What's a Web service? Experts want to know

What's a Web service? Experts want to know

At a conference dedicated to the topic of Web services, the ability of experts to define the emerging technology and how it can be implemented in a business would seem to be a given.

Coming to a consensus about what the term means, however, proved to be a challenge at InfoWorld's Next-Generation Web Services Conference here, as developers, investors and business managers gathered to understand how new technologies based on XML (Extensible Markup Language) and other industry standards will aid the evolution of the Internet.

Broadly defined, a Web service is a method of making various applications communicate with each other automatically over the Internet. The goal is to streamline business processes by allowing software applications to be delivered over the Internet and run across all kinds of computers, from large servers to handheld devices.

But explaining just how that fits into a corporate IT department's development plans, or how consumers will ultimately end up using Web services, can be difficult, judging from remarks made by show attendees and speakers. Many companies being approached by software vendors and consulting firms to buy into the idea are still trying to understand the concept, said Lee Morgan, senior vice president of Plural, a business consulting firm, who attended the conference here.

"It's hard to tell whether customers just don't have the money to invest in Web services or whether they don't know how they would implement it," Morgan said.

The confusion around Web services gets stickier due to the fact that many industry experts have different opinions on the subject. An informal poll conducted by conference organizers of nearly 500 industry executives and Web services developers during the opening presentation at InfoWorld's Web Services Conference revealed that many people had varying definitions of the term.

About two-thirds of the group thought Web services were "next-generation, service-oriented Internet applications," a term that offers little in the way of specific information for companies who might end up implementing the technology. Other popular definitions included "component-based software architecture," and "a concept of a programmable Internet."

In the big picture, what people call Web services is really "just one piece of the puzzle," within the general context of software systems and networked computing, said James Gosling, vice president and fellow at Sun Microsystems. Gosling, who is the father of the Java programming language, gave the opening keynote Wednesday here.

"I think everybody has a different answer for what Web services are," Gosling said in his speech.

Peter Fenton, a principal investor with Accel Partners in Palo Alto, California, was one attendee at the show looking to define the budding market. Looking for trends and possible investment opportunities, Fenton said he is approaching the subject with both caution and interest.

"I think we are, like most people in the venture capital community, incredibly curious about what new technologies and companies will emerge around Web services," Fenton said of his venture capital firm.

Clearly, many of the major software vendors are latching on to the technologies that make up the basis of Web services. Microsoft Corp. has based its entire product line going forward on its .Net initiative, according to company executives. Every software application and developer tool is in the process of becoming ".Net-enabled," which means adding support for XML and other programming standards.

Other vendors such as Sun Microsystems and IBM, as well as startup companies, are also putting XML support into nearly everything they build. Competing software vendors have all started to agree on standard technologies and methods for building and deploying Web services, which is a signal of its potential success, Fenton said.

Still, "there's a lot of hype, but not a lot of substance so far," he said.

A diverse set of software and consultants are all touting various tools and applications here that are intended to allow corporations to transform their existing applications as Web services. While some early adopters have begin putting the tools to use, many attendees are still only beginning to discover the budding technology behind all the hype.

For example, RioLabs, a software maker, was showing off its development environment for turning existing applications into Web services. The company offers tools to take a feature in an Oracle database -- order inventory management, for instance -- and publish it on the Internet as a Web service, so that other companies have access to it.

Sun's Gosling described this process as just an evolution of how the Internet currently works. Web services, he explained, are crucial to the way companies will build and consume applications. But this is something, he said, that entails more than adding services to the Internet.

"The Internet has always been service oriented. But they are services presented to humans," he said, citing such examples as eBay's auction service or ticket buying services on travel Web sites. "The real switch in thinking is 'gee maybe we can make these services available to silicon-based life forms."

In other words, the next step in the evolution of the Internet is to have computers (Gosling's "silicon-based life forms") automatically feed information to each other, without the need for human intervention. One example is Microsoft's Passport authentication service, which lets Web surfers log on to different sites and Internet-based applications without having to re-key personal information.

That's where the Web services technology such as SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol), WSDL (Web Services Description Language) and XML come into play.

"SOAP and XML have often been characterised as HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) for silicon-based life forms. An HTML that is readable by software," Gosling said. HTML, one of the first Web standards, is the coding used to create Web pages and lay out text, while XML is a specification for, among other things, formatting data in a way that can be communicated automatically from one application or computer to another.

With operating system vendors agreeing on how to use more-advanced Web standards, various services that use competing software applications will ultimately allow companies to automate their business processes and exchange information with each other in a standard way. This will eliminate the need for loads of development on the part of corporate programmers, to get their systems to link to those from other companies. In many cases, computers will do the work automatically.

In the consumer market, where Microsoft has pitched some of its .Net Services -- such as centralized calendaring and universal user authentication -- this method of making services readable by "silicon-based life forms" is still far from widespread adoption.

"It's intriguing to people. The concept of (consumer) services sounds interesting. But I don't see it being the first market," said Plural's Morgan, citing security and privacy as key barriers. "I think it's first going to be used with the enterprise, to write systems."

That was also the opinion of Aleksander Niebylski, a technical analyst with Accenture, who is helping to develop a set of business applications, based on Web services technologies from various vendors, for the consulting company's corporate customers.

"I see Web services as a way of unlocking all the data out on the Web. It is a way of lowering the price barrier for expanding data and transferring data," Niebylski said, noting that standards such as XML, SOAP and WSDL can let data be used by various applications from various vendors and on various operating systems.

Which then takes the question of what a Web service is and how IT departments can make use of it back to square one. Under all of the hype and alphabet soup of technologies, it is basically just a better way of doing what software and application vendors have been doing for years -- letting businesses and computer users share information.

"This is basically just an evolution of existing technologies," Niebylski said.

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