Working the web

Web services offer enterprises time, cost and productivity savings across heterogeneous IT environments. However, disagreements over standards are delaying adoption.

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By  Zoe Moleshead Published  July 31, 2003

Standards|~||~||~|The benefits of web services cannot be underestimated. They enable users, whatever application, hardware platform, system, device or language they are using, to communicate and exchange information, which in turn allows them to reap time, cost and development savings.

“With web services, you are going to the end user or systems integrator and telling them that no matter what technology, hardware platform or architecture they are using and no matter what the design of their infrastructure, if they develop using web services everybody else who is buying into these [web services] standards will be able to communicate with them easily,” says Bashar Kilani, manager of business transformation & integration software, IBM, Middle East & Africa.

In fact the only cloud on the web services’ landscape appears to be the standards that are required to ensure interoperability and universal understanding across heterogeneous environments. The vendor disagreements and lengthy time it takes for standards to be debated, refined and approved are the only things restricting the usability of web services.

“Web services and the collection of capabilities around them are still maturing. Standards are still being worked out and agreed on,” says Daniel Scholler, vice president & service director, Meta Group.

“From an Oracle viewpoint, we just want one standard. We would like all vendors to develop one common standard for transactional or business process web services. [But] today vendors are still trying to push their own standards and web services will not succeed if this is the case,” cautions Tarek Shawawy, technology solutions & sales consulting manager, Oracle Middle East.

Kilani, however, argues that the vendor disputes and debates in the web services space are no different to the standards ratification processes in other areas of the IT world. Instead, he believes that it will be a growing acceptance and push from the end user community that will help to propel standards through the committee approval stages.

“Like every standard we have seen in the past the end user is always the winner. If they are demanding it [a standard] and they are adopting it then this will drive it. Web services already have a lot of acceptance from the end users and it is just a matter of time until we really start seeing them in action,” he says.

However, other vendors still believe there are some key issues and areas that currently need to be addressed by standards. Oracle, for example, is keen to see standards agreed upon for users and transactions, while Ihab Foudeh, enterprise technical manager for Microsoft South Gulf, says that ensuring backward compatibility of standards is equally important.

“If it is a standard, it will not be changed. But users should always look for backward compatibility, they do not want a standard that works today but doesn't work tomorrow,” he says.

While Shawawy says the lack of standards for even simple web services has hindered user adoption over the last year, at a local level, vendors have spent the past 12 months educating local enterprises about web services and their benefits and encouraging users to carry out trial projects.

“We have spent a lot of time with the customers talking to them and educating them about web services and what they can do. Now we are moving to a new stage, the pilot stage,” says Shawawy.

||**||The 'dream'|~||~||~|Furthermore, vendor efforts have been channelled into the developer community to ensure that the necessary knowledge and skills are available to forward the creation of web services.

“One training boot camp that we did in the South Gulf region ran for 10 months and we had over 160 enterprise key account developers undergo a 10 day training [programme] on .NET. While [our training partner,] New Horizons has copied the same model for the masses,” says Microsoft's Foudeh.

The improved level of knowledge surrounding web services has also led to a changing attitude among end users about how to utilise them. Initial web services developments have generally involved the same vendor platforms or been restricted to internal use, which although beneficial to users, does not really leverage the full potential of the technology. Furthermore, internal integration can already be achieved without the use of web services.

“When it comes to your own organisation it is under your control. You can control the standards and the IT systems and even if you have legacy systems, we can find ways to integrate them and build them together, and this could be done through standards or building some proprietary solutions,” explains Shawawy.

There are, however, signs among the region’s early adopters that their approach to web services is altering and that development plans are maturing.

“Companies using web services 12 months ago were using them mainly to integrate technology from the same vendor, for example, integrating Microsoft technologies. Although this is a usage of web services, it is not really the dream of web services,” comments Shawawy.

The ‘dream’ of web services is one that is beginning to gain more traction in some of the region's vertical sectors. It involves the use of web services in business to business (B2B) or business to consumer (B2C) scenarios.

“Web services will enable users to build real B2B relationships and real B2B interfaces with suppliers, partners and buyers. So web services will be more profitable on the B2B side than the internal side,” explains Ahmad El Dandachi, software manager, Sun Microsystems, Middle East & North Africa.

The finance, telecoms, healthcare and government sectors are pinpointed by many vendors as the key proponents of web services in the region.

Most of the aforementioned industries are keen to forge ahead with developments so they can rollout services to customers or business partners in a more cost effective manner.

“In 2004 we will start to see implementations in the financial and health sectors,” confirms Shawawy. “When we meet with these sectors and we talk of integrating transactions across the [different] banks, or talk about integrating health insurance companies to hospitals, they can see the benefits,” he continues.

“From a government perspective, there are a lot of initiatives incorporating different departments and integrating the public with government services or government services with banking services,” adds Foudeh.

||**||Benefits|~||~||~|Aside from facilitating the rollout of customer services, vendors also highlight a number of other benefits that web services can generate, with cost, time and productivity savings among the most obvious. For example, enterprises can enhance relationships with customers, partners and suppliers, and attain a greater return on investment (ROI) because they no longer have to buy additional equipment to interoperate with other systems or companies.

“With web services, enterprises can streamline their operations, reduce the cost of the IT infrastructure and reach new markets on a global scale because they will be able to integrate and interoperate with the existing systems of their suppliers, partners and buyers,” confirms El Dandachi.

Furthermore, development processes will be improved, as enterprises no longer need to rewrite or reengineer systems or applications. “Web services are not about building new applications or adopting new technology… Building or enabling new business processes will be very easy and can be done in weeks instead of months,” explains Shawawy.

“Enterprises don't even have to hire someone who is specialised in web services. The idea is that you take a particular function, wrap it and expose it so that any application or company with different technologies can talk to it and interact with it today,” he adds.

With such an abundance of benefits, vendors remain optimistic that web services will overcome the standards disputes that have hindered the initial functionality and use of the technology and accomplish the web services' dream.

“It is not a question of should an enterprise use web services, it is about deployment and acceptance. But web services are real, and they are being used today,” says Foudeh.

||**||Development|~||~||~| With web services delivering such universal appeal, concerns surrounding the availability and requirements of skills seem valid. However, both vendors and analysts dismiss these queries and claim development processes are straightforward.

“People learn technology specific skills and not vendor specific skills. For those [developers] who already know how to program [web services development] is just a more disciplined way of doing things. There is not an incremental new skill that they have to learn, it is just disciplining the way they are writing code today,” says Bashar Kilani, manager of business transformation & integration software, IBM, Middle East & Africa.

Elaborating further, vendors and analysts suggest any developers with Java or J2EE skills will easily be able to create web services, and they play down the actual coding or technical side of the process.

“The mechanics of creating a web service are quite simple. A web service for all intents and purposes is an API, so the tricky part is not about the mechanics. Once users know what web service they want to create, actually building and deploying it has some complexities to it, but most of the issues are fairly well understood with some fairly well understood choices about how to tackle them,” explains Daniel Scholler, vice president & service director, Meta Group.

“The main thing is trying to design these services in a way that makes them reusable. So the big challenge is trying to work these interfaces in such a way that they are usable across a collection of similar relationships as opposed to having to build them all each time and maintain them all individually,” he continues.

Furthermore, vendors have also been working to ease the plight of developers. Aside from carrying out seminars and courses to raise awareness and knowledge about how to use and create web services, the likes of Oracle, IBM, Sun and Microsoft have also been enhancing their development tools.

“We have taken JDeveloper, which is a tool we use to develop Java applications and [enhanced it.] To turn a service or function into a web service it is just a matter of clicking a button and it [JDeveloper] will wrap it for you, deploy and expose it as a service,” says Tarek Shawawy, technology solutions & sales consulting manager, Oracle Middle East.

Microsoft has also been working to speed and facilitate the development tasks of enterprises by improving its .NET platform. “In terms of productivity, how fast users can develop, test and deploy a web service .NET will average 40-60% savings on lines of code,” claims Ihab Foudeh, enterprise technical manager for Microsoft South Gulf.||**||

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