benefits of external integration, said Hudon. Although Future now offers some Web services outside the enterprise, the real value has been found internally. He said Web services has helped Future accelerate its product delivery schedule and save time by not requiring its internal developers to write the integration code themselves.

— with files from Ed Scannell, InfoWorld (U.S. online) and Patricia Pickett