Defining Web Services

Murky marketing clouds real benefits to users.

You know Web services is going to be a success when every vendor redefines its product to be a Web service. Were pretty much there. Interested in buying an application server? I dont think you can anymore, but you can certainly buy an information server, which is the same box but in Web services wrapping paper. How about finding a software integration consultant? Out of luck again. But you can hire that same consultant renamed—and repriced—as a Web services integrator. Can the rebranding of mouse pads and printers be far behind?

Ive got nothing against Web services. I think the idea of tying your old and new applications, your supplier information, and your customer needs into one big system based on Web standards makes a huge amount of sense. I also think vendors should not be the only ones raising the services flag. Customers have a lot to gain by adapting their

ongoing IT projects to favor Web services. The Web services standards give you a nonproprietary approach to building systems, give you a way to reuse your data and information for other applications, and allow you to tie in to customers and vendors without adding a lot of management and security overhead.

As one IT administrator from a large drug company told me, Web services will allow his company to shave the time from drug testing to approval for all drugs. That type of timesaving can translate into millions of dollars.

By the way, it would make a lot more sense to drop the word "services" and replace it with "connections" because it more accurately describes the system you are trying to build.

Despite the confusion over naming, Web services projects appear to be continuing. A recent Gartner study stated that despite the uncertain economy, which has slowed the pace of some of the projects, there has been little evidence of canceled Web services undertakings. The survey, based on 111 participants, stated 54 percent of users were using or planned to use Web services to integrate applications within the organization as well as with partners or customers during the next year. Thirty-nine percent use or plan to use Web services within only their organization. When the participants were asked about the expected use of Web services over the next two years, 65 percent of respondents said they use or were planning to use Web services inside and outside the company; only 23 percent limited Web services projects to inside the company.

When I asked Peter Gyenes, CEO of systems integrator Ascential Software, to define a Web service, he said, "It is the ability to take components of software and reuse them in multiple applications." At the business level, that reuse and data availability addresses "the monumental dependencies companies have for information that is accurate, current, nonstop and at fire-hose speed." Gyenes is a particularly savvy observer and participant in the Web services marketplace, having been a part of the computing industry since the days of Prime Computer. Ascential recently enjoyed a financial quarter that saw revenues rise 43 percent, to $39.9 million.

IBM and Microsoft have also embraced the Web services banner in a big way. At Microsofts annual financial analyst meeting July 24, Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates said Web services will be a built-in part of the user interface in the next major upgrade of the companys operating system, code-named Longhorn.

The concept of Web services is fundamental and far-reaching. Its also, ultimately, a sensible approach to information architectures. But Im uncomfortable with the way in which many vendors are rebranding and redefining their products as Web services.

It becomes a bit like software, where every problem was defined as a software issue that could always be fixed with a bit of coding. With the big switch on from few companies championing Web services to every company rallying under the Web services banner, users are going to have to be careful to make sure they are buying a systems approach rather than a point answer merely wrapped in new clothing. A mouse pad will always be just that, no matter how it is pitched.

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Eric Lundquist can be contacted at