Panel: Web Services Present Benefits, Challenges

Although IT managers don't have to worry about interoperability, there are a lot of other things to consider when choosing a platform, according to a panel of experts.

BOSTON—IT managers and developers dont have to worry about interoperability when choosing a Web services platform because the growing number of standards—from XML to SOAP to WSDL—will make sure that applications and systems are able to talk to each other.

But there are a lot of other things to consider when choosing a platform, according to a panel of experts at the Summit on Web Services here on Tuesday. And though Web services is an evolutionary technology, it will lead to significant changes in the way businesses work and vendors interact, the group said.

Just a few years ago, when he was an IT administrator at a financial services firm, Neil Charney said 85 percent to 90 percent of his time was spent trying to figure out how to move data from one place to another, from one system to another. But things have changed now, said Charney, now director of Microsoft Corp.s .Net Platform Strategy group. With Web services simplifying the way applications are created, data is shared and systems are integrated, a businesss IT department is becoming a strategically important part of the business strategy, and business analysts are having a greater say in how technology is used.

"Its not just about duct taping things together anymore," Charney told about 100 people.

Others in the group, which represented seven vendors, agreed. Steve Garone, chief technology strategist for Sun Microsystems Inc.s Sun ONE (Open Net Environment) Web services initiative, said understanding that changing relationship between IT folks and business analysts—which he called a cultural issue—will be a growing challenge for many businesses. And its all part of what a business must consider when trying to determine which Web services platform to embrace and how to deploy a Web services strategy.

"The No. 1 challenge … is deciding who does what and in what scope," said Ed Anuff, chief strategy officer for Epicentric Inc.

There are several essential aspects that any platform must have, they said: It must have at its core standards-based interoperability; it must allow a business to leverage its existing skill set and infrastructure, rather than force it to rip and replace; and it should come from a viable company "that is going to be there five years from now, to protect your investment," said Andy Astor, vice president of enterprise Web services at webMethods Inc.

Businesses also must ask themselves what they want their Web services to do, such as improve coding for application development or integrate myriad Web-based and legacy systems, they said. And since interoperability between applications and systems wont be a problem, vendors of Web services platforms—.Net and Suns Java 2 Enterprise Edition being the leading ones—will differentiate themselves on the tools they create to implement Web services, Astor said.

"I wont worry about interoperability," he said, adding that eventually Web services will be a given in most technology. "I think Web services are going to be not a big deal in two years. I think it will be embedded in the fabric."

Garone agreed.

"Web services eliminates—we hope—interoperability problems using standards," he said. "How we incorporate standards in our products is how we differentiate ourselves."

Phil Mandeville, director of application delivery information systems for Tufts Health Plan, in Waltham, Mass., agreed that Web services will continue to grow in importance, but said many IT administrators are concerned about the standards. At a time of shrinking budgets and increasing pressure on IT departments to show a return on their technology investments, its difficult for some people to take the gamble on emerging standards. XML is stable, but others, such as SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol), are new and continue to go through various permutations.

"It just makes people nervous," Mandeville said.

But Joel Farrell, of IBMs Emerging Technology unit, said the beauty of Web services is the relative ease for businesses to bring them into their environment.

"It is the most noninvasive big changes Ive ever seen," Farrell said. "Its something that is real easy to integrate into your system."

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