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HolidayBuyer's Guide
Tech Industry

Commentary: Prepare now for Web services

To exploit Web services effectively, user organizations need to adopt modern componentized programming models for in-house application development.

In recent months, Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, IBM and other leading vendors have outlined their plans for "Web services," which will enable developers to create or enhance applications by connecting coarse-grained components that are accessed via platform-independent Web protocols.

See news story:
Pitch: Why Web services make business sense

Interest in Web services is being driven by the desire to react quickly to market changes, customize offerings (with minimal complexity), integrate processes with business partners and, beginning in 2002, exploit software resources across channels. Through 2005, Web services will be the next step in the evolution of Web architecture, reflecting a clean division between the production and delivery of information.

Examples of Web services could include personal profiles, datebook services, personal telephone books, single sign-on services such as Microsoft Passport, and credit card services. In some respects, Web services resemble the decades-old concept of reusable objects. However, they differ from objects in that they tend to be higher-level abstractions, making them more likely to be platform independent, relieving one of the major problems with object reuse.

Although user organizations will sometimes develop their own Web services, more typically they will consume Web services from providers such as Microsoft, Oracle, IBM and Sun. We also anticipate the introduction of many lower-level Web services from third-party providers. For example, in its .Net Web services environment, Microsoft will attempt to retain proprietary control over high-level services such as its Passport single sign-on and user-information capture facility while accommodating third-party developers creating lower-level services for the .Net environment.

To exploit Web services effectively, user organizations need to adopt modern componentized programming models for in-house application development. Companies still writing monolithic programs in C or COBOL will not be easily able to incorporate Web services components.

Users (and investors) must be careful to distinguish between the new breed of Web services and traditional application service providers (ASPs), whose basic business model is simply to rent versions of full business applications on a time-sharing basis. We expect some ASPs to relabel themselves as "Web service providers," hoping to cash in on the latest buzzword.

Why ASPs aren't Web services
The basic premise of ASPs --that many organizations would outsource complete business applications via the Web with little or no customization--has proven elusive. Higher-level, standards-based Web services, however, can be invoked by in-house customized applications, giving their providers leverage (and potential profitability) that ASPs have been hard-pressed to realize.

Because Web services take advantage of evolving standards such as XML (Extensible Markup Language), UDDI (Universal Description, Discovery and Integration), and SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol), they promise to accommodate flexible mixing and matching by developers.

Although implementation of Web services is still a year or more away, enterprises need to start mastering the new Web services protocols and technologies and to understand how they can be used for business advantage. As a first step, advanced-technology groups should review the extensive information offered at the major vendors' Web sites and begin experimenting with these technologies.

Organizations should begin planning to take inventory of the their systems' capabilities as a set of coarse-grained services that expose the functions that external systems must access. Web services will enable this through standard protocols by which these components can describe the services they offer and provide access via platform-independent mechanisms (XML, SOAP).

Companies must also develop the IT infrastructure to support use of Web services. This requires moving from monolithic to componentized application development models--using environments such as Sun's Java or Microsoft's COM+/.Net as they are meant to be used, not as just another way to build "silo" applications. In addition, IT operations groups need to develop the Internet skills required to run and maintain applications with embedded Web services (such as security).

A more detailed description of best practices for using Web services is not yet possible. Web services are quite new and cover a wide range of potential offerings. Best practices for user organizations will depend on precisely what Web services are offered when and by whom, as well as evaluating just how well they meet a particular organization's business needs.

Meta Group analysts William Zachmann, Val Sribar, Craig Roth, Thomas Murphy, Daniel Sholler, Dale Kutnick, and Jack Gold contributed to this article.

Visit Metagroup.com for more analysis of key IT and e-business issues.

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