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Web services technology has been touted as something that will change the face of corporate IT systems. Based on common data transfer standards, it will link any applications and IT systems, and revolutionise company supply chains and communications with customers, its proponents claim.
Last week software supplier Borland published a survey which showed that 80% of its customers were either using or planning to use Web services in the near future. But the bold claims of suppliers have engendered only confusion and apathy among the potential user community, which argues that Web services will play a more limited role in corporate IT systems for the foreseeable future.
At General Electric Global eXchange Services (GXS), chief technical architect John Radko is enthusiastic about Web services but believes that the hype surrounding the technology is excessive. GXS is using Web services to improve communication with suppliers in its vast supply chain.
GXS translates documents written in different protocols, such as Electronic Data Interchange (EDI), Secure File Transfer Protocol and Electronic Business Extensible Markup Language (EBXML) into protocols or formats that will be understood by the systems of customers and suppliers.
Radko believes that businesses will continue to stitch together important applications internally or externally using proprietary code, integration software such as Tibco or Webmethods, or with conventional links such as EDI. But they will use Web services for "little stuff" - things that did not previously justify the expense or the security of such methods.
There is a perception that companies need to replace their existing IT infrastructure to make better use of Web services technology, or swap suppliers on the strength of their Web services offering. Radko believes this would be a mistake. "I am not going to throw out my message-queuing software or my database or my File Transfer Protocol and we are still going to go ahead with EBXML," he said.
Other large companies have virtually ruled out using Web services technology. At Debenhams, director of customer management Simon Hawkes thinks it is unlikely that the company will use Web services.
Where UK organisations are using Web services it is in a limited role. They are wary about using Web services to support the distribution of commercially sensitive data outside of the business to suppliers and customers.
Utility giant Powergen, for example, has written a Web services interface between its trading systems and the desktop using the Borland J-builder tool kit. Web services will be restricted to new application development and, like GXS, there is no intention to replace any of the existing IT infrastructure, or to replace existing systems integration which is based on Tibco software.
This is a far cry from the Web services marketing visions, which Powergen's senior developer Andrew Bennett described as a "mixture of rhetoric and sci-fi". Bennett also believes that big players such as Microsoft and IBM have a lot of work to do addressing standards for data exchange, technical security and real-world issues such as non-repudiation before companies will buy into the vision.
"In the meantime, companies like Powergen will continue to use Web services for in-house integration of systems, and eventually between [established] industry partners," said Bennett.
The software community, however, continues to give users mixed messages about the practical application of Web services for users. One model is to use Web services as a patchwork of Internet-based services from different suppliers. Often this is presented as the "virtual" organisation, with billing, customer relationship management and sales ledger all seamlessly integrated.
Analysts are not enthusiastic. "The marketing notion seems to be that rather than buying an application you're going to collect thousands of Web services, wire them up and watch it all work," said Andrew Ball, industry analyst at Frost & Sullivan. "It's nonsense."
The second vision for Web services, floated by IBM and other suppliers, is as a vehicle to automate company procurement and put the whole process online. Company IT systems will choose suppliers or software applications automatically from a vast Internet directory based on UDDI (the Universal Description, Discovery and Integration specification).
However, Forrester analyst Laura Koetzle said she doubts whether companies will drop the system of using long-established and well-vetted suppliers in favour of a system of "promiscuous partnering".
Many more things are needed to make this work than just a common way of presenting data, she said.
But suppliers have begun to tone down marketing visions. The problem, Koetzle believes, is that mass marketing - Microsoft's .net Web services vision has been advertised on prime-time TV - is seen by business people who do not understand the technical implications.
Suppliers acknowledge that where Web services deployments are taking place they are generally within organisations and, where they are outside they are, and will continue to be, between established partners, at least for the time being.
Microsoft's .net business manager Peter Bell admitted that the company has failed to explain the benefits of Web services clearly enough. But he is convinced that Web services will change the way companies use technology and how they choose suppliers.
Alan Chambers, IT consultant at IBM Software, said companies will gradually become more adventurous in their use of Web services.
"Just as the rapid growth in the Web a few years ago rapidly drove the need for powerful search engines, so, as Web services become more widespread on the Internet, the need for a Web services directory such as UDDI will increase." This will enable firms to find Web services that meet specific criteria to be identified, he said.
Many IT managers - and suppliers - would struggle to explain what Web services technology involves, let alone its uses, and it has yet to make much impact on IT departments. However, the technology does offer important potential benefits, particularly in data integration between systems.
The consensus is that it is time to bury the hype and sit down to a serious debate about what Web services has to offer and what it needs to make it work.
What can Web services do for you?
Among dozens of possible definitions, analyst firm Forrester Research describes Web services as "software that talks to other software via Internet standards and protocols".
At the heart of Web services is a set of standards for describing and presenting data. IT managers hope that if these standards are adopted across the software industry it will become easier to integrate applications from different suppliers. Web services are being used for integration projects, usually within an organisation. There are examples of companies that have integrated their applications with those of suppliers, but these are rare.
Based on figures from businesses across Europe, Forrester estimates that companies currently spend less than 1% of their IT budgets on Web services.