The 5 Biggest Myths about Developing Web Services

As 2003 proceeds, the trick for developers will be to tell the difference between myth and reality. In this special column for IDN from Bob Sutor, director of IBM's Web Services Strategy, Bob gives developers a perspective on how standards work being conducted by IBM, Microsoft, and others is designed to empower -- not confuse -- developers. Bob also helps de-FUD the topic of "What can be done now?"

Tags: Web Services, Technology, Standards, Interoperability, Business, Applications, Platforms,

Director of Web Services Strategy, IBM

Two-and-a-half years into the evolution of web services, and the hype surrounding this technology has become deafening. The good news is that developers are already finding that web services technology is starting to pay early dividends for some companies.

While the big payoff is still two or three years down the road, there is a great deal of momentum in the standards communities and in tools and language development to empower developers to make web services 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 technology is brand new, and developers will face time-consuming challenges.
Fact: 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 technology is an important step in the evolution of IT, rather than something brand new. For example, the Business Process Execution Language for Web Services is a new language that leverages lower level web services standards, but it also based on solid industry experience on workflow that goes back over a decade.

Web services technology is the distillation of knowledge and experience gained from decades of working with distributed technologies. Essentially, web services technologies will allow businesses to share the information they have stored in their applications with other applications in the company or with those run by customers, suppliers and partners, regardless of the platform(s) on which they run. By connecting these processes online, companies can significantly increase the efficiency -- and thus lower the cost -- of running their enterprise.

Myth No. 2: Adopting Web services means getting rid of all my current software and developing new programming languages.
Fact: When we log on to the Internet for personal use, we don't think about whether our web browser will be compatible with whatever server is on the other end of our web browsers. The important standards development work at the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and at the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) 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 development of standard XML schemas for their domains, based on the technologies that underlie web services; WSDL, SOAP and XML Schema. Additionally, technologies such as the Java Connector Architecture (JCA) are enabling standardized, web services-based access to all software, including existing business applications such as those provided by SAP, PeopleSoft and Siebel. As these standards and technologies mature, they will allow businesses to interoperate productively on the Web without the need to rip-and-replace existing application systems.

There are honest differences of opinion on how all of this should be accomplished, but the industry is overcoming these differences in a spirit of cooperation driven by an overriding industry desire to ensure the success of web services. That's why the important web services work in the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS), Web Services Interoperability Organization (WS-I), and the W3C is proceeding so well.

Myth No. 3: Web services have too many shortcomings, such as lack of security, to spend any real time with now. In fact, a web services project could just disrupt my current development projects.
Fact: Organizations are moving toward Web services because managing and integrating IT applications across different platforms is disruptive. Today's applications don't necessarily work well together. Communication with customers, suppliers and partners is done with a broad range of different, often proprietary, technologies. It's hard to upgrade one program, integrate it with another on a different platform, or move it to a different platform without changing everything else -- those are the IT headaches so many of us face.

Web services technology is evolving rapidly to address these problems as companies try to integrate their IT functions. Actually, much of the necessary standards development that will help make web services work is well underway within OASIS and the W3C. In fact, the W3C recently announced that the XML Encryption Syntax and Processing specification has been published as a W3C Recommendation. Additionally, early access versions of the emerging Web Services Security standard are being tested to ensure interoperability across platforms.

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. Much of the necessary standards development work is well underway within OASIS and the W3C, and early access versions of the technologies are being tested to ensure interoperability across platforms.

Myth No. 4: Interoperability will never happen -- even with web services..
Fact: Web services exists because interoperability is already happening on IT systems every hour of every day. It just needs to be made easier.

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.

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. We'll all use standards like WSDL and UDDI in a consistent way, and future updates to the standards will be driven by the best practices coming out of WS-I.

Myth No. 5: Web services is the endgame, and vendors aren't much interested in opening up the process to developers or open standards.
Fact: Sure, it's fun to develop cool new technologies, but they need to offer business or societal value. 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 grows up.

Web services is a crucial stage in IT's evolution, accomplishing at least two advances: (1) They will enable companies to make their operations more cost-effective by linking them online in more consistent ways, and (2) They oblige 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.