Web services put spotlight on IT

Your IT department is about to become the public face of your business - are you ready?

Your IT department is about to become the public face of your business - are you ready?

A t first glance Web services are the reserve of the hardiest geeks. The field spews out incomprehensible acronyms like a dyslexic on speed. The technologies and standards are mostly at their very early stages, with few tried and tested approaches in place. Security, for the moment, seems to be stuck on as an afterthought.

But there is little doubt that Web services technologies, which promise to allow applications to share data via the Internet or intranets, have massive weight behind them. The founding standards - Soap, UDDI and XML - have the backing of IT giants such as Microsoft, IBM and Sun Microsystems, and these companies have started shouting from the rooftops about the benefits.

Microsoft is promoting .net as a Web services technology, and is committed to building it into its operating systems and applications. Software suppliers promise a revolution in the way businesses interact with customers, suppliers and other business partners. They also promise that companies will be able to integrate in-house applications more easily.

But look a little further into the future and Web services will not just change the technologies IT departments use and the services they can supply. It will create a seismic shift in the role of IT departments within their companies. Until the advent of the Internet, IT departments were only seen by the internal business - customers and external partners would not want or need to know about the running of the department.

As long as serious disasters were avoided no one outside the business would need to know about how your IT department behaved, the kind of people you employed and the technologies you used. Even within the company, few were interested.

When the Internet came along IT units became more exposed. If Web sites did not work, were ugly or did not serve your customers' needs then you might lose some business - and suddenly the business units became interested in IT.

Still, customers are not interested in how your Web site works, what kind of technology you employ and the methods you use to build it, as long as it does what they expect it to do.

But Web services will mean that your IT department could directly affect your relationships with your customers and business partners. The way you interact over the Internet will go far beyond displaying sales information, enabling self-service or allowing customers to order goods. For example, say you're a company that makes car components. With Web services you will be able to flow data, tagged using XML, directly into the design software used by your customers, the car manufacturers. You will be able to receive data describing new product requirements in the same way. This will be done continuously and dynamically, without the user necessarily knowing about it. That is the theory.

Seasoned IT professionals will spot a flaw in this cunning plan. Who does your customer call when it doesn't work, when data goes missing or is configured in the wrong way? The answer is your IT department.

Your IT department will be required to give external customers the support they need to run your Web services systems, in the same way that software suppliers do now. And, just like a software supplier, the quality of that support will have a direct impact on your company's reputation and effectiveness in the market.

It also raises questions about legal liabilities. Who is accountable should your customer's data be leaked by accident, or through a flaw in your security? As IT becomes a critical means of enabling business relationships, so your IT department could determine whether those relationships succeed or fail.

None of this will happen overnight. Few companies are ready to launch Web services of the kind described here, but some have made a start and those that succeed will gain competitive advantage.

Slowly, but surely, the IT department will become key to your company's reputation. Already market analysts are taking a growing interest in corporate IT strategies when they value company stock. It is a subject you should raise if the finance department starts taking the knife to your IT spending plans.

Web services standards explained

Soap
Simple Object Access Protocol - a message-based protocol based on XML for accessing services on the Web. Initiated by Microsoft, IBM and others, it employs XML syntax to send text commands across the Internet using HTTP

UDDI
Universal Description, Discovery and Integration - an industry initiative for a universal business registry of Web services. Led by Ariba, IBM, Microsoft and others, UDDI is designed to enable software to automatically discover and integrate with services on the Web

XML
Extensible Markup Language - an open standard for describing data from the World Wide Web Consortium, is used for defining data elements on a Web page and business-to-business documents and employs a similar tag structure to that used in HTML.

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