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Rocking corporate America

If you thought enterprise innovation had hit a dead end, think again. Chuck Phillips explains how a new approach to software has attracted keen interest from the IT world.

    You may not have heard much about the term Web services. That's about to change.

    This umbrella term refers to nothing less than an architectural shift in enterprise applications, encompassing a raft of new technologies that will foster the development of composite applications across multiple companies.

    The idea is to assemble applications dynamically from components created by different companies; the advantage is that the resulting composite application will incorporate business process and content from all the participants in the development process.

    Here's why the shift toward this enabling technology for inter-enterprise applications is so significant. While the last two decades of automation have largely focused on automating business process within the four walls of a single enterprise, companies have periodically struggled to get that done. Many of these applications have since aged, leading organizations to search elsewhere for the next wave of productivity enhancement. Companies in the know are looking to inter-company business process and applications.

    Pieces coming together
    Given the build-out of the Internet, the timing is right. The missing ingredient to build this new genre of applications was software infrastructure, something that's no longer in short supply.

    As usual, the promise of Web services is deceiving. Vendors will make it sound simple, but in practice this requires more than simply snapping together a few components. That doesn't mean it's not a great idea. It is a great idea, but it will take some time to mature. Think of it as peer-to-peer for the enterprise, an approach that will enable inter-company business processes with trading partners.

    Early adopters are building experimental applications now and getting reasonably good results using technologies such as Bowstreet Web Services and Microsoft.Net. Sun Microsystems is a bit late to the game but should be a credible alternative once it fills in the vision with more Java-enabled Web services.

    One early example of Web Services is the "store within a store" application. Companies selling over the Web can include content and even full order-management systems from their suppliers and partners to post on their Web sites. Virtual retailers can pull together catalogs and order-entry systems from different manufacturers and resell those products by incorporating the relevant objects on their Web sites.

    The magic sauce
    Taken to its extreme, retailers could be created overnight by pulling together the objects from relevant suppliers to market a broad array of products quickly. Manufacturers could increase their distribution from hundreds of distributors and retailers to millions of distributors and retailers.

    And the magic sauce that makes all this work? Briefly put, the suppliers of the object are responsible for maintaining that object. Consequently, if manufacturer A makes a change to its back-end order-entry system, the relevant objects are dynamically updated on the sites of all retailers subscribing to that object. The ability to extend these objects across the firewall and dynamically update them relieves the retailer from maintaining the technology and gives the manufacturer an avenue to control its brand and distribution.

    There are many more applications of this technology for both business-to-consumer and business-to-business environments. Web services may also play an important role in supply-chain applications as well as in integration platform legacy applications.

    Most companies struggled to get ERP (enterprise resource planning) applications up and running within a reasonable time period, and those were applications controlled by a single company. Web services could prove to be even more difficult to coordinate and will prove a bit daunting for many companies. Hence, I expect a slow adoption, but it's something the leading IT shops are putting on their radar screens.

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