Web services inside the firewall

XML and Web services aren't just external e-commerce tools - they can also revolutionise the way in which internal applications are stitched together

Business at NGK hasn't changed much in 25 years. Orders for the company's spark plugs and electrical components arrive by post and fax at the head office in Hemel Hempstead, just outside London. These orders are processed by admin staff, and the goods are shipped to customers across the UK and Europe. Once the order has been sent, staff print up an invoice, and put it in the post.

In the last six months there's been something of a revolution at the spark-plug manufacturer. A growing number of orders now arrive electronically and are automatically entered into the company's Geac 21 manufacturing software. Customers receive an automated order acknowledgement and, in some cases, an invoice is automatically issued and sent by email.

The technology behind this transformation is XML, which takes data from customers' procurement systems and translates it into a format that can be read by NGK's internal SAP and Geac applications. "The alternative for us would have been to use EDI or to buy expensive adapters to link the systems together," says IT manager Martin Segrue. "This technology was quicker, it's supported by our customers and partners, and it's cut the time taken to process orders in half."

Cheaper and faster with XML

Internet-based technologies such as XML and Web services could potentially revolutionise integration both inside and outside the company walls, says Andreas Bitterer, a vice-president with analyst Meta Group. "It's not necessarily that you can do new things you couldn't do before," says Bitterer. "It's more that these types of integration technologies make projects cheaper and faster, and so available to a wider range of organisations than before."

For example, when logistics company Bekins needed to integrate its logistics planning software with those of its partners, Web services provided high levels of integration at a fraction of the cost of comparable EDI links. The integration layer was built in Java on IBM Websphere, which integrates with the planning software running on the company's IBM mainframe. Partner agencies can now access the application online to buy and sell spare capacity in transportation lorries and container shipments.

Case study: Beaumont Hospital

Like most hospitals, the Beaumont in Dublin faces a constant battle to improve patient care and reduce waiting times. Unlike most hospitals, however, the Beaumont is using enterprise integration based on Web services technology to speed up processes such as consulting appointments and the delivery of lab results.

The hospital recently completed the rollout of an integration platform based on BEA Weblogic, which ties together the hospital's laboratories and booking systems with GP's patient records, over the Internet. The aim is to provide secure, two-way communication between GPs and the hospital, explains Tony Kenny, the hospital's IT manager. "The benefit of integration for us is simply releasing people from the tyranny of playing phone tag," he says. "Making the process asynchronous means we can automate processes and save that wasted time."

The integration layer is based on JCA standards, which was important to the Beaumont. "We knew that other organisations were starting to look at Web-based communication, and this would enable people to build their systems to the same standards as us," says Kenny. "It means we don't have to worry about their systems, which we have no control over, just to provide them with a browser front-end they can use."

Like building with Lego

Adapting to a service-oriented architecture isn't easy, Kenny says. "It's like going from building a solid wall brick by brick to building with Lego bricks that can be put up in loads of different ways," he says. "We wasted a lot of time trying to convert files into the HP format we'd used before; until the consultant told us we didn't need to if we presented the information as a service call. It seems obvious now but it's a totally new way of thinking." Other stumbling blocks included hooking the integration server up to the hospital's HP 3000 server ("a lovely bit of technology, just happens to be 25 years old," says Kenny).

With the system live, the hospital now has a working messaging infrastructure that is being extended to allow doctors to book operating theatres. The groundwork done already makes this process very simple, says Kenny. "Previously, provisioning something like that would take two months, but now we can do it with Web services, connect it in a very straightforward way, and it takes a few days."


Vendors mis-selling Web services
So what exactly defines Web services? Basically, if your company is using XML, WSDL and Soap, then it's building Web services. If it isn't, then you're doing something else entirely, says Nathaniel Martinez, a programme manager with IDC. "Many companies saw Web services as more expensive than they really were, because vendors are mis-selling the technology," he says.

The first steps to building Web services involve the development environment and tools to build the components themselves. Here, enterprises can choose one of two routes. Microsoft's .Net offering is Visual Studio .Net, or there's the J2EE option favoured by BEA, Sun Microsystems and IBM. BEA's Weblogic 7.0, for example, ships with "Web Services Workshop", which is an add-on that helps companies develop new Web services in a visual environment. Development tools can cost anywhere from $10 to $1,000 per concurrent user. 

Not always cheap and cheerful

Once your developers have created the Web service components, you will need an infrastructure to deploy, provision and manage the services themselves. For Microsoft users, this means Windows .Net Server. For Java users, it means an application server from a vendor such as BEA, Sun or IBM. These application servers can be used to integrate Java-compatible applications using the Java 2 Enterprise Edition Connector Architecture (JCA).

But not all Web services integration projects are necessarily cheap and cheerful. In some cases, the additional development and staff costs associated with Web services can make the project just as expensive as a traditional EAI implementation, argues Chris Hayes, solutions manager with Sterling Commerce. "People who say that this is going to revolutionise integration are probably not doing their sums right," he says.

Research from Forrester backs up Hayes' point of view. The analyst group claims that a mid-sized organisation spending $150,000 on Web services applications could end up spending an additional $50,000 on staff and integration costs. While vendors claim an average deployment cost of $200,000 for a strategic Web service, Forrester puts the cost at a staggering $2.5m.