Art of communication

Getting different applications to talk to each other is a difficult task. However, the arrival of web services promises to provide an easy and inexpensive alternative

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By  Peter Branton Published  April 2, 2006

Good to talk|~|Web-services-lead-55146body.jpg|~|Getting different applications to ‘talk’ to each other has become an important, yet difficult and expensive, part of software development and integration. |~|In today’s fast-paced business world communication is seen as key. Not just communication with people outside your company, but communication within: with other line managers, other departments, and other business units. IT was supposed to provide that communication but unfortunately, as all too many firms have discovered, getting different parts of your IT infrastructure to communicate can often be the hardest task of all. Take the example of a telecom company. One morning you find that your competitor has launched a very attractive tariff plan and there is a real danger that your customers may desert you in hordes. What do you do? You need to respond. But a blanket response might be too costly — you’ll probably end up retaining loss-making customers as well. You need to be able to find out instantly who your most profitable customers are. You need to quickly reach out to them — directly through a call centre or e-mail or SMS with a counter offer — after all, it is for this day all those huge investments in IT were made. For all this to happen, the business intelligence (BI) software, the customer relationship management (CRM) application, and billing software — all need to talk each other. That’s easier said than done. Even after spending millions of dollars on technology, firms have been shocked to find the ‘right’ information at the ‘right’ time isn’t always available. Getting different applications to ‘talk’ to each other has become an important part of software development and integration. However, building IT architecture that is flexible, re-usable, scalable is a difficult and expensive solution. A new technology — web services — promises to change all that. Web services are a stack of software standards on which a services-oriented, component-based IT architecture can be built. Conceptually, it makes it possible to distribute discrete tasks within different processes. It is also one of those rare technologies that has the backing of all the major vendors. “For Sun, web services is high on the agenda in terms of moving towards a service-oriented architecture (SOA), not only in terms of its Middle East strategy but also looking at a global level,” says Jamie Bliss, software solutions sales manager, Sun Middle East and North Africa. In fact, the growing popularity of SOA is a major driver for the adoption of web services. “IBM sees the growing use of web services as part of the increasing demand from customers to implement SOA, partly because they believe it can help them deliver more efficient services and partly because SOA is based on open standards which have helped it gain acceptance,” explains Bashar Kilani, software group manager, IBM Middle East, Egypt and Pakistan. Mohamed Alojaimi, marketing manager, technology solutions, Oracle Middle East and Africa, also sees the technology as a major component of SOA. “More and more customers are interested in implementing SOA,” he says. Changing markets and increasingly demanding customers too are responsible for the growing popularity of web services. Bliss points out that: “Four-to-five years back, it was alright for an online business to charge money for the products purchased online by a customer and tell him that ‘well, we are not sure, when exactly your item will reach you. It may take one or two extra days to reach you.’ Now, that has changed.” “The buyer demands better service. He’ll put his foot down on any such dilly-dallying and will expect the item to be delivered to him on schedule. And that’s where a technology such as web services comes in as it helps integrate applications across the delivery chain so that customer knows exactly what is happening with the order,” he adds. For this reason, service-oriented business in the region — banks, government utilities, hotels — have turned out to be the early adopters of web services. “The banking sector in the Middle East has been very active in adopting SOA and web services because it helps them change their offerings and bring new services to the market quickly,” says Martin Percival, senior European technology evangelist, BEA Systems. “Governments too have been quick to spot the potential,” adds Ashraf Sabry, vice chairman and CEO, IT line of business, Raya Holdings. Sabry feels the potential in retail is yet to be exploited. He also adds that in “oil and gas, I see web services being used to integrate the supplier rather than the customers.” Bliss also feels that the technology could take off faster in the Middle East due to the fast-growing services industries such as hotels and other hospitality firms. But what makes web services particularly interesting for service companies? Take the example of a travel reservation system that takes in queries and offers online ticketing. Such a system needs to interact with airlines, hotels, banks and payment gateways (for credit card authentication) and travel insurance companies. All of these companies will have different types of systems bought from different vendors. Applying enterprise application integration (EAI) to such heterogeneous environment is expensive and also fraught with risk of failure. Web services can break down the big application into smaller units instead of trying to integrate the entire lot of enterprise applications. Each unit gets a ‘wrapper’ that connects it to other units. As Kilani puts it, “web services provide a way to define interfaces between applications.” These connections, when a service is invoked, create an ensemble that works as if they were a single monolithic application. What makes web services unique is the fact that it can work across different technology platforms and software languages. It treats any application as a software component and accesses it via standard web protocols such as HTTP. What web services tools do is represent these components within a single computer program, without knowing or changing what is inside of these components. ||**||Web services advantages|~|Brierly,-David3body.jpg|~|David Brierley of Cognos MEA.|~|Since a connection between two applications is essentially an exchange of data queries and responses, web services tools, with the help of XML, automate data conversion into a common format; and automate the data exchange mechanism (in this context, XML can be thought of as a format enabling these two activities). Once data is converted into a standardised document using XML, simple object access protocol (SOAP) is used as the message protocol (again, based on XML) to send this document. SOAP puts it into an ‘envelope’ writes the destination and origination address. This SOAP document is received and processed by another application and its response is sent back, once again as a SOAP document. The question that remains is : how do you corral applications and services that might be scattered all over the web? That’s a part dealt with by web service description language (WSDL). A WSDL file standardises — based on XML — how to document software components and how they can be accessed from special software repositories. One such repository that has gained quite a bit of currency is universal description, discovery and integration (UDDI). It is similar to a business directory where you can put in the name of the firm, the web service components the company offers, how to access these and services these components deliver. The essential advantage of web services over traditional EAI comes from the fact that it facilitates piecemeal integration. “The beauty of web services is that if you implement it, then there is no need to change the existing applications; web services can easily integrate them with new ones. So it’s a surro- unding or complimentary strategy than an overriding one,” explains Alojaimi. And, since it operates over the internet, it enjoys the benefit of widely distributed infrastructure. Moreover the interfaces among services are loosely coupled and are standards based. So interoperability between various software applications running on disparate platforms both within the enterprise as well as between business partners becomes much easier. The fact that web service builds on top of XML ensures applications developed in any language can be exposed as a web service quickly, using web services tools, which are available on all development platforms, thus ensuring ‘ubiquity’ of the service. Since a large number of web services can be bought off-the-shelf as components, time needed to deploy a service and the costs associated with it come down significantly. “Compared with other approaches to EAI, studies have shown that web services can cut implementation costs by half,” says David Brierley, regional manager, Cognos, Middle East and Africa. Apart from easing implementation, reusability of components is another source of savings. These usually kick in at a later stage of deployment when the components developed or bought can be reused for building new services offerings. “The savings as a result of reuse alone could be as high as 30%,” reveals BEA System’s Percival. The technology has matured in the five or so years, that the technology has been around. However, there are some areas that are still of concern. enterprise identity management (EIM) is one such issue. “EIM challenge is real for everybody. If I am running a service and need to talk to a partner who’s somewhere else on the web, then I need to be sure that the identity of that person is correct. Hence, EIM is crucial before SOA and web services can grow out of internal business,” says Percival. He also points out that giving away the right and required info is crucial. “I’ve my personal details stored in one application of my company. Now for transaction with a business partner of the company, they might need information on say, my savings account number but definitely not my home phone number,” he goes on to add. Drawing ‘trust boundaries’ in an era when users within and outside the enterprise interact with multiple applications, that too over the web, has been tough. Therefore, the attention has switched to setting common standards for identity records and putting in place authentication processes for transactions (involving business partners). The problem of maintaining proper information about identity and permissions across multiple applications in a service-oriented architecture (SOA) is compounded by the fact that XML — the foundation of web services — was not created with security in mind. Unlike earlier technologies like IBM’s MQ Series and Object Management Group’s CORBA, which traditionally operate within network parameters, XML does not place any restriction on where traffic goes. Besides, XML is human-readable and contains meta data that can be exploited by malicious hackers. However, initiatives — such as RosettaNet, BizTalk and ebXML by various IT vendors and industry bodies — to sort this out are in full swing. Web services are also vulnerable to performance issues when compared with other distributed computing approaches such as RMI, CORBA, or DCOM. XML explicitly does not count among its design goals either conciseness of encoding or efficiency of parsing. However, Percival sees things differently: “It is trade-off between performance and the tremendous ‘productivity gains’ that accrue as a result of use of XML. And people are quite happy to make that trade-off.” Of course, more standardisation will help and that’s exactly what the standard bodies such as WS-I, OASIS are working on. “As time goes on, web services will permeate across the whole organisation. It will have complete domination in the next five years,” claims Brierley. This may sound a little over thetop but there is no denying that underpinnings of web services are very powerful. It offers a platform neutral way of integrating applications. Leveraging information in real-time across the enterprise and interactions with customers and partners will become one seamless process. That will unleash a whole new bunch of efficiencies. The technology is there. As Sabry puts it: “The challenge will lie in the companies’ ability to manage and adapt business processes in manner that can take advantage of the potential of web services.” “You have to integrate delivery with your client or supplier. So I think it will be more about changing your mindset,” he adds.||**||

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