Web services is arguably the most important IT initiative of our time. Whereasenterprise back ends have been cobbled together over decades, using application-specific components from a variety of vendors, they now can be (and increasingly must be) integrated and delivered to customers with a universality and coherence unimagined 10 years ago.
But the path to Web services nirvana is vague, even baffling, and most companies fall into the camp of beginners. How can an enterprise get started with Web services?
The quandary of how to initiate a Web services overhaul is augmented bypersistent confusion within the field itself. As a collection of open standards, including Extensible Markup Language (XML) and Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP), the bundled technology known as “Web services” is flagrantly unstandardized. Adding to the chaos, many vendors define the entire concept based on what their specific products offer.
In a nutshell, Web services are business functions that operate according to commonInternet standards. Those functions might operate over the Internet, outside the company firewall, or they might provide in-house functionality that does not touch the outside world. Either way, Web services ideally erase compatibility conflicts that hinder collaboration, transaction and frictionless data flow.
It is important for any company considering a services-oriented reworking ofits back end to recruit employees with expertise in this area. “There aren’t that many tech people with the right skill set,” Yankee Group program manager Andy Efstathiou told the E-Commerce Times. “Outside firms come to it from different perspectives. Firms need to understand the opportunity and how it can apply to their business.”
Knowing Your Needs
As with any IT makeover, the first step toward Web services is one ofassessment, not action. Since Web services is essentially focused on interoperability, the main question to ask before setting forth is this: With whom do you interoperate now, and with whom do you want to in the future? Whether using in-house or consulting personnel, it is a good idea to assemble a Web services task force to audit present-day IT operations and performance. From there, a picture of data logjams, collaboration weaknesses and security issues can emerge.
“[The] first thing [is to] understand how you’re going to use it,” IDC program manager Laurie Seymour told the E-Commerce Times. Seymour emphasized engaging with partners early in the process. “Talk to a channel partner you’re familiar with, with whom you’ve deployed current technology. Even if the trial is going to be small, engaging partners gives you an idea of what you should and shouldn’t do.”
Also, in many cases, dipping a toe into Web services works better than taking a full-body plunge. For most companies, after all, establishing an entirely new services-based architecture all at once is infeasible on several levels. In the current spending environment, most companies cannot afford big-bang changes, and the novelty of Web services makes sweeping adoption too risky.
“For most firms, integrating applications is what they want to do first, andthey will start with one small step,” the Yankee Group’s Efstathiou said. “Integrate asingle-point solution. If security is a concern, start in-house at a pointthat doesn’t touch the outside world.”
Who Goes There?
Of course, security is always an issue — sometimes the primary one — whencontemplating Web services implementation.
“If there is any area of the standards body that has difficulty reachingagreement, security is at the top of the list,” Jason Salzetti, a principal with Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, told the E-Commerce Times, though he noted that the Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML) is the most promising emerging standard.
“We see clients and vendors converging around SAML,” he said. “It’s a standard with legs. Single sign-on vendors are rolling it into products.”
The Large View
Not everybody thinks that starting small is the best idea, however. Ted Schadler, a principal analyst at Forrester Research, recently published “Road to aService-Based Architecture,” a manifesto that looks beyond single-point solutions.
“The road to service-oriented architecture will take something like adecade,” Schadler acknowledged in an interview with the E-Commerce Times. In the meantime, he said, “firms are using the approach to put a ‘service’ (meaning a pricing engine, productcatalog or production schedule) up in a secure way for customers, the front-end office, suppliers, et cetera.”
He emphasized the cost benefit of “fully packed” Web services comparedwith a series of single-point implementations. “It will be expensive to buildbut will pay off in reusability and better security.”
Thinking big in the long term is fine, but most companies have neither thebudget nor the expertise to impose an end-to-end Web services makeover onthe enterprise back end. Schadler calls Web services a “form of business dial tone.” In that light, the most important first step is hooking up a metaphoric first line, then building out a services-based network from there.
These are the crucial steps:
“2003 will be focused on the early adopter implementation phase [of Webservices],” IDC’s Seymour told the E-Commerce Times. “This is when the answers will behammered out.” Companies that begin finding their own answers will reap thecompetitive gains.