The lowdown on Web services

Everybody's talking about them. . .they're the next "Big thing"--but does anybody really know what Web services are?



OPINION: Everybody's talking about them. . .they're the next "Big thing"--but does anybody really know what Web services are?

It wasn't so very long ago that hardware vendors were faced with the interesting task of dealing with customers who wanted to know if the computer they were thinking of buying "came with the Internet".

They were the customers who had heard lots of reports about how the Internet was the next great thing--how it would change their lives--but still really weren't sure what the Internet was.

Now we're at much the same stage with the latest life-changing technology: Web services. Those involved in their "development" (IBM, Microsoft, Sun, et al) just love to hear customers say, "Sounds good--I think I'll get me some of them Web services."

Because that means the marketing hype is working--people are buying into the concept without really knowing what Web services are.

So what are they?

Just as the Internet is not a product, but a means of doing things on a global scale, Web services are simply a standardised way of passing a wide variety of information and processes between different systems.

ZDNet's David Berlind calls Web services nothing more than a fancy name for a "big honking API (application programming interface)". All that really exists at the moment for Web services is a few protocols, such as XML, SOAP, WSDL, and UDDI, and the idea that these can be used to enhance machine-to-machine communications.

And this is most likely the reason that the hype surrounding them is so rampant, and why people like Sun One's VP Marge Breya can make claims that Web services could be "the fundamental change of this century". There has been no significant implementation yet to prove (or disprove) their worth.

There's no doubt about it--the potential is there. Defined in an IBM introduction, Web services are "technologies [that] consist of a model for exchanging XML information, a language for describing services, a language for describing workflow between business partners, and a directory for finding new business partners, respectively.

Together, they enable Web services, a powerful new model for creating e-business applications from reusable software modules supported on the Web."

So where are they?

All right, so we have the "model" but do we have the applications that take advantage of Web services? Have they taken off?

As tech writer Eric Knorr has observed, they haven't even left the hangar yet. One way IBM is going about speeding things up is with its jStart program.

The jStart team "works on small, short-term deliverables that represent the core of a client's Web services needs, and works to train the client's development team to bring them up to speed quickly."

If one were a cynic, I suppose one could read that to mean that the company is hoping businesses will do the hard work of coming up with the killer "services" for them--much like Microsoft is currently doing with its .NET My Services (see "Straight to the Source" in the January 2002 issue of T&B).

Well I won't be a cynic this time. I spoke to IBM representatives not long ago about some of the activities of the jStart team (appropriately enough, it stands for "jump-start") and was impressed by some of the projects they had come up with.

One involved a moving company which had come up with a system, using Web services, of tracking moving trucks around the US, determining when they were making empty return runs, and liaising with other trucking companies to see if these trucks could be used to carry goods on those runs.

And it's examples like these that will make other businesses begin to look at how they might use the capabilities that Web services give to make their own workflows more efficient.

Web services may be hype now, but as long as we don't get sucked by the marketing madness, and as long as the actual services are not those dictated to us by people who don't understand the business, they might just have the potential to have a singnificant impact on the way we do business.

Brian Haverty is Editor-in-Chief of Technology & Business. Reach him at brian.haverty@ zdnet.com.au.

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