Web services: the case for

Web services have arrived to help make your business become more agile and flexible, as well as helping to reduce costs.

Web services have arrived to help make your business become more agile and flexible, as well as helping to reduce costs.

In fact, there's increasing evidence to show that companies which seriously investigate Web services now will significantly improve their business processes in the future.

Recent research from Gartner supports this view, finding that firms which invest now will reduce costs and see a 30% improvement in the efficiency of their IT development projects by 2005.

There are two areas where the adoption of Web services can realise very real returns in a short space of time: enterprise application integration (EAI) and B2B e-commerce with existing business relationships. While we're in the early-adopter phase, few firms are ready to expose their business to the world. Today's benefits will be realised from EAI efforts inside the enterprise and with current business partners.

For companies interested in testing the waters, there are three simple steps to rapidly gauge the benefits of Web services: evaluate your business and identify a potential test area; establish a pilot programme; and run a cost saving or performance improvement analysis.

First, identify what processes could bring immediate cost savings or advances through improved efficiency. Perhaps you've undergone a recent merger and are looking to integrate disparate systems running on a variety of platforms and in a variety of geographical locations. Perhaps you're looking to streamline and reduce the cost of doing business with an existing partner.

Once you've decided on a business area or task, the best approach is to establish a pilot programme to determine its benefits and cost savings. The project should be limited in scope, but representative of the larger goals. It's even possible to do this using free software available on the Internet. When it is working, you can then expand the programme and start deploying services across the enterprise and/or to your existing B2B partners.

Admittedly, the adoption of Web services is not without its challenges. Standards are key, but too many can be a problem. It's better to have one good standard per purpose and Web services are helping to get this right: there's Extensible Markup Language (XML) for labelling the data in a standard Unicode character format; Simple Object Access Protocol (Soap) layered on top of that to discuss how information is exchanged; Web services description language to describe the service in order to speed integration with today's programs; and Universal Description, Discovery and Integration serves with Soap messaging to define the business standard you need. All of these are essential and have made substantial progress.

Security is another obvious concern; especially as Web services can run over the Internet. However, if companies are not opening their systems to the outside world, this is less of a concern. This is why many companies are starting their use of Web services within the firewall, as a core strategy for EAI.

Other companies are using Web services to improve integration with existing business partners. When dealing with a limited number of partners, it is generally possible to implement Web services with enough security to conduct business safely across the Internet.

With this in mind, the UK government's insistence that all its suppliers adopt XML and Web services standards has a lot of merit, especially when you consider the alternatives. If all its suppliers were using proprietary standards proposed by a wide variety of suppliers, the development time and overall cost for getting all these disparate systems to interoperate seamlessly would increase exponentially.

One urgent issue is interoperability. A few years ago, the early releases of Java technology runtimes varied between platforms and this lack of conformance was a problem for writing software that needed to run on different platforms. Since then, however, the technology has evolved, the problems rectified and Java has proven its worth.

In the early days of Web services, interoperability between different implementations has been a bumpy road, but the more support grows and conformance improves, the quicker Web services will become ubiquitous.

The new Web Services Interoperability organisation - a consortium founded by IBM, Microsoft, Intel, BEA, Fujitsu, Accenture, HP, Oracle and SAP, and joined by many others - addresses this issue. The group is working to ensure that Web software from different suppliers really does enable this seamless data communication across the Internet and as such reflects the industry's endorsement of the value of Web services and its growing commitment to making it work.

Mark Colan is lead e-business technology evangelist at IBM

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