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The brave new world of Web services as advertised by IT suppliers is some way off - if indeed it ever arrives.
In Utopia, organisations and individuals will seek out services and make transactions on-the-fly. A car manufacturer could buy components from a new supplier, who is maybe doing a special deal, for example, and expect their new partner's systems to interact not only with their own but also with the rest of an extended supply chain of suppliers and customers.
This dream bubble was burst recently by a surprising source - Chris Stone, who some regarded as one of the main proponents of Web services in his former role as head of the Object Management Group. Stone, who recently rejoined Novell as vice-chairman of the office of the CEO, said his previous experience in trying to stitch together applications over the Internet had made him tone down his ambitions for Web services.
Speaking to Computer Weekly at Novell's Brainshare Europe conference, Stone was downbeat about what Web services would deliver. "You may have a partner who wants to participate [in a business transaction] - but does that mean you want your rivals to participate in it?" he asked.
Stone was referring to the principle of a giant, shared directory of services - one of the cornerstones of the Web services ideal. The notion of UDDI (the Universal Description, Discovery and Integration specification) as the "big directory in the sky" does not make commercial sense and businesses would be better served by having UDDI servers inside their organisation and federated across the enterprise, he said.
Indeed, Stone said he cannot see much of a future for Web services beyond "phase one", which focuses on integrating a company's internal systems. "From Novell's perspective, Web services is going to happen within the firewall. What is practicable is to conform to a set of interfaces in order to better orchestrate, manage and monitor those applications that you have now," he said.
Chris Read, head of digital solutions at analyst firm Andersen, echoes Stone's caution and asks what all the technology integration would be in aid of. "What is the killer app going to be for Web services? I haven't found anyone who knows. The fact that you can knock up a piece of software that can talk to anything is the start of the problem" he said.
Despite these words of warning, the majority of suppliers have mapped out a three-phase route to Web service land. Pioneering users from the financial services sector have already arrived at phase one. A host of pilots are being rolled out to wrap legacy applications in HTTP and connect them using Soap (Simple Object Access Protocol).
Phase two relates to a walled-garden approach to B2B e-commerce, with selected partners choosing to expose their applications to each other in HTTP. Phase three, which attracts the most cynicism or euphoria, depending on who you speak to, is the dynamic public world where buyers and sellers meet and transact in one giant, HTTP-enabled market.
This desire for ever more collaborative commerce has been identified by Sun Microsystems as something that can be satisfied by Web services. "The biggest appeal of Web services lies in the ease with which you can connect and disconnect," said Simon Holloway, business solutions manager at Sun.
Holloway pointed out that the "pick-and-mix" capabilities offered by Web services do not just apply to the composition of applications. Entire business processes can be deconstructed too, and Holloway believes this is the more exciting prospect for Web services. With this in mind, Sun is actively trying to target a new set of business developers.
"Web services signals a move away from IT people and developers" said Holloway. "All an IT person does is interpret business requirements and write down the code." He is looking forward to a time when businesses will be able to use simplified tools to build systems for tenders and responses, for example.
Steve Barrie, principal analyst at Bloor Research, said Microsoft is the company that is most keen to promote the broader view of what Web services are capable of delivering. The Seattle software giant is probably the most advanced in converting its product line to support the new model, although all the major players are becoming cohesive in their support of Web standards, he added.
Sun has recently beefed up its operating system to become a platform against which people can develop Web services. The new Solaris 9 has the Sun One iPlanet application server embedded in it and versions for Wintel and Linux are due for release this month.
Microsoft and Sun share an approach in that they are building the Web services universe through the developer community by making it easy to tag objects as Web services. However, building a piece of software that can talk to anything is just the start.
There is no blueprint for managing multiple components on a day-to-day basis, according to Jason Bloomberg, principal consultant at ZapThink, an analyst firm that specialises in Web services and XML. "Implementation is still a custom exercise. There is no existing best practice in this realm," he said. "So while suppliers upgrade their product lines, the lack of management experience in user communities is compounded by the lack of standards that address management and security."
Web services is about searching and finding, with very little in the way of management or security. "UDDI is basically saying 'I am a Web service come and find me, while WSDL [Web Services Description Language] merely identifies whether interfaces will work together," said Barrie. "All you have really is Soap, and there is not much in the way of error handling there."
As long as these gaps exist, suppliers will fall back on proprietary architectures to provide the missing features. The truly mixed, open environment is still some way off, although commentators agree that Novell's cross-platform eDirectory will sit at the centre of the Web services universe, thanks to its strength in identity management and authentication.
"Novell is at the forefront of managing ID because its directory management is so good," said Barrie. The cross-platform capability of eDirectory gives it a crucial edge over Microsoft's proprietary Active Directory because it is able to provide a unified view of all identities.
While suppliers relish the prospect of new revenues and the IT department faces the challenge of mix-and-match on a scale undreamed of, the business case for Web services is yet to be proven. Stone, who as a technical architecture guru has the most to gain from flogging a new model, has chosen to proffer a very restrained vision this time round.
Bloomberg compared Web services to Secure Electronic Transactions (SET), a digital transaction method designed during the 1990s to enable e-commerce. SET teetered under a burden of business issues and ultimately failed to take off.
Barrie pointed out that, despite the hype, all Web services can currently offer is a way of getting from A to B.
The three phases of Web services
Phase 1: Integrating a company's internal systems. Chris Stone said he cannot see much of a future for Web services beyond this phase.
Phase 2: A walled-garden approach to B2B e-commerce, with selected partners choosing to expose their applications to each other in HTTP.
Phase 3: A dynamic public world where buyers and sellers meet and transact in one giant, HTTP-enabled market.