Web services: true business integration

The IT industry is constantly throwing up trends as technologies and strategic thinking evolve, writes Ross Bentley.

The IT industry is constantly throwing up trends as technologies and strategic thinking evolve, writes Ross Bentley.

According to Jason Vokes, European product line manager at application development supplier Borland, the next trend in application development is Web services, which combine the established trends of distributed systems and integration.

"The next stage of integration is to streamline online transactions by enabling companies to find one another on the Web and make their systems interoperable for e-commerce," he says. "Early approaches to integration included electronic data interchange and electronic banking initiatives, but these were expensive, with participants paying carrier transmission fees for communication.

"Then, with the advent of ubiquitous, reliable, secure Internet connections and a standard communication system in XML, companies created software to establish electronic marketplaces. These were at first independent companies, that have gradually turned into industry-sponsored consortia such as Covisint."

Vokes says that while these marketplaces have been used successfully for auctions and other sales transactions, many more business processes can be automated between companies. The concept of the Web service is to make any business process available for business partners to use.

During 2000, work has been under way to create a well-defined framework for encoding information, known as ebXML. The interface to a Web service can be defined with the new web services description language (WSDL), while the simple object access protocol (Soap) defines a mechanism for the transmission of information.

"The implication for the IT manager is that he need not have to be constrained by IT ever again," continues Vokes. If you have a new warehouse system and call centre you can integrate the two by giving each an XML and Soap wrapper.

"Not only will it enable you to integrate applications within a company, you will be able to connect with any application on any system in the world as XML and Soap are platform independent."

Vokes says that companies will be able to look up these applications using universal description, discovery and integration (UDDI), an XML-based registry for businesses worldwide to list themselves on the Internet by name, product, location, or the Web services they offer.

"An early example of Web services are companies that have integrated with a carrier's system such as Fedex or DHL," he says. "If someone rings their call centre and wants to know the status of a widget that has been sent out, using Fedex, the call centre operative can add value by going into the Fedex systems and finding where the widget is."

Vokes predicts that you will see business aggregators using Web services to create new business opportunities. For example, it is easy to imagine a service that would pull together applications that find cheap hotels, car rental and flights and give you all that information in one go.

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