Web services redefines e-business: IBM

IBM is sending its Web services message out to the region this week. With open standards and Internet based infrastructures, the Big Blue believes Web services will be the next generation e-business technology.
Written by Thomas Chen, Contributor
Big Blue was recently in a flurry of activity to get its Web services message out to analysts, customers and partners alike. In particular, the technology giant is positioning Web services solutions as the next-generation e-business technology.

“What we’re calling Web services is just a continuation of what we call e-business now,” said Robert Sutor, IBM’s director of e-business standards strategy.

Sutor was in Singapore briefly to speak on Web services at the Internet Business 2001 convention. Aside from his visit, the company is also organizing a series of seminars around the region to spread the word about Web services as e-business.

Web services promise to connect businesses to businesses in a way that is cheaper and more efficient than than ever before. Built on eXtensible Markup Language (XML), the technology makes use of the Internet to connect information systems of organizations directly with only a layer of ‘Web services’ acting as the infrastructure in between. Information, and even directives for actions, can be exchanged between two companies’ computer systems without any human intervention involved, said Sutor.

In a scenario depicted by Sutor, a manufacturer’s internal system detects the depletion of a particular part and transmits the information to a supplier, whose system then automatically updates the information, fills out the order and initiates delivery. At the moment, the technology is likely to be most useful in industries where information exchange and co-ordination between companies are a routine exercise. An example is the finance sector.

All the major software vendors have announced Web services initiatives of their own over the past year. Sun, although criticized for being late, announced its Open Net Environment (ONE) plan this May; Microsoft’s .Net initiative is well known and well publicized; and BEA released its WebLogic e-business platform earlier this year. They don’t always sound like they are talking about the same thing, however, as product development and positioning often differ from vendor to vendor.

According to Sutor, the key to building Web services is in setting down the framework of standards that facilitates automated connections.

“Web services are about establishing the infrastructure with a regular set of standards so that businesses can say, ‘this is what I do, this is how I will advertise it, this is how people can find me, and this is how people can connect to me securely and reliably,’” said Sutor.

IBM itself began offering Web services products in a big way this May when the company announced its WebSphere version 4.0. That version included Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP), Web Services Description Language (WSDL), and Universal Description, Discovery and Integration (UDDI) -- three infrastructure pieces that, according to the company, are crucial to Web services.

The solution was adopted by eBay last week in a partnership agreement. IBM was quick to tout the move as a major win for Web services.

“As e-businesses such as eBay increase transactions and link operations with other enterprises, integrating disparate computing and business applications becomes critical,” said IBM’s chief operating officer Samuel J Palmisano. “An open, robust infrastructure built around a common set of ‘Web services’ will enable this next phase of e-business.”

Web services functionalities, however, are not a core feature of the eBay implementation. The WebSphere server will be used in eBay’s V3 project, an upgrade program that the Internet auction company expects will last 16 months. WebSphere’s role will mostly be in back-end integration and in-house development functions. Nevertheless, IBM believes that Web services capabilities are key to eBay adopting the solution.

Web services technology, however, is still relatively young. Even IBM does not have all the pieces ready yet in its Web services technological stack. Noticeably missing are pieces dealing with workflow and business processes. Business processes are standards of practices a particular industry or company uses that define inter-business procedures and relationships. These processes can take years to establish and are not easily encapsulated in technological solutions.

In industries where there already are standards for business processes, the issue is simpler. An example cited by Sutor involves a recent implementation at Storbrand, a finance and insurance company based in the US. In this case, data was translated into XML format according to standards established by an insurance industry group, ACORD.

According to Sutor, business processes and workflow issues will become prominent for Web services in the coming months.

“(Toward the end of this year and into the next), business processes and workflow are going to be very important. That is, again, how do you piece together all these little processes, so there is a logic involved,” said Sutor.

Reliability, security, privacy, non-repudiation and quality of services are other important Web services components that can be expected to be developed over the next year.

Despite these missing pieces, however, Sutor believes Web services are the most effective applications of Internet and XML technology.

“It took a while for people to understand that the real sweet spot, the real thing that was going to do it for XML is the exchange of business information,” said Sutor. “Any time you’ve got different pieces that want to communicate with one another, this is a possible application.”

Web services components in WebSphere 4.0

(Simple Object Access Protocol)
A transfer protocol finalized last year by World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The protocol is still being developed and newer version is expected to be announced laster this year. This is the set of standards that wrap around a message as it is being sent. It provides descriptions of what is in a message, how it should be handled and who should handle it.
(Web Services Description Language
This is the piece that describes the interface that an organization uses for external connections. It gives external partners an idea of how they could communicate with an organization's system, how the messages should look and what they should do.
(Universal Description, Discovery and Integration)
The publishing piece for Web services. This is where businesses can publish information on the products and services they offer, where they offer them and how the firms can be contacted.

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