At a press briefing here, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and Steve Mills, the executive in charge of IBM's software unit, demonstrated for the first time what Gates termed "advanced" Web services capabilities designed by the two companies for linking business software.
The companies showed off an application that links automotive parts suppliers, manufacturers and dealers via Web services that use new specifications to ensure security, reliable messaging, and transaction support. The companies said the demonstration, which used software from both Microsoft and IBM, including servers running Linux, would have been difficult to accomplish with older technologies.
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Microsoft and IBM demonstrated how Web services technology can allow their software to interact, and they pledged to cooperate in establishing standards.
Attempts during the past 20 years have largely failed to solve the vexing problem of software integration, due mostly to vendor turf battles and a lack of industry support. With long-time rivals such as IBM and Microsoft agreeing to push for standards, Web services is expected to be much more successful.
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"This is the first time anyone has seen this running," Gates said. "We think what will come out of this is along the lines of what we did with earlier specifications. We will submit (these specifications) to a standards group as royalty-free standards."
Gates did not specify which standards body the companies will approach, but he left open the possibility that the companies would again turn to the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards, or OASIS, as opposed to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which has administered many of the earlier Web services standards.
IBM and Microsoft, while competitors in many areas, have been collaborators in the Web services market almost from the start. The companies co-founded the Web Services Interoperability organization (WS-I) three years ago to help iron out standard ways to link software. The WS-I, while instrumental in establishing base standards, has been dogged from the start by charges from competitors of.
Microsoft sells tools and software based on the company's .Net architecture, while IBM and other Web services proponents, including Sun Microsystems, Oracle and BEA Systems, back Java.
Gates said workshops to hammer our final details of the new specifications will "happen in the next few months. Those things are very close to being done. We should be able to move forward on these quite quickly."
Gates said the potential for both companies to profit from Web services is enormous. "You always have to believe in demand elasticity, or Moore's Law will put you out of business," he said. "The kind of apps that people will build around advanced Web services will drive business decision makers to adopt products that use those services."
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Uttam Narsu, an analyst with Forrester Research, said while the demonstration was a promising display of the new specifications, the companies neglected Web services management, which he said would be "the first question on the minds of big companies" evaluating those specifications.
Web services, a set of standards and a programming method for sharing data between disparate software applications, has won support from every major software maker.
Many businesses are beginning to use Web services to solve software integration problems that have plagued them for years. Microsoft and IBM identified several customers, such as General Motors and Nationwide Insurance, currently using applications built using Web services.
The use of Web services to link applications between companies is still rare. But the technology has made strides within big companies as the basis of mundane but increasingly important links between internal business systems.
Mills said the cooperation between IBM and Microsoft is intended to accelerate the standards process. He said the proposed standards were never designed to be unique to IBM and Microsoft. "If we as an industry work together, we can accelerate emergence and adoption."
Clouds on the horizon?
Wednesday's demonstration, which sources said was largely arranged by Microsoft, indicates that the companies could be concerned that Web services isn't being used for the mission-critical applications, as they had envisioned. "I think there is concern that they need to keep these ideas in people's minds," Narsu said. "There seems to be concern that adoption is shallow."
Nearly 90 percent of big companies surveyed earlier this year by Gartner Group said they were using XML, the key Web services technology. Most respondents said they were interested in Web services and were in early trials.
But Web services is in its infancy. While effective, the technology can only connect applications at a rudimentary level. The advanced capabilities outlined by Gates are needed before Web services can become widely used as a way to link companies, analysts said.
Many industry attempts over the past 20 years have tried and largely failed to solve the vexing problem of software integration, due mostly to vendor turf battles and a lack of industry support. Because of its reliance on industry standards, Web services is expected to be much more successful than previous attempts, such as the Common Object Request Broker Architecture (CORBA), the Distributed Computing Environment (DCE), and Microsoft's own Distributed Component Object Model (DCOM).
And despite almost unprecedented cooperation among Microsoft, IBM and other vendors to establish the basic Web services standards,among companies and standards groups over competitive strategies and the potential for vendor lock-in.
Still, companies can use Web services now to connect a human resources program from SAP to a home-grown customer management system, quickly overcoming differences in programming languages, databases and operating systems.
For instance, Verizon Communications has been evaluating Web services for more than two years and is using the technology in a systems management application and as a way to link some of its telecommunications systems. Still, "it's going to take quite some time to reach the full vision" espoused by vendors, said Michael Brodie, Verizon's chief scientist.
Brodie said there are still problems to be overcome related to programs that automatically find and connect to Web services over a network, along with security and management issues.
The deeper challenges surround the idea--pushed by many vendors--of building entire business applications by automatically finding and assembling Web services scattered throughout a network. That idea lies behind the concept of, or entire computing systems--within and between companies--built to be Web services-ready.
Microsoft and IBM are two leading proponents of service-oriented architectures, which would benefit vendors through their requirement that companies invest heavily in high-margin server software.
Brodie said the technological difficulty of building such systems is daunting and has not been adequately addressed by vendors. And if history is any indicator, it may be some time before key challenges, such as automatically describing, finding and using Web services without human intervention, will be solved.
"These problems require challenges to be addressed to an extent that has not been achieved in the history of computer science," Brodie said.