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Rivalry bogs down Web services

Web services--the technology heralded as a way to connect incompatible software--is suffering from a communications breakdown as rival alliances jockey to establish standards.

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Web services--the technology heralded as a way to connect incompatible software--is suffering from a communications breakdown as rival alliances jockey to establish standards.

In a mark of an increasingly contentious standards-setting process, two factions--represented by Microsoft on one side and Sun Microsystems on the other--have developed competing proposals for the reliable delivery of messages in Web services applications.

Web services, an umbrella term for a set of programming standards that allows disparate systems to exchange information easily, hasn't lived up to early hype as the underpinning for futuristic online retail scenarios and for building-block services of rentable applications for business. But the technology has made strides within big companies as the basis of more mundane but increasingly important links between business systems.

One of the major holdups to wider acceptance of Web services has been the lack of a standard way to guarantee that a message sent over the Internet reliably reaches its destination, whether across the street or across the world.

With that goal in mind, Microsoft hosted a meeting on Tuesday to discuss a specification called WS-ReliableMessaging (WS-RM), which it wrote in partnership with IBM, BEA Systems and Tibco. The specification, which was published in March but has not been submitted to a standards group yet, is designed to ensure that XML (Extensible Markup Language) documents can be sent reliably between computers.

The problem? A rival specification has already been introduced by Sun, Oracle, Fujitsu, Hitachi, NEC and Sonic Software. The Sun and Oracle-backed specification, called Web Services Reliable Messaging, was submitted to the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) in February for development as an industry standard.

While Microsoft was holding its "open invitation" workshop Tuesday to garner feedback on the WS-ReliableMessaging specification, Sun issued a statement calling the action detrimental to the advancement of industry standards, which are meant to ensure interoperability between products from different providers. Sun has also complained that Microsoft and IBM have not made the standards-creation process as inclusive as it should be.

"The continued development by Microsoft, IBM, BEA and Tibco of WS-RM outside of the existing standards work at OASIS purposefully adds to the complexity and general fragmentation of Web services standards," Sun said in the statement. "There is absolutely no reason for these vendors to duplicate efforts that are currently underway in recognized standards bodies."

Standards tug of war
The Web services market has been riddled with similar political battles and wrangling among providers, each hoping to appear more concerned with customer worries than the next.

Businesses are becoming impatient with politically motivated standards battles, and fear that Web services--founded on the promise that differences between different companies' products could be surmounted through standards--is becoming yet another technology beset by providers' bickering.

"(The standards bodies) have really dropped the ball on this," said Daniel Austin, a senior technical architect at W.W. Grainger, an industrial products distributor based in Chicago. "With so many overlapping standards, (the vendors are) killing the ability to have real interoperability. What we're going to see is a competitive, proprietary jungle, and we won't be able to get the benefits of Web services."

Since the advent of Web services three years ago, technology makers have launched efforts to tackle interoperability. The first set of standards emerged from the Web Service Interoperability organization (WS-I), a provider-backed standards group. But that group was dogged from the start by political maneuvering.

If Microsoft, Sun and other Web services providers can't find compromises for overlapping standards proposals, customers may need to rely on incompatible specifications, according to analysts. That would be a "huge issue" for companies betting on Web services interoperability to ease systems integration problems, said Austin, who is actively involved in developing Web services standards.

"If we want to do work with some people outside our company, we want to be sure we can talk to them without a long negotiation," he said. With competing standards, he added, "the result will be more cost, more people to learn and track (standards), and you're never sure which (product) to buy."

The state of flux comes partly from much standards work being driven by the industry giants, sometimes working outside of an oversight organization. In addition, two international bodies--the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and OASIS--each have purview over different Web services standards, adding to the political confusion.

On top of this, despite pledges to support standards for the greater good of the industry, software makers are constantly battling for control over standards, which can give them an edge over competitors. Once a specification is ratified as an industry standard, companies build proprietary products based on the standard.

Controversy is never far from the standards process. In another high-profile dustup, a group of companies led by IBM and Microsoft in April submitted a specification called Business Process Execution Language for Web services (BPEL) to OASIS. In doing this, they bypassed a similar initiative led by Oracle and Sun that is still being defined within the W3C.

Likewise, WS-Federation--a security-related specification published by authors IBM and Microsoft last week--was criticized Sun and other companies because it overlaps with work being done by the Liberty Alliance Project, an industry group.

No end in sight?
With the software industry betting on Web services standards as the basis for many software systems, customers can expect a continuation of the high-stakes politics and battles among computing providers, said Ron Schmelzer, an analyst at research firm ZapThink.

The first set of Web services standards for basic data exchange and transport was easy to establish. But as Web services capabilities get more sophisticated, software makers will seek to maintain product differentiation in the form of proprietary technology, he said.

"There's going to be a lot more of this (conflict) as problems get more complex," Schmelzer said. "As specifications take on more complicated issues like security, business process (automation) and service levels, they become competitive differentiation for products."

Microsoft's director of Web services marketing, Steven VanRoekel, said that other companies were invited to participate in Tuesday's WS-ReliableMessaging workshop. VanRoekel expects that ultimately, different companies will converge on a single set of specifications for reliable messaging as well as for other Web services standards.

"We hope to come to the end of the process with some set of technologies and have a lot of people providing input into it," he said.

In the end, businesses buying Web services technology need to decide whether to wait for the standards dust to settle, or to forge ahead and expect to clean up any incompatibilities themselves.

Todd Cinnamon, vice president of engineering at online reservation site, said his company's strategy is to track the standards-setting process but not to actively lobby Web services providers to adopt one standard over another. If more than one standard emerges for the same task, the company will create an adapter or maintain two sets of products, he said.

"I'm assuming (that) over time, an overwhelming majority will emerge, but I'm not losing any sleep over it," Cinnamon said.

But for many companies looking to drive demand for Web services, confusion or fractured standards could sour the promise of interoperability or give customers a reason to delay software purchases.

"If you see all this battling going on, your first reaction is to wait," Schmelzer said. "Giving people another reason to wait is pretty dangerous in an emerging economy."