Universal Language

The slow burn approach of Middle East enterprises to web services seems in conflict to the benefits of multiple device, anytime, anywhere communications that they offer. However, much confusion still reigns about the various standards and vendor offerings in the web services market.

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By  Zoe Moleshead Published  April 7, 2002

Setting the standards|~||~||~|Web services have become the latest buzzwords in the IT world, but it seems a great deal of confusion still reigns as to what exactly they are and what exactly they do. Adding to this uncertainty is the list of acronyms, including XML, WSDL, UDDI, SOAP, that get banded about at the mention of web services.

While vendors attempt to define what web services are, and how their products are going to take advantage of them, users are attempting to make sense of these offerings. But how much traction have web services really gained in the Middle East?

“Web services is a very generic term,” confirms Meghna Rao, managing director of solutions provider, Vertscape. “People confuse it with web sites and anything on the Internet. When somebody says they are developing solutions based on web services, they are referring quite specifically to a set of technologies, essentially Extensible Markup Langauge (XML), Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP), Web Services Description Language (WSDL), and Universal Description, Discovery and Integration (UDDI),” she explains.

Although some of these standards, such as WSDL, are still being developed, the purpose of this collection of standards is to enable multiple anytime communication, irrespective of platform or device.

“Vendors used to have their own platforms and technologies — Java, C, other proprietary technology from Microsoft and so on — and the vendors used to develop different applications that worked almost as standalone applications,” says Tarek Shahawy, product manager, application server & development technologies, Oracle Middle East. “Web services emerged to become a technology for building application-to-application integration, and to help streamline business processes across multiple businesses, multiple vendors,” he adds.

From a business perspective this offers both time and cost savings. Integration between old legacy systems and new platforms becomes feasible and easily implemented — rolling out services to PDAs or mobile phones essentially only requires an interface.

“For businesses I think the real value is… using web services to connect to their old applications or to new applications and web servers,” explains Amanda Cummins, marketing manager, Sun Microsystems, Middle East & Africa. “Web services are all based around open standards, and you only have to write the interface once and then it can link into multiple, different systems.”

For solutions providers like Vertscape, the modular nature of web services enables it to rapidly develop solutions to meet the requirements of its customers.

Using Microsoft’s .NET tools, including SQL server and MyServices, Vertscape has been able to create applications for its customers, ranging from a supply chain solution for satellite phone provider, Thuraya and its large base of distributors, down to a customer relationship management solution for small medical practises, such as Al Jinan Medical Centre in Dubai.

“All our applications are essentially web services modules or components, so we’re very rapidly able to assemble these components together to deliver a solution,” comments Rao. “I would say it [component-orientated development] is almost 70-80% faster than what’s available today.”

Another early proponent of Microsoft .NET, Emirates Group, which used the .NET technology to build a Travel Channel on MSN Arabia, also benefited from being able to reuse code and develop platforms using a component approach.

“One of the best things about using the Microsoft .NET — and this is purely from a development perspective — is the integration and the ability to embed a whole web service into a site or an application as a component... the reuse and distribution is so much easier,” explains David Robertson, E-Ventures strategy manager, Emirates Group.

Aside from enabling data transfer, early users of web services have also found that it offers a greater degree of vendor independence. Emirates Group, for example, began toying with developing web services for its Skywards loyalty programme back in 1999, before Microsoft was advocating its .NET message in the region, and has encountered very little need for Microsoft’s help during development.

But vendor independence comes not only in terms of development, but also in terms of software, hardware and language.

“The whole point of web services is independence from any vendor lock in. Because you are using XML, solutions work with anything, its independent of device, programming language and platform,” explains Rao.

“When you start going down the web services route, you are not tied to any vendor, technology or even any sort of geographic location, which is why it leads to an open system,” adds Robertson.

||**||The local perspective|~||~||~|Despite marketing noise from the vendors at a European level, the local story is different. Aside from early adopters like Vertscape, and Emirates Group, the regional approach to web services is proving conservative.

Microsoft, IBM and Oracle are all emphasising the fact that it is still early days for web services. All three vendors are preaching messages of education, research and investigation, as well as reiterating the fact that web services just like any other technology have to go through an adoption cycle.

“Businesses must go though a learning curve — that is going to be a big challenge for people,” says Bashar Kilani, manager of business transformation & integration software, IBM, Middle East & Africa. “Companies have to justify using the technology and spending the time training people on it — they have to see the business benefits.”

According to Kilani, regional interest in its web services on WebSphere platform has remained within the “leading edge development houses” that are developing the services for other parts of the world.

Even Microsoft, which has been banging its .NET drum for the last 18 months, is talking about a more patient approach to web services, and looking to leverage on the development of beta sites within the region.

“Our role initially is to show the possibilities, develop a couple of sites, and a couple of customer references and then educate the channel and the market on the possibilities of web services,” adds Yasser Zeineldin, regional marketing manager, Microsoft, Gulf & Eastern Mediterranean.

The slow burn approach is perhaps the best way to describe the current state of web services development in the region. However, Oracle’s Shahawy describes current web services as “simple.”

“We are not talking about complex transactions… we are talking about SOAP, models of enquiring, sending and receiving information,” he explains.

IBM and Microsoft are also placing the emphasis on developing simple services with a limited scope.

“[Programmers] choose something simple, something that gives good results, and something that can be managed and controlled locally, and then they grow as they become more comfortable and confident with the technologies,” recommends IBM’s Kilani.

Islamic financial services provider, iHilal, which is planning to roll out its .NET web services offering this month, believes the slow burn approach is a positive one, which will generate confidence amongst users of the technology and services.

“The initial low-medium uptake will allow us to make sure the technology is robust, and our clients will feel more comfortable using the platform on a more gradual basis,” says Ramzi Abu Khader, chief executive officer, iHilal.

Emirates Group’s David Robertson has a bolder approach when it comes to developing the Travel Channel’s web services and moving into other methods of delivery, such as mobile telephones.

“It’s a chicken and egg thing — will the user base be big enough to justify doing it? By that I mean to justify two weeks worth of work for one developer is not that difficult for us. May be we will make the leap of faith and go mobile before we necessarily think there is a market,” says Robertson.

||**||Obstacles & benefits|~||~||~|Security concerns have also hindered the development and use of web services. Consumer confidence concerning online transactions is one aspect of the security challenge surrounding web services, but card issuers, such as Visa are undertaking initiatives to ensure transaction security. And vendors are stressing the security elements of their respective web services tools and initiatives.

Microsoft may have been heavily criticised for its security flaws in the past, but according to Robertson, Microsoft’s .NET platform offers remarkably high levels of security.

“What we get from a programming security model with .NET is quite amazing,” he says. “Even things where security hasn’t impacted yet, like buffer overruns [are covered]. With ASP.NET (active server pages) that we are using to develop our code in, we even have things like memory monitoring so if you have memory leaks the web server will restart itself automatically, [but] it doesn’t actually jeopardise [data] integrity as its running,” explains Robertson.

Fellow .NET user, iHilal has also found Microsoft’s offering meets their security requirements, and for an enterprise dealing in financial transactions this is especially important.

“.NET supports double password protection, one is a user password, and the other is a transaction password. These two are achieved through Active Directory authentication. The system is also secured by our architecture with a web layer, application layer and a database layer — each of them separate and with firewalls, so the system is highly secure,” says Musthafa PC, project manager, iHilal.

The regional development of web services is being undermined by the lack of skilled workers and developers within enterprises.

Vertscape tackled the skills issue by leveraging on the abundant pool of IT workers in India.

Rao explains, “India has got a tremendous skills set, but the infrastructure is not very good. So we have used the infrastructure here [Dubai Internet City] and brought a lot of our staff from India.”

Sourcing workers from the sub-continent offers an alternative to enterprises looking to develop web services immediately, however, other developers believe that it is only a matter of time before the much needed IT skills become available.

“There is enough talent out there that can understand the whole ethos behind web services. [But] in my experience there isn’t many people out there who can do it — but that’s today, give it three months and the situation will change,” says Robertson.

In terms of future developments, Emirates Group and iHilal are already planning moves into what Shahawy describes as “complex” web services. iHilal has plans to introduce news services, online transactions, and integrate more closely with its partners in an effort to establish itself as a one-stop shop for its customers.

“We will be integrating with business partners in a better way using Microsoft’s BizTalk and XML. From a customer point of view, we will be providing a supermarket of funds. So a customer doesn’t have to go to individual fund providers — they can just come to our platform. Businesses can do the trading from our site directly,” says Musthafa PC.

Emirates Group is planning to utilise Microsoft’s .NET MyServices within the MSN Arabia Travel Channel to provide its customers with such things as a single sign on facility and integration between the web site and a user’s schedule in Outlook.

“Web services that we are looking to leverage are the .NET MyServices. [With MSN Arabia Arabia Travel Channel] where users want to check availability for flights or rates, users would go into a page where there is a calendar icon, and when they click that calendar icon on our page in the future it will open their calendar [in Outlook],” explains Robertson. “Then, based on your calendar, you can choose the dates that will be passed back to the web site.”

Though analysts remain sceptical about how long it will take for web services to gain critical mass, IBM’s Kilani believes the relative infancy and the potential growth of the Middle East’s IT market could provide a ripe platform for the development of web services.

“In the Middle East you can start with a blank sheet, and people who have this luxury can actually start implementing web services as a standard right from the beginning,” he comments.

“If we take advantage of this new technology and standards, we will be able to deliver better technology, quicker, cheaper and this might be a reason why people in the Middle East should adopt web services. The Middle East has a bigger challenge, the growth here is much bigger than other parts of the world,” Kilani adds.

||**||Microsoft vs Sun Microsystems|~||~||~| The market for web services has essentially split in two directions, Microsoft's .NET offering or Sun Microsystems' Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE). Although Microsoft seems to have taken the mind share lead with .NET, Sun is playing heavily on the openness of its Sun ONE architecture and the lack of vendor lock in.

“It is a dichotomy of either .NET or J2EE. Those are the two options… if you chose J2EE then you need to choose a vendor. If you chose .NET you are automatically choosing Microsoft,” explains Michael Barnes, senior program director, international application delivery strategies, Meta Group.

“Microsoft's view of the world, with .NET and the common language runtime, is the vision of multi-language where you can use any language that is supported by .NET including the languages within Visual Studio and one platform, the platform being Windows. With J2EE it is the exact opposite, it is all about one language… you will use Java as the language to build applications, but in doing so you will have multi-platforms,” he explains.

The seemingly proprietary overtones of the .NET offering and Microsoft's Passport services caused Sun to establish the Liberty Alliance. The group, whose supporters include Citibank, American Express and American Airlines among others, is opposed to amount of user information Microsoft has access to.

“For consumers it’s all down to convenience, they want to go with whatever is the convenient solution and at the moment Passport is a convenient solution, you go on, sign in — but behind that you have to think is it a good idea that one company can have so much information about people in an almost unregulated way,” says Amanda Cummins, marketing manager, Sun Microsystems, Middle East & Africa.

The Liberty Alliance is looking to provide a more universal and open single sign on procedures, while also enabling companies to retain personal information in a secure manner.

“All the information is available to them [Microsoft] and they can use it any way they want, whereas our model is every company can keep the information they want to keep and they will give the information that they want to give,” adds Hani Esber, business development manager, iPlanet MEDI/MEA, Sun Microsystems.

The development of web services may be turning into two seemingly polarised camps, but according to some analysts there is no need for users to opt for one architecture or the other, as it is possible to run both Java and .NET within an organisation.

“All the stuff around the Liberty Alliance and Sun ONE raises the temperature a little bit. But we are getting into this slightly alarming conversation about .NET versus Java. Now to be honest with you there are very few instances where it is going to be one or the other, in most organisations it is going to be both and people should just accept it,” comments Ashim Pal, program director, web & collaboration strategies at Meta Group.
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