Web services, until now a technological concept looking for a business application, may have found one: integration. At the Harvard Business School Cyberposium here last month, leading vendors and a key customer organization said the primary goal of Web services today is integration—connecting software systems and applications within companies and with business partners and customers. But to achieve that, standards that will make integration possible for everyone are essential.
"The world has changed over the last three years. We are very supportive of the kinds of efforts IBM and Microsoft [Corp.] are doing, [but] we want one standard," said Tony Scott, chief technology officer at General Motors Corp., of Detroit.
Scott represented the customer role on a panel about Web services. Regarding the value of Web services for integration, Scott said, "Look at the cost of doing custom integration, and you compare that with middleware or something else—thats the easy sell [for Web services]."
Steven Lewis, general manager of .Net market development at Microsoft, of Redmond, Wash., said all the major companies and governments are "struggling with the integration issue." Added Lewis: "Look at the growth in technical services and the time it takes [to do integration]. Its not pretty. It can take 18 months to three years to do integration."
However, Web services can cut deeply into the time required to integrate systems, Lewis said.
Rod Smith, vice president of emerging technologies in IBMs Software Group, in Somers, N.Y., said, "The integration point has changed from the vendor to the customer." Smith added that interoperability is key. "If we cant show as an industry that [Web services] really works, then this is interesting technology behind the firewall, but it doesnt go further than that."
GMs Scott said he hopes Web services will not only help with integration but will also help reduce complexity, improve software quality and lower software costs for customers.
Aneel Bhusri, general partner with Greylock Partners, of Waltham, Mass., said that a few years ago he thought Web services were overhyped, "but Id argue now that Web services are underhyped."
However, Bhusri said the deep involvement of "IBM and Microsoft has taken away some of the startup opportunity."
Microsofts Lewis then touted his companys wares. "The reason people choose Microsoft is they get much more in the box that they dont have to add or put together," he said. This gives Microsoft an advantage over the "L word," or Linux, he said. It also gives Microsoft a lead over Sun Microsystems Inc. "Suns not here, and it shouldnt be surprising," he said, evoking amusement from the packed audience.
Rose ODonnell, vice president of engineering at Bowstreet Inc., of Portsmouth, N.H., said, "Web services allows you flexibility so you can deal with people the way they want."
Scott said GM has been able to do several things with Web services using the companys existing applications as the foundation. He said GM built its Smart Auction system for selling cars that come back to the company off of leases. Web services empower that application, he said.
Meanwhile, business customers continue to look to Web services to integrate applications.
Jerry Hilts, a systems analyst with Con-Way Transportation Services Inc., a $2 billion Ann Arbor, Mich., transportation and services company, said Con-Way is using a Web services solution based on IBMs WebSphere to integrate its e-business solutions.
"We use Web services as a customer-facing technology to allow our customers to integrate the ERP [enterprise resource planning], CRM [customer relationship management] and customer portal into our services," Hilts said.
"The primary thing is Con-Way is a transportation company, but we made ourselves into a services company and we want to deliver the best service and we think we can do so through our electronic offerings," Hilts said.
Hilts said Con-Way initially sought to use raw XML as an integration technology, and then moved to Web services based on Java 2 Enterprise Edition with WebSphere.
Iona Technologies Inc., also of Waltham, has provided its Web services technology to deliver integration in several customer sites including AT&T Corp., which is using Ionas XMLBus 5.4 for Web services integration.
Eric Newcomer, CTO at Iona, said the company is looking at delivering an adaptive run-time that will provide orchestration and Web services independent of an application server. The new run-time, code-named Inferno, could be available in beta by the end of this quarter, he said.
"Were saying, Why do you need an app server?" Newcomer said. "If you want to use an app server thats fine. One of the advantages of Web services is the lower price point [of doing integration.] App servers are great things, but they dont fit architecturally to Web services very well."