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Start-ups aim for Web services niche

A new crop of software companies such as Confluent and Amber Point is emerging with the promise of managing and monitoring Web services for big companies.

A new crop of software companies is emerging to tackle the managing and monitoring of Web services in big companies.

As corporations begin to use Web services to link their internal systems and services over the Internet, start-ups such as Confluent Software, Amber Point, Talking Blocks and a handful of others see an opportunity to provide these businesses with software to help manage Web services networks.

"Everyone is talking about Web services, and it's confusing a lot of people," said James Hogan, vice president of business development at Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Confluent. "Web services are great, but without the capability to manage and monitor those Web services, you are ultimately going to fail."

With Web services, companies get in essence a programming model in which business applications exchange data and information using Extensible Markup Language (XML). By using XML, developers can connect systems regardless of the programming language used to build them or the operating system that hosts them.

In theory, passing XML data over an internal network or the Internet is straightforward. But operations become much more complex when multiple systems are linked in this way. That's where management tools come in: They can show the status of transactions, help ensure security and verify that Web services transactions get to their intended destinations.

The challenge for these start-ups, according to analysts, will be to convince enterprises that their services are necessary while also differentiating themselves in an increasingly crowded field. The technology appears to be only subtly different from one company to the next, making it difficult to sway customers to a particular player, according to analysts.

"If you look at the factors that will make or break a companies like these, ultimately technology is maybe 30 percent to 40 percent of the equation," said Dwight Davis, an analyst with industry consultancy Summit Strategies. "Other things like partnerships and customers who are willing to provide references and testimonials combine to play a much more crucial role."

Confluent, which is slated to release its new management software on Tuesday, may stand on its founders' resumes to rise above the crowd. Confluent's founders--Rajiv Gupta and Sekhar Sarukkai--headed Hewlett-Packard's e-Speak division. While that initiative has been shelved, it is widely acknowledged for having helped to define Web services back in the late 1990s.

The company said its Confluent Core Web Services Integration and Management Platform merges integration, management and business analysis. It can manage only Web services written using Java 2 Enterprise Edition, but the company is developing a version to work with Microsoft's .Net technology. The management software itself runs on Unix and Windows, according to Hogan.

Amber Point is also relying on its executives' pedigree to open doors. Its founders led Sun Microsystems's Forte initiative before starting the company.

Analysts said that the ability to work with Web services regardless of how they were developed will be key to the success of these start-ups. Potential customers hope that turning to products from companies like Amber Point and Confluent will not lock them into one vendor's strategy--that is, it will live up to the nonsectarian promise of Web services.

"There is some concern that if you are locked up inside an IBM box or a Microsoft box, some of the benefits of linking between various platforms could be lost," said Brent Sleeper, an analyst at consulting firm Stencil Group.