Thought for the day:The real world of Web services

Hard-hitting IT columnist Simon Moores gives his personal take on the hot issue of the day.Web services are, as we know, a...

Hard-hitting IT columnist Simon Moores gives his personal take on the hot issue of the day.Web services are, as we know, a grander way of describing the knitting of applications and systems together with Internet (IP) standards that rely on XML as a language for tagging data. Their component-based model allows developers to reuse the building blocks of code created by others to assemble and extend them in new ways.

In theory, Web services are all about the vendors co-operating on a common set of standards and this implies that the many proprietary evils which have locked business into one vendor or another will become a thing of the past. But don't be so sure about this, as it's rather like a government living up to its manifesto promises.

A decade ago, business embraced clunky, client-server technology and tomorrow, we're promised a whole new vision of geographically dispersed mix of applications servers and Web clients, which will, seamlessly and transparently, shuttle every conceivable business process around the Internet.

The two key expressions that lie behind the evangelical hype of the Web services industry are "integration" and "streamlining". Two years into the 21st century, applications still take too long and cost too much to integrate into legacy systems. As more companies attempt to integrate their supply chain through the firewall, they discover that conflicting standards get in the way.

As a consequence, the "dynamic" streamlining of middleware integration looks very much like the Holy Grail of IT. Promised on behalf of Web services, it is supposed to eliminate any requirement for the customised coding and recoding of business processes or an understanding of another company's infrastructure.

Today, the Web services industry remains immature and potential customers will have learned from the overblown promises of the ASP industry two years ago. Security remains a problem, and most analysts would agree that Web services are not yet ready for mission-critical projects and that larger companies should think twice before throwing out their traditional electronic data interchange (EDI) systems.

Should we be dazzled by evidence of co-operation between vendors in the support of "common" standards and interoperability? Web services represent the lower level detail, the DNA of IP connectivity, but building and integrating a complex business process is rather like recreating a dinosaur - it requires rather more than joining strands of DNA together.

While the industry can't evolve without agreement over the middleware detail, there's no real evidence that simply exposing one's data and business process to a Web services architecture will result in the magical appearance of much bigger business applications, without the assistance of very specialised and, arguably, very expensive applications integration software.

Being cynical shouldn't stand in the way of progress. Web services will have an enormous impact and you can't ignore the inevitable. The technology may not be ready for distributed mission critical applications, but that's no reason not to experiment with smaller pilot projects inside the firewall to see how the technology "knits" the services and applications together.

However, business should remain wary of this new technology being oversold and I wouldn't encourage anyone to join the choir until it becomes rather less of a magic wand and much more of a solid proposition.

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Zentelligence Setting the world to rights with the collected thoughts and opinions of the futurist writer, broadcaster and Computer Weekly columnist Simon Moores.

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