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Trying to make Web services make sense

Multiple standards muddy the waters and keep customers from taking the Web services plunge.

Office supply house Corporate Express should be a Web services poster child.

The company embraced the technology to do exactly what it was designed for: sharing information with business partners over the Internet. But even this leading-edge user is staying clear of the most recent Web services standards for security and more--because they're too confusing.

"A lot of different organizations have gotten involved in Web services specifications, and some of them overlap," said Andy Miller, vice president of technical architecture at Corporate Express.

Instead of experimenting with the latest capabilities, Corporate Express is sticking with the most basic communication and data-formatting Web services standards. "We're just trying to keep it simple because we have no idea how this stuff is going to go," he said.


What's new:
Dueling standards are roiling efforts to advance Web services, intended to be the framework that lets companies exchange information over the Internet.

Bottom line:
Some companies are reluctant to spend on Web services until conflicts are ironed out. An industry consortium, WS-I, is making some progress in enlisting developers and cleaning up the standards mess.

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Miller's decision underscores the confusion about Web services, a dizzying number of technical specifications for making programs exchange data over the Internet. Web services specifications are being developed in different standards bodies without a unifying authority. Without clear direction on standards, the payoff of the massive industry bet on Web services could be delayed--or derailed--because customers are sitting on the sidelines of a politicized and contentious standards process.

"Until we see more clarity and unification of Web service standards, then our IT purse strings will stay closed on new investments," said a publishing company's security expert, who wished to remain anonymous.

Attempting to rise above the noise from numerous standards bodies, an industry consortium called the Web Services Interoperability organization (WS-I) is stepping up its efforts to clear up confusion. But as it takes on more advanced Web services capabilities, including such important technologies as "reliable messaging," the group faces a fresh set of challenges sorting through the infighting among vendors.

The WS-I was formed two years ago to provide guidelines and tests to ensure that Web services products from different providers interoperate as advertised. The group, whose members include more than 100 technology vendors, has eschewed the traditional standards body model, in which a group of experts tackle a specific issue and then publish technical blueprints. The WS-I instead puts out technical guidelines to ensure that Web services products from different providers can work together.

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The WS-I offers a sort of Web services seal of approval, providing certification that Web services adhere to standards put out by other standards organizations, such as the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) or the Internet Engineering Task Force ().

Last year, the group, whose members include both technology companies and customers, released a "basic profile," a set of tests and sample applications to measure whether Web services products from different providers are interoperable. Later this summer, it will publish a security profile advising how to effectively work with a number of Web services-related security standards, WS-I executives told CNET News.com.

Getting the message
Once the security profile is complete, the WS-I expects to take on reliable messaging, an important technology for the use of Web services as a replacement for proprietary integration software. While there was a good deal of agreement in the first phase of basic Web services protocols, there is a significant rift between backers of different reliable messaging proposals, pitting IBM, Microsoft, BEA Systems and their technical partners against Oracle, Sun Microsystems, Hitachi and others.

The rivalry among two reliable messaging specifications is so intense that one software executive decried IBM's "assassination attempt" of the Web services Reliable Messaging spec (WS-RM), which is now being developed through the standards body OASIS. An IBM executive had provided a technical critique of that specification in a meeting at the end of April. IBM, Microsoft, BEA and Tibco are backing an alternate proposal, which has not been submitted to a standards body.

The WS-I plans to convince the dueling groups to eventually merge the work from the technical committees, said Tom Glover, an IBM executive and the chairman of the WS-I board.

"There's an agreement that we need to do a reliable messaging profile. That's placing pressure of some form on people who are supporting various proposals to come together and find agreement," Glover said.

Too many cooks, too soon
Other conflicts, born of parallel standardization efforts, also need resolution. Earlier this month, executives from 11 technology companies sent an to the W3C requesting that an advisory committee be formed to find "convergence" between the two Web services specifications.

The uncoordinated standards processes stems from the practice of "forum swapping," in which vendors submit their existing technology to a standards body that best suits their needs, said Andrew Updegrove, an attorney with Gesmer Updegrove.

"The practice is currently running riot in the Web services area, where a varying group of companies that usually includes Microsoft, IBM, BEA and a few other companies 'pre-bake' the standard, and then offer it to a standards body," said Updegrove, a standards expert.

The "pre-baking" companies say the practice results in faster and better technical specifications. Scott Dietzen, BEA's chief technology officer, is responsible for standards work at BEA. He said IBM, Microsoft and BEA should be the ones doing a first take on technical specifications, such as reliable messaging and business process workflow, because they have the market share and the experience.

"You can't bring 20, 30 vendors together and design something successful. Plus, we already had a lot of IP (intellectual property) in place," Dietzen said. "A bunch of the vendors that weren't invited to the party are angry, but the model is working."

At the time of the WS-I's creation, the newly formed group demonstrated that even an industrywide agreement on the same standards did not erase longstanding rivalries. Sun Microsystems was originally shut out of the WS-I's founding membership at Microsoft's request, prompting CEO Scott McNealy to decry the newfound group's "political shenanigans." Sun eventually joined the WS-I and last year was elected to its board.

The WS-I has tried to take on the role of arbiter in the political wrangling among different members by making decisions based on the technical merits of different specifications and market acceptance, WS-I executives said. An outcome of two similar but slightly incompatible Web services standards is unacceptable, said Andy Astor, an executive at integration software company WebMethods and a member of the WS-I's board.

"Is the decision process optimal? Well, it is market-driven," Astor said. "Is there a technical meritocracy? Absolutely. Is there politics and financial clout involved? Of course there is."

WS-I's Glover argues that competition among proposed standards benefits the customer by providing more mature technical results in the long run, even if it causes some short-term confusion. Since the WS-I is not attached to a single standards body, the guidelines and tests it releases take into account the work of multiple standards groups, he added.

"The WS-I concept is intriguing, but a better fix would be for the (standards) consortia themselves to get it right to start with."
--Standards expert Andrew Updegrove

Technology vendors that are members of WS-I concede that they'd like technical guidelines and tests to come out quicker, which would help spur adoption among customers. But given the complexity of the task, the WS-I's work cannot go much faster than it already is, said Girish Juneja, senior vice president of product management at Web services company Sarvega.

Although the WS-I has the support of many vendors, its work has yet to prove indispensable to the customers buying Web services software, said Tom Rhinelander, an analyst at research firm New Rowley Group. "The WS-I is great in that they absolutely want everything and anything working together. But is it critical? It doesn't seem to be a driving force in the industry."

There is an early indication that the WS-I standards compliance guidelines are catching on with one all-important customer--software developers. In a recent study conducted by research company Evans Data, 43 percent of developers surveyed said WS-I standards compliance was the most important feature in a programming tool.

There is a lot riding on the WS-I's effectiveness. Without adequate guidance on standards compliance, customers may end up doing custom coding to make different vendors' products work together. And a formalized standardization process, involving all the leading vendors, could give way to more ad hoc standards adoption driven by customer usage, as is the case with Microsoft Windows.

Updegrove argues that group's charter of coordinating the work of other groups exposes basic flaws in the standards process. "The WS-I concept is intriguing, but a better fix would be for the (standards) consortia themselves to get it right to start with, to avoid the force-fitting," he said

Brokerage firm Merrill Lynch, which has been working with the WS-I since late 2002, participates in the organization to help it stay in line with the latest Web services standards as they mature, said Dave Cohen, Merrill Lynch's representative at the WS-I.

The firm's strategy is to ensure that all Web services software complies with the WS-I's certifications. But because Web services standards are relatively basic right now, WS-I compliance across all of Merrill Lynch's products is a long-term goal.

Overall, Cohen said that the structure of the WS-I allows Merrill Lynch employees to interact with technology providers in a more effective manner than other standards bodies, such as the IETF or W3C.

"The WS-I provides a forum where enterprise staff can interact with the people who are writing the standards," Cohen said. "(That) forum for clarification and networking has proven invaluable."