Web services is starting to pay early dividends for some companies, but the big payoff is still two or three years down the road. By then, Web services will be the standard for doing business with customers, suppliers, and partners.
Right now, the trick is separating reality from fantasy. With that in mind, here are five big myths and facts about Web services that can help guide you from illusion to truth.
Myth No. 1: Web services is brand new.
Fact: Web services is the distillation of knowledge and experience gained from decades of working with distributed technologies. Essentially, Web-services technologies allow businesses to share the information they have stored in their computer applications with other applications in the company or with those run by customers, suppliers and partners. By connecting these processes online, companies can significantly increase the efficiency--and thus lower the cost--of running their enterprise.
Information technology companies have been developing and refining enterprise-related software virtually since the beginning of the computer age. That's why it's more accurate to say that Web services is an important step in the evolution of IT, rather than something brand new.
Myth No. 2: Web services has so many shortcomings, such as security, that it will prove to be a disruptive element in an organization's IT efforts.
Fact: Actually, organizations are moving toward Web services because IT operations can be so disruptive so much of the time today. Applications don't work well together; communication with customers, suppliers and partners is done with a broad range of different technologies; and it's hard to upgrade one program or move it to a different platform without changing everything else--those are the IT headaches so many of us face today. Web services has evolved to address these problems as companies try to integrate their IT functions.
Does this mean that security and privacy concerns have disappeared? Absolutely not. But within the next one to two years, Web services software will have built-in support for secure communications within and between organizations.
Myth No. 3: Interoperability will never happen. We've all got to have the same operating system to make Web services work best.
Fact: Web services exists because interoperability is not only possible; it's happening on IT systems every hour of every day. Interoperability is managed through middleware, software that allows applications to run and communicate on multiple operating systems. The adoption of open standards by more and more companies means that this middleware will allow IT systems to interact seamlessly, no matter what operating systems or applications are used.
You should have the freedom of choice to run your software on the operating systems and hardware platforms that are most appropriate and cost-effective for you. The world is heterogeneous; buying into Web services technology is better than buying into a single vendor's operating system for all your supposed needs.
Does this mean that interoperability is a walk in the park? Again, absolutely not. That's why the Web Services Interoperability Organization (WS-I) exists: We need to make sure we have best practices for standards that are based on real-world experience. Given some time, we'll get to the point where everyone has the technology to communicate in a standards-based manner with everyone else, and we'll wonder what all the fuss was about.
Myth No. 4: Getting Web services means getting rid of all your current software and developing new programming languages to handle the Tower of Babel you're going to face.
Fact: This is no more true than Myth No. 3. When we log on to the Internet for personal use, we don't think about whether our software will be compatible with whatever is on the other end of our web browsers. The important standards work at the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) made this happen for the Internet.
Why should this not be true for business applications as well? Companies and organizations around the world are cooperating on standards and programming languages, such as Java, that can enable all software, including older applications, to interoperate productively on the Web and to be upgraded or transitioned rather than "ripped and replaced."
There are honest differences of opinion on how all of this should be accomplished, but overriding the differences is a spirit of cooperation driven by an industry desire to make Web services work. That's why the important Web services work in the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) and the W3C is proceeding so well.
Myth No. 5: Web services is the endgame--the goal we're aiming toward.
Fact: That makes as much sense as saying in the 1920s that a propeller-driven airplane that could get us across the Atlantic nonstop should be the goal of aviation. Sure it's fun to develop cool new technologies, but there needs to be business or societal value in their release to the public. The age of IT and the Internet is in its childhood; we have no idea what the kid's going to look like when it fully matures.
What we do know, however, is that Web services is a crucial stage in IT's evolution. Web services accomplishes at least two things: It enables companies to make their operations more cost-effective by linking them online in more consistent ways, and it obliges the IT industry to cooperate on open standards in order to meet the needs of the business world.
Web services may not be the end of IT's journey, but if it accomplishes those objectives, it's a pretty important milestone along the way.
Bob Sutor, IBM's director of Web services, has a doctorate in mathematics from Princeton University. He taught college-level math before he began at IBM in his early 20s.