Web Services - An Executive Summary

April 12, 2002

Clay Shirky

Planning for Web Services: Obstacles and Opportunities, a new report from O'Reilly Research, explains the technology of Web Services for the manager or executive who wants to evaluate the development and deployment of Web Services within an organization. The report should also help consultants, vendors, and companies who sell Web Services software or services understand the business issues from their client's point of view. In this article, we've excerpted the report's Executive Summary. For more information on the report, or to buy it, visit its catalog page.

Web Services are enterprise applications that exchange data, share tasks, and automate processes over the Internet. They are the logical successor to EDI, and their usefulness is imminent for some (though not yet all) businesses. As a new class of Internet-native applications, Web Services promise to increase interoperability, and lower the costs of software integration and data-sharing with partners. As they are based on simple and non-proprietary standards, Web Services are designed to make it possible for computer programs to communicate directly with one another and exchange data regardless of location, operating systems, or languages.

Planning for Web Services maps out the current state and future prospects of this still-evolving technology, and offers a realistic appraisal of Web Services' potential. The report lays out the critical technical and business issues you'll need to consider as you decide whether to jump in now, wait, or pass on Web Services.

After defining the scope of Web Services, the report looks at how they are being implemented today, and where and how they are likely to take hold in the near future. Topics include:

  • Web Services as next-generation EDI
  • Web Services options for data interchange
  • Using Web Services as middleware to create network-aware applications with RPC
  • Advantages and hurdles to implementing Web Services on Intranet, Extranet, and public Internet sites

Planning for Web Services profiles more than 30 of the key players in this emerging sector, from major tech companies like Sun, IBMÒ , and MicrosoftÒ to startups that are driving much of the innovation in the Web Services space. The report concludes with a straightforward checklist of strategic issues and questions that will help structure your thinking as you consider whether and when to invest in Web Services.

Three Promises of Web Services

  1. Web Services allow pieces of software written in different languages, or running on different operating systems, to talk to one another cheaply and easily.
  2. Web Services allow applications running in different parts of an organization, or in different organizations, to talk to one another and/or exchange data easily and cheaply.
  3. Web Services use universal and non-proprietary data standards so that integration between new pieces of software and legacy systems will be simple.

Web Services May Lower Costs

Web Services promise to greatly increase interoperability and ease data exchange even as it lowers costs. That's an ambitious agenda, but if Web Services achieve even moderate success, the impact on the business world will be profound.

In particular:

  1. By lowering the cost of software integration between systems, Web Services offers a way to maintain and integrate legacy IT systems at a lower cost than typical Enterprise Application Integration (EAI) efforts.
  2. By allowing software running on different platforms to communicate, Web Services reduces the cost and headaches of multiple platforms running on everything from mainframes to servers to desktops to PDAs.
  3. By employing universal, non-proprietary standards, Web Services dramatically lowers the IT costs of collaborating with external partners, vendors or clients.

When Is It Real? Staging the Deployment of Web Services

The goal of perfect interoperability has been promised many times in the past, but has rarely been achieved. There are, however, good reasons to hope that this time will be different; the Internet has a successful model for designing and deploying universal standards such as those that govern email and the Web. Further, many major vendors -- especially IBM, Sun and Microsoft -- are pushing Web Services and have agreed to common standards such as XML and SOAP.

If, as we expect, these two forces -- Internet standards and industry adoption -- continue to gain traction over the next 1-3 years, businesses will need to evaluate whether, when, and how to implement Web Services. In particular, because Web Services by definition serve a network of users, you will need to assess not only your needs, but also those of your vendors, clients, partners -- and even your competitors!.

Evaluating the promise and challenges of Web Services can be dauntingly complex, so staging the deployment of Web Services is critical. There are very different needs and requirements for a purely internal deployment on a corporate Intranet versus a completely public deployment over the Internet, and there are differences between launching a single test bed Web Service versus launching a dozen interlocking Web Services all at once. The purpose of this report is to guide you through that evaluation.

Web Services Require A Business To Develop New Skills

Businesses that rushed out Web sites in the mid-90s were shocked to discover that they were creating an implicit contract with their users: they were being judged on the accuracy and timeliness of the information, as well as the availability of the site itself.

Likewise, when you launch a Web Service, you create an implicit contract with your users. To succeed, you'll need to master software development functions like accurate documentation, version control, and backwards compatibility. For example, how do you ensure that the data being served is accurate? Who gets notified when something breaks? How quickly do they have to fix it to satisfy user expectations?

Though IT departments routinely address these issues internally, launching applications or service data that will be used or accessed by third parties introduces new complexities, because dealing with customers is always more complicated than dealing with employees.

A Word (or Two) of Caution

A pair of issues that deserve sober consideration appear throughout this report:

  1. Web Services is not a panacea.

    Web Services will be valuable, but implementing them won't be easy. There is no magic bullet here, because there never is a magic bullet. Like any technology effort, Web Services require clear goals, careful planning, detailed execution, and ongoing maintenance.

  2. Standards are still in flux, so interoperability isn't automatic
  3. Web Services have universally adopted XML as the mechanism for encoding data, but an array of higher-level standards is required to make Web Services work. For example, two banks that want to communicate with one another will need more than XML. They also must agree on a higher-level standard such as OFX (Open Financial Exchange).
  4. Achieving coordination between all interested parties for high-level data standards is the single biggest difficulty Web Services faces over the near term. For this reason, we expect Web Services to be adopted within organizations first because the coordination issues can be simpler in-house than those between organizations.

Despite these caveats, Web Services provide a tremendous opportunity for improvements in application integration, coordination and data interchange with external partners, and increased flexibility in software deployment. And because it is based on simple and non-proprietary standards -- as opposed to expensive, proprietary systems like EDI -- it promises to lower running costs both by allowing existing legacy systems to remain in place and by reducing the complexity of adding or modifying systems in the future.

Planning for Web Services is a new report from O'Reilly Research, written by industry visionary Clay Shirky. This report guides CTOs and CIOs through the inflated claims, competing standards, and amalgam of acronyms to arrive at a realistic appraisal of the business impact of Web Services. Topics include how Web Services can replace EDI, who the major players are and what they really offer, as well as the hurdles to implementing Web Services today.

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