For the past few years there has been a great deal of effort from the IT industry to promote the concept of web services, an umbrella term for a set of technologies that allow two or more computers to work together using standard protocols.
For many years users have struggled to make IT systems from different suppliers work together. Their ultimate goal was to link up all islands of information to enable seamless flows of information around the business. Early attempts involved complex enterprise application integration projects, often resulting in hundreds, if not thousands, of custom links between systems, leading to an IT maintenance nightmare.
Web services promised to simplify this problem by offering users a way to build clean, well-defined and documented interfaces between both their internal systems and with their customers' and suppliers' IT.
It is the ability to link to external business partners that users have found most attractive, as it means web services can potentially drive business development. In its latest annual membership survey, published in February, the Communications Management Association found that 62% of its members believe that "web services are set to be the key enabler in the way we use IT".
There are two main architectures - .net, based on Windows technologies and Java 2.0 Enterprise Edition (J2EE), used in products such as the BEA Weblogic and IBM Websphere application servers. Both rely on the idea of accessing a remote computer system by invoking a set of published IT functions using a common set of web services protocols. Web services developed in .net can be accessed from Java and vice-versa. But this is where the similarity ends.
Few businesses have the luxury or resources to support both types of web service architecture so IT departments and independent developers have a choice: they can invest in tools and training to support .net or spend their budget supporting J2EE.
Microsoft estimates that 30% of its users have deployed .net and 70 million desktops are loaded with the .net Framework software. But even though the .net Framework is widely deployed, the Java community is now offering J2EE-based web services, giving users an alternative.
Bola Rotiba, senior analyst for software development strategies at Ovum, said, ".net's foundation was built around web services, J2EE is only now catching up as a result of the web services now being made available from the other companies."
One of the attractions of J2EE is that it offers users an alternative to Microsoft. However, companies seeking to avoid being locked into a single supplier may still face the prospect of settling on the products of a single supplier in the Java world. Rotiba said, "Unless a company uses pure Java application programming interfaces for its web services it is going to be locked into one of the suppliers which is using its own form of J2EE with their products.
"IBM and BEA are not developing web services purely in the interest of J2EE, they are doing so to win market share from Microsoft with their own products." In other words, while based on the J2EE standard users may still be locked into the application server platform.
Michael Azoff, senior research analyst at Butler Group, did not see an outright winner, although he acknowledged that small companies already operating in a Windows environment could be tempted to adopt .net instead of choosing a J2EE supplier.
Higher up the chain, businesses may opt for a strategy where a number of Java development platforms are used. Azoff said the integration of different J2EE packages could be tackled using tools from niche suppliers such as Jboss or Pramati. Such development products allow users to integrate technologies from the main J2EE companies such as IBM and BEA, said Azoff.
Another option is to run a development platform that supports both .net and Java, such as Janeva, from Borland.
For the time being, Microsoft appears to be winning the battle with J2EE for hearts and minds by a factor of 2:1, said Jyoti Banerjee, chief executive at analyst MyBusiness.net.
Banerjee attributed the success of .net to the availability of more advanced tools, compared to those available for Java. Microsoft provides the infrastructure for .net, allowing users to develop web services for themselves, while IBM's focus is on tools. With IBM's approach, Banerjee said users would generally require IT consultancy to develop web services.
But for SAP users who have a Java strategy there is another option: the SAP Netweaver J2EE application server. Banerjee said, "SAP realises users do not want to bring in expensive consultants so it includes a more advanced tool set with its Netweaver product."
A study by IT consultancy Charteris found that 33% of companies were implementing or considering implementing Microsoft's .net web services technology.
The survey, based on responses from 200 companies, found that 66% of companies already using .net were relying on it for strategic applications.
Alan Woodward, director at Charteris, said .net was being deployed for applications including processing sales leads, integration with call centres, and collaborative working.
J2EE versus .net
|Programming language||C#.net, VB.net, C++.net, others for CLS||Java|
|Interpreted language||MSIL||Java Bytecode|
|Class libraries||.net Framework||Java Class Libraries|
|Rich client||Windows Forms||AWT/Swing (JTSE)|
|Application server||ASP.net||J2EE SDK 1.4, JBoss, others|
|Web presentation||ASP.net||JSP/Servlets, Tomcat server|
|Business services||.net components||EJB|
|Web services||XML+WSDL+Soap+UDDI, WS-I compatibility||Full support and WS-I compatibility in release 1.4|
|Mobile applications||.net Compact Framework||J2ME|
|Messaging integration||MSMQ||Msg EJBs/JMS|
|Legacy integration||Com TI||JCA|
Source: Butler Group