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Handling Web services with care

Sterling Commerce senior VP Terry Noreault says caution should still be the byword for IT managers weighing their next move.

As the Web services movement rides the crest of a marketing wave promising "etopia" in full-spectrum business integration, a closer look reveals that many new tools are still not ready for prime time.

Few Internet-inspired solutions are up to the task of serious integration or able to take full advantage of investments already made in foundation systems.

Internet-based services are an important new technology deserving a place in

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everyone's arsenal of options. But there's also no doubt that the model has considerable maturing to do before it can truly revolutionize business integration. Even with recent noteworthy advancements, the various Web services are hard-pressed to fill the need for business process management and to deliver the level of trading partner intimacy and security that traditional point-to-point systems do.

On the benefits side, Web services and a standardized integration of applications that use Extensible Markup Language (XML) over an Internet backbone undoubtedly have profoundly positive implications. Such services eliminate nagging problems associated with proprietary systems hunched deep in their silos that are unable to interact with anything outside the domain.

Web services also reduce the cost to connect applications and the speed with which the connections are established, even while making software integration faster, cheaper and easier. Finally, Web services deliver on the promise of no custom coding--a

Even with recent noteworthy advancements, Web services are hard-pressed to fill the need for business process management.
big bonus for today's extremely budget-conscious integration and software development programs.

Three key limitations
Aside from the global limitations that come with any new and broad-reaching technology, Web services are constrained by specific limitations.

Web services are often not equipped to handle connections with broad communities outside the firewall--at least not until important issues such as security and standards are addressed.

Companies are not willing to expose their business information for Web services integration with customers or suppliers, if there is a threat that their applications or internal systems could be tapped. Establishing security standards across diverse communities could take years. There are still several Web services standards and organizations with no clear winner leading the pack.

The second limitation is the inability of Web services to support business process management (BPM), or the process of defining rules and logic between applications and/or people to accomplish a particular business goal.

Traditional integration approaches are still required to expose the business logic, processes and data housed in such mission-critical applications as enterprise resource planning, supply chain management and customer relationship management.

The move should be gradual, strategic and included as part of any new software purchase.
Simply wrapping data in XML is enough to allow it to be exchanged as a Web services document. More involved functionality, such as exposing an entire business process to a supplier, still requires traditional integration approaches on the back end.

The third--and most important--limiting factor lies in the inability to understand and translate the semantics of information being exchanged. If the semantics were standardized, everyone would be in agreement about the information being shared. Web services can't understand the values being sent and received and how to use them--they only send them.

Recommendations for decision makers
Businesses should move toward adopting Web services, because the technology promises to make integration easier and more efficient, but the move should be gradual, strategic and included as part of any new software purchase.

Also keep in mind that business integration is more than Web services. While Web services will continue to grow in importance, they comprise only one tool in the toolbox. When selecting a business integration vendor or software, ensure that there's ample support for custom coding and translation; business process modeling; business-to-business standards; Web enablement; and batch and real-time messaging.

While the hype surrounding Web services definitely bears watching, you may need to resist the pressures to deploy new capabilities too quickly. Buying into Web services--or any new technology--should be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Web services should build on your existing infrastructure and solve specific business problems. The goal is to make existing processes more efficient.