Grand plans at Grand Central

Halsey Minor, founder and CEO of Web services integrator Grand Central Communications Inc., thinks they have it all wrong. The big vendors, he said, are intent on pushing application intelligence to the edges of the network while keeping the centre — the Internet — as simple as possible.

But Minor said history proves that large networks work better the other way around — complex at the core and simple at the edges. And he points to the power grid, the postal service and the phone network as prime examples. Minor’s goal is to do the same thing for Web services, with Grand Central handling the complexity in the middle, of course.

On the surface, the idea seems to make sense: Instead of building an internal Web services stack — along with the requisite hardware and software — farm the whole thing out to a service provider who will handle the details. Companies could then quickly publish public or private services that others could latch onto without mountains of code or piles of cash. Smaller companies could get involved more easily. SLAs would be simpler to track with Grand Central acting as a neutral third party to determine when and where things go wrong. Until recently, however, Grand Central had trouble getting much traction, as few companies have been doing much with Web services aside from trial runs and internal integration projects.

But that could be about to change. The company recently released version 4.0 of its “integration-as-a-service” platform, which includes a public directory for services, simplified provisioning and process editing tools and a version of the Business Process Execution Language (BPEL) that supports not only Web services, but also EDI and FTP connections.

On top of that, Grand Central is now able to demo something interesting: A Web services means of loading and extracting data from e-commerce sites like eBay and Amazon. Those companies are both eager to attract new merchants, but moving your inventory to their services isn’t necessarily simple. So — without the help of either company — Grand Central has found a way to make it easy. Through Grand Central services, companies could take their data in SAP, Quickbooks, Excel or other formats and simply load it into the receiving site — with Grand Central handling all the necessary transformations. After a sale, the data can flow the other way, too, populating, say, a CRM application (Minor is also a major investor in that service company) with buyer information.

The goal is to make it simple for any business, of any size, to get its products onto Amazon or eBay — no hassle, no proprietary software, no cumbersome manual data entry. Grand Central hasn’t sold either company on this vision yet, but if it does, it could radically simplify how companies get online.

And at least one major company is rumored to be in line to resell Grand Central’s services in the next few months — a company that could take Grand Central from dot-com survivor to serious player instantly.

Does it mean Minor’s vision for Web services will come to dominate? Who knows. But it’s certainly an idea that will deserve some serious attention.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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