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Fact and fiction in the Web services debate

Iona Technologies CEO Barry Morris writes that the horse race between .Net and Java is less important to the future of Web services than a still unresolved debate over industry standards to govern this new technological order.

The computer industry is convinced there's a Web services cold war going on between Microsoft's .Net initiative and Sun Microsystems' Java standard. But this debate only shifts attention from the real issues that still block the wider adoption of Web services.

The pressing question isn't about handicapping the struggle between Microsoft and Sun, but rather how to best use .Net and Java--along with a host of other technologies.

Anyone who's spent time managing a large enterprise knows that his or her single greatest challenge is how to support technological diversity. Indeed, many IT professionals are responsible for vital systems that are older than they are. A lot of the world's information is still processed on mainframes, and companies have solutions from hundreds--maybe even thousands--of companies, including Sun and Microsoft.

While the big players can influence a standards-based revolution, they still can't control the revolution.
Even the companies with the largest IT budgets in the world cannot replace everything with new homogeneous systems. Nor would they want to. Companies invested billions of dollars to revitalize aging information technology systems during the Y2K scare. But just one year later, as the economy sags, these same companies are under pressure to trim costs and find new ways of making these investments pay off.

They have to find a way to revitalize older systems to do new things and recycle processes and information throughout the enterprise. That's where Web services is supposed to play its part, enabling a single connection to open up applications to any other application without time-consuming, point-to-point connections to each and every application point on the network.

It's easy to pick sides in a debate. Unfortunately, today's melting pot IT infrastructure creates tremendous confusion. Many companies claim to "do" Web services, when in reality they are simply slapping the Web services label on old software or supporting a single standard. That only limits the amount of connections and collapses the return on investment for those applications.

It's easy to pick sides in a debate. Unfortunately, today's melting pot IT infrastructure creates tremendous confusion.

Don't get me wrong: Standards are critical to Web services. We need to embrace a wide range of standards, but not any single standard dominated by a single company. There's a message behind Web services: The days of relying on a homogeneous developer environment for building applications are history.

There is a parallel with the emergence of the Web. In 1995, Microsoft was engaged in a mind share war with Lotus and Novell. In the end, the Web won because it provided a ubiquitous platform that enabled the exchange of information between proprietary applications. It also proved that while the big players can influence a standards-based revolution, they still can't control the revolution.

The more standards we embrace, the more system connections and more value organizations will get from their IT infrastructure. We need to think about how to free a company's information assets without locking them into a single standard that will, ultimately, exclude some vital asset within the enterprise. We also need to realize that choosing between Sun and Microsoft--.Net or Java--is less important to the future of Web services than hammering out the standards that will ultimately clear the remaining obstacles to wider adoption.

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