Web services: Whose camp are you in?

As the big players rush to develop tools for web services. Arif Mohamed reports on the two camps that have evolved and what this...

As the big players rush to develop tools for web services. Arif Mohamed reports on the two camps that have evolved and what this means for users.

Who ever conceived of the idea of web services should be getting some serious cash from the likes of IBM, Microsoft, BEA, Oracle, Sun and SAP. In creating a demand for software components which automate business processes across diverse computing systems and over networks, the invention of web services may has helped to revitalise the software market.

By definition, web services must support XML and the Simple Object Access Protocol and standards, developed by the World Wide Web Consortium and standards body Oasis, to govern aspects such as security and interoperability.

But this is where the consensus starts to break down. The suppliers' approaches tend to be based on specific products, which fall into two camps. Microsoft has the Windows-based .net platform and the other suppliers use Sun's Java 2 Enterprise Edition as their framework.

Mike Gilpin, vice-president and research director at market analyst firm Forrester Research, says, "Companies that use J2EE have about as many web services in production and in development as those using .net."

Suppliers and their services
The market leader in web services is considered to be IBM and its offering is based on its Websphere range. Users include financial organisations Chase-Morgan, Merrill Lynch and Nationwide Insurance. IBM is a formidable contender because it offers hardware, software and professional services. It has been developing its on-demand computing model for some time. This uses a service-oriented architecture of which web services is a part.

BEA is a strong number two with a package based on its Weblogic 8.1 framework. Among its users are Hewlett-Packard, Toyota Australia and transportation firm AirNet. Like IBM, BEA has concentrated on enhancing the breadth and integration of its enterprise platform. Some analysts rate the supplier because it is innovative with a clear service-oriented architecture vision and long-term plans.

Ford, the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute and the US Navy are on Oracle's user list. Its web services products are developed on its Application Server 10g platform. Although it originated as a database specialist, Oracle now offers a Java-based development platform and server. In a recent report, analyst firm Meta Group says Oracle is "best positioned as a challenger to IBM and BEA".

Sun's service-oriented architecture uses Java Enterprise System. Customers include Athens International Airport, Advocate Health Care and publisher World Book. As the inventor of Java and owner of the J2EE technology, Sun is in a strong position and, like IBM, it sells the software and a huge range of hardware to run it. Sun also developed its N1 grid architecture, based on web services, and has a clear roadmap of how it will develop and integrate web services in the future.

SAP sells its J2EE-based Netweaver suite, and customer list includes confectioner Wrigley and European steel and technology group Salzgitter. Bruce Richardson, senior vice-president of research at analyst firm AMR Research, says Netweaver is a fully-featured offering, but, "it seems doubtful that any other major supplier will ever port its application to run on SAP Netweaver for fear of being locked into SAP-only accounts or being subsumed into the SAP application."

Unlike the other suppliers, Microsoft's service-oriented architecture is built on .net and communications subsystem Indigo - a key piece of Longhorn, the next version of Windows. Cosmetics firm Mary Kay, publisher McGraw-Hill and Samsung are users of Microsoft web services. Although Microsoft is on its own with its development of .net, its web services will have the advantage, in future, of native support on Windows platforms across PCs, servers and handhelds.

A Gartner report, published in January, says systems integrators prefer to work with Microsoft, IBM and BEA for web services. The three integration platforms they tend to use are from Microsoft, IBM and Oracle.

Neil Macehiter, research director at analyst firm Ovum, says the different supplier offerings are not specific to applications or industries. "By their very nature, web services are vertical market-agnostic, as well as being technology-agnostic."

However, he adds that users should consider the supplier's domain-expertise, for example, BEA is strong in financial services, and SAP in manufacturing. Macehiter says non-SAP users are unlikely to buy Netweaver and, by the same token, Oracle users are more likely to choose its web service platform rather than its rivals.

Touting development tools
When considering a web services platform, users need to consider development tool support. IBM has the Java-based Websphere Studio Application Developer, Oracle sells JDeveloper 10g, and BEA has Weblogic Workshop. IBM and BEA lead this market with Oracle trailing, but BEA and Oracle are investing in more graphical and easier-to-use Java development tools. The strengths of Oracle's tool are that it adheres closely to Java standards; is strongly linked to its database; and comes at a good price.

Sun provides the Java 2 Platform, Standard Edition (J2SE); SAP sells Netweaver Developer Studio, which is oriented towards the SAP environment; and Microsoft has Visual Studio .net. Third-party suppliers, such as Borland and Compuware, also offer web service development tools.

Although Java tools predominate, Macehiter says it is worth considering Microsoft .net. "Microsoft Visual Studio .net is probably ahead of the others in terms of the ease with which you can develop web services."

Securing web services
There have been many initiatives to add security to web services. In April, standards body Oasis ratified a key set of web services security specifications called WS-Security. It was proposed by Microsoft, IBM and VeriSign and has now gained broad industry support. During 2002, Microsoft, IBM, BEA, RSA Security, SAP and VeriSign worked together on a roadmap of specifications based on the Simple Object Access Protocol. These are also gaining support as ways of creating what is termed federated trust networks.

"The reality is that this is not about competing standards. The value will come from standards being reached and then everyone will benefit," says Neil Macehiter, research director at analyst firm Ovum.

The interoperability of web services means that different products can communicate regardless of whether they are based on Java or .net.

WS-I, the supplier-led standards body, recently released a blueprint called Basic Profile 1.1, in a bid to solve interoperability issues. Backed by IBM, Microsoft, Sun, BEA, Oracle and other key suppliers, it is designed to give working, real-world examples of web services. Compliant tools suppliers will build support for these rules into forthcoming products, which will further level the playing field in terms of which supplier system users select.

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