Web Wonders

Web services promise to cure all integration woes as they enable users to exchange information via the internet, regardless of what applications, hardware or programming languages they run.

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By  Matthew Southwell Published  August 20, 2003

I|~||~||~|Web services enable users to communicate and exchange information, whatever applications, hardware platforms, systems, devices or programming languages they are running, via the internet. As such, they allow enterprises to reap time, cost and development savings and enhance relationships with customers, partners and suppliers. Furthermore, web services also provide users with a greater return on investment (ROI) as they no longer have to buy additional equipment in order to interoperate with other systems, software packages 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,” explains Ahmad El Dandachi, software manager, Sun Microsystems, Middle East & North Africa.

Furthermore, web services improve internal development processes, as enterprises no longer need to rewrite or reengineer systems or applications. “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… Building or enabling new business processes will be very easy and can be done in weeks instead of months,” says Tarek Shawawy, technology solutions & sales consulting manager at Oracle Middle East.

IDC reports that these existing benefits are just the tip of the iceberg and that the overall advantages of using web services will increase in the future. “Organisations are targeting a wide array of solutions with web services technology… [and they] see substantial promise for what web services standards-based design and interoperability have to offer,” says Sandra Rogers, research director for web services software at IDC.

Such promises are beginning to move web services from an often talked about technology to one that is actually being deployed. For instance, a recent Gartner Dataquest web services survey showed that a massive 92% of respondents are using the technology in current systems integration projects and a further 86% of enterprises are using Extensible Markup Language (XML) on a regular basis.

||**||II|~||~||~|In fact the only cloud on the web services’ landscape appears to be the availability of standards that ensure interoperability and universal understanding across heterogeneous environments. “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.

A number of factors are responsible for holding up the standardisation process and, by default, the widespread usage of web services. These include vendor disagreements and the time it takes for standards to be debated, refined and ratified. “Web services [already has] standards, but they differ from company to company and have been proprietary. Web services have to become a standard, like J2EE,” says Diyaa Zebian, business development manager for the Middle East, BEA.

However, it appears as if all the concerned parties are keen to address the standards issue. For instance, last month HP announced plans to submit its web services management framework for industry review to the Organisation for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS), a global consortium driving the development, convergence and adoption of e-business standards.

The computing giant will make the framework specification available for public download and is delivering a call to action for other web services-reliant companies to join the effort to create an industry standards-based solution for the management of web services.

“We’re submitting this specification to OASIS to accelerate the adoption of common standards in web services management and to simplify web services development for our partners and customers today, while enabling them to plug into the adaptive enterprise of tomorrow,” explains Joseph Hanania, regional general manager, HP Middle East.

Oracle is also keen to see standards established that will help drive adoption. “We just want one standard. We would like all vendors to develop one common standard for transactional or business process web services,” says Shawawy.

While Shawawy believes these standards are still some way off due to vendors advocating their own causes rather than the common good, others disagree. For instance, Bashar Kilani, manager of business transformation & integration software, IBM, Middle East & Africa, 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 because they do not want a standard that works today but doesn’t work tomorrow,” he says.

||**||III|~||~||~|While Shawawy says the lack of standards for even simple web services has hindered user adoption over the last year, vendors have still spent the past 12-18 months educating local enterprises about web services and their benefits and encouraging users to carry out trial projects.

“Companies like Vertscape are talking more about web services and this is helping users to understand it better. The desire to get a better ROI from existing applications is also important,” says Chirag Patel, director of product & strategy at Vertscape.

This education is also leading into real deployments. Patel says Vertscape is involved in two implementations, while BEA is also developing proof of concept projects within the region. Other known users include Dubai Ports Authority, Emirates Airlines and Vodafone Egypt.
Just where the use of web services will prosper most remains open to debate. Patel argues that the initial spurt within the Middle East will come in internal deployments.

“Instead of buying a middleware solution to integrate systems, these things can be done through web services. This in turn reduces cost and the time of implementation. It is easier than just putting in another piece of software. As a result the real growth will be visible internally,” he says.

“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 [with web services],” adds Shawawy.

There are, however, signs that the region will soon buy into the ultimate web services dream — using them to integrate applications of disparate companies in either 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,” says Sun’s El Dandachi.

||**||IV|~||~||~|The finance, telecoms and healthcare sectors are pinpointed by many vendors as the region’s key proponents of web services in this form. For instance, Shawawy reports that users from the banking and health sectors are already discussing web services with the vendor and Oracle expects to see implementations in these industries from 2004 onwards.

“When we meet with these sectors and we talk of integrating transactions across [different] banks, or talk about integrating health insurance companies to hospitals, they can see the benefits,” he explains.

Another potential user is local governments. BEA Systems’ Zebian claims that the vendor is already working on a proof of concept project within the region and he predicts that this market will substantially outdo internal deployments. “Government will be the biggest users of web services to begin with in the local market… B2B or government-to-business (G2B) integration is going to be a bigger market because enterprise applications are already integrated in many companies,” Zebian says.

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

With an abundance of potential customers, growing local enthusiam and a multitude of benefits, vendors in the Middle East are optimistic that web services will overcome the standards disputes that have hindered uptake thus far. Furthermore, they believe the technology will soon be used to accomplish the ultimate web services’ dream of B2B and B2G integration via the web in the Middle East.

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

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