What's a Web Service? Experts Want to Know

At a conference dedicated to the topic of Web services, the ability of

experts to define the emerging technology and how it can be implemented

in a business would seem to be a given.

Coming to a consensus about what the term means, however, proved to be

a challenge at InfoWorld's Next-Generation Web Services Conference, as

developers, investors and business managers gathered to understand how

new technologies based on XML (Extensible Markup Language) and other

industry standards will aid the evolution of the Internet.

Broadly defined, a Web service is a method of making various

applications communicate with each other automatically over the

Internet. The goal is to streamline business processes by allowing

software applications to be delivered over the Internet and run across

all kinds of computers, from large servers to handheld devices.

But explaining just how that fits into a corporate IT department's

development plans, or how consumers will ultimately end up using Web

services, can be difficult, judging from remarks made by show attendees

and speakers. Many companies being approached by software vendors and

consulting firms to buy into the idea are still trying to understand

the concept, said Lee Morgan, senior vice president of Plural Inc., a

New York- based business consulting firm, who attended the conference

here.

"It's hard to tell whether customers just don't have the money to

invest in Web services or whether they don't know how they would

implement it," Morgan said.

The confusion around Web services gets stickier due to the fact that

many industry experts have different opinions on the subject. An

informal poll conducted by conference organizers of nearly 500 industry

executives and Web services developers during the opening presentation

at InfoWorld's Web Services Conference revealed that many people had

varying definitions of the term.

About two-thirds of the group thought Web services were "next-

generation, service- oriented Internet applications," a term that

offers little in the way of specific information for companies who

might end up implementing the technology. Other popular definitions

included "component-based software architecture," and "a concept of a

programmable Internet."

In the big picture, what people call Web services is really "just one

piece of the puzzle," within the general context of software systems

and networked computing, said James Gosling, vice president and fellow

at Sun Microsystems Inc. Gosling, who is the father of the Java

programming language, gave the opening keynote Wednesday here.

"I think everybody has a different answer for what Web services are,"

Gosling said in his speech.

Peter Fenton, a principal investor with Accel Partners in Palo Alto,

California, was one attendee at the show looking to define the budding

market. Looking for trends and possible investment opportunities,

Fenton said he is approaching the subject with both caution and

interest.

"I think we are, like most people in the venture capital community,

incredibly curious about what new technologies and companies will

emerge around Web services," Fenton said of his venture capital firm.

Clearly, many of the major software vendors are latching on to the

technologies that make up the basis of Web services. Microsoft Corp.

has based its entire product line going forward on its .Net initiative,

according to company executives. Every software application and

developer tool is in the process of becoming ".Net-enabled," which

means adding support for XML and other programming standards.

Other vendors such as Sun Microsystems Inc. and IBM Corp., as well as

startup companies, are also putting XML support into nearly everything

they build. Competing software vendors have all started to agree on

standard technologies and methods for building and deploying Web

services, which is a signal of its potential success, Fenton said.

Still, "there's a lot of hype, but not a lot of substance so far," he

said.

A diverse set of software and consultants are all touting various tools

and applications here that are intended to allow corporations to

transform their existing applications as Web services. While some early

adopters have begin putting the tools to use, many attendees are still

only beginning to discover the budding technology behind all the hype.

For example, RioLabs Inc., a software maker based in Denver, Colorado,

was showing off its development environment for turning existing

applications into Web services. The company offers tools to take a

feature in an Oracle Corp. database -- order inventory management, for

instance -- and publish it on the Internet as a Web service, so that

other companies have access to it.

Sun's Gosling described this process as just an evolution of how the

Internet currently works. Web services, he explained, are crucial to

the way companies will build and consume applications. But this is

something, he said, that entails more than adding services to the

Internet.

"The Internet has always been service oriented. But they are services

presented to humans," he said, citing such examples as eBay Inc.'s

auction service or ticket buying services on travel Web sites. "The

real switch in thinking is 'gee maybe we can make these services

available to silicon-based life forms."

In other words, the next step in the evolution of the Internet is to

have computers (Gosling's "silicon-based life forms") automatically

feed information to each other, without the need for human

intervention. One example is Microsoft's Passport authentication

service, which lets Web surfers log on to different sites and Internet-

based applications without having to re-key personal information.

That's where the Web services technology such as SOAP (Simple Object

Access Protocol), WSDL (Web Services Description Language) and XML come

into play.

"SOAP and XML have often been characterized as HTML (Hypertext Markup

Language) for silicon-based life forms. An HTML that is readable by

software," Gosling said. HTML, one of the first Web standards, is the

coding used to create Web pages and lay out text, while XML is a

specification for, among other things, formatting data in a way that

can be communicated automatically from one application or computer to

another.

With operating system vendors agreeing on how to use more-advanced Web

standards, various services that use competing software applications

will ultimately allow companies to automate their business processes

and exchange information with each other in a standard way. This will

eliminate the need for loads of development on the part of corporate

programmers, to get their systems to link to those from other

companies. In many cases, computers will do the work automatically.

In the consumer market, where Microsoft has pitched some of its .Net

Services -- such as centralized calendaring and universal user

authentication -- this method of making services readable by "silicon-

based life forms" is still far from widespread adoption.

"It's intriguing to people. The concept of (consumer) services sounds

interesting. But I don't see it being the first market," said Plural's

Morgan, citing security and privacy as key barriers. "I think it's

first going to be used with the enterprise, to write systems."

That was also the opinion of Aleksander Niebylski, a technical analyst

with Accenture Ltd., who is helping to develop a set of business

applications, based on Web services technologies from various vendors,

for the consulting company's corporate customers.

"I see Web services as a way of unlocking all the data out on the Web.

It is a way of lowering the price barrier for expanding data and

transferring data," Niebylski said, noting that standards such as XML,

SOAP and WSDL can let data be used by various applications from various

vendors and on various operating systems.

Which then takes the question of what a Web service is and how IT

departments can make use of it back to square one. Under all of the

hype and alphabet soup of technologies, it is basically just a better

way of doing what software and application vendors have been doing for

years -- letting businesses and computer users share information.

"This is basically just an evolution of existing technologies,"

Niebylski said.

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