Web services: Users say they’re proceeding cautiously

IBM Corp., Microsoft Corp. and other vendors that have been pounding the Web services drum for more than two years claim that more and more of their customers are building Web services. But the spotty levels of commitment by corporate users was plainly evident based on recent comments by 15 IT professionals at Gartner Inc.’s Application Integration and Web Services Summit.

Some have adopted a service-oriented development approach, and they noted a growing collection of Web services. But more said they’re just getting started, with few or even just one Web service in production, and others expressed skepticism about the ability of Web services to address complex integration woes.

“I don’t think the infrastructure is in place to enable the throughput,” said Piet Potgieter, a Cape Town-based application architect at Old Mutual PLC, a financial services and insurance firm that does much of its business in South Africa. Potgieter, who works with mainframes, said Web services may have a place where response time doesn’t matter. But latency issues need to be resolved before Web services can offer high throughput across a network, he said.

“The problem is the business case,” said Martin Prater, a Zurich-based vice-president of technology management at Credit Suisse Financial Services. He said a number of partners and customers have asked for programmatic access to the firm’s SAP systems. “But the cost benefit is to them,” he said.

Prater said Credit Suisse will stick with CORBA (Common Object Request Broker Architecture) until it really has to make changes. Although licensing costs might be cheaper for Web services-based products, “the migration effort would never be worth it,” he said.

Jonathan Pettus, a manager in the integration project office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., noted “the hype” around Web services but said it’s “very naive” to think that an application that supports XML can solve a company’s integration problems.

Pettus said he can foresee Web services being useful for information exchange with the public. Next spring, for instance, NASA plans to advertise job openings through Monster.com and use a SOAP adapter from SeeBeyond Technology Corp. to enable resumes to get into its back-end systems through a Web service, he said.

He noted that one technology vendor claims to be doing a complete conversion to Web services to get internal applications to interoperate. But that won’t happen at NASA, Pettus said.

“How long is it going to take us to get the thousands of applications that we have in NASA Web-serviceable?” he said.

Gartner analyst Roy Schulte estimated that 95 per cent of the Web services being used today are internal between “like” systems. “You don’t mix vendor SOAP stacks in 95 per cent of the cases, because they don’t work together if you’re trying to do anything fancy,” he said. “If both the client and the server are using the Microsoft development tools, it’s amazingly easy to build Web services. But when you’re mixing, it gets much harder.”

Schulte predicted that there won’t be “pluggable interoperability with no customization” for at least five years, since vendor implementations will continue to vary. He likened the situation to database vendors’ support for SQL. “It is not easy to port an application from Oracle to SQL Server to DB2 to Sybase,” he said. “The same thing will be true for Web services.”

Schulte also predicted that Web services between heterogeneous systems over HTTP in high-throughput, low-latency scenarios won’t be possible in the foreseeable future – although simple SOAP-based request-and-replay messages over HTTP work today. And reliable messaging and security will improve, he added.

The Web Services Interoperability Organization, led by IBM and Microsoft, has been working to resolve some of the thornier issues. In September, the two vendors demonstrated how advanced Web services specifications enabled disparate systems to securely and reliably exchange messages in a test situation.

Still, many users remain wary. Harold Schaefer, an associate director of database administration and application integration technologies at Wyeth Pharmaceuticals in Frazer, Pa., said he is eager to experiment with Web services, and he would ultimately like to use them in a heterogeneous environment. But he has concerns about security and reliability.

“It needs to get more mature,” Schaefer said.

Andrew Tessier, an Eden Prairie, Minn.-based director of technical services at Park Nicollet Health Services, has other concerns. Now that the company has gone live with a simplistic Web service to demonstrate the benefits to management, it has to address the development staff’s lack of Web services skills, as well as the clumsiness of sending big XML files through constrained pipes.

Van Crozier, a Seattle-based technology architect at health care provider The Regence Group, worries more about the management of Web services. “I don’t want these things to spring up with nobody keeping track of them,” he said.

But companies committed to Web services are working around the problems and limitations. Gary Lien, a systems architect with Life Time Fitness in Eden Prairie, Minn., said his company’s external Web services are with a single partner, making it easier to deal with security issues. The company gets around the issue of reliable messaging by doing only synchronous communication, he said.

Mike Wasiak, manager of shared services at T. Rowe Price Investment Technologies Inc. in Baltimore, said that the firm’s first Web services, launched earlier this year, represented a natural progression after CORBA and Enterprise JavaBeans. But the company doesn’t use Web services for every business need.

For instance, T. Rowe Price will probably shy away from Web services when it needs high performance or when going from an internally built Java system to another internally built Java system, Wasiak said. “Why take the penalty of a remote invocation when you don’t need to?” Wasiak said, describing the Java-to-Java scenario.

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