Next-Gen Web Services: Applications take flight

Attempting to drill beneath pre-packaged application concepts from vendors and beyond the oft-cited benefits of integration, panelists here at InfoWorld's Next-Gen Web Services II: The Applications conference explored real-world deployments of user-centric Web services applications to leverage existing investments and create new business models and application opportunities.

According to Ed Anuff, chief strategy officer at enterprise portal vendor Epicentric Inc., despite the proliferation of tools, today's Web services are still focused on low-level machine-to-machine communications.

"The challenge we face is how to build user-centric applications meant to be deployed to employees, customers, and partners," he said.

SOAP is a solid technology addressing the challenge of machine-to-machine communications, but it only solves the application integration pain point, according to Anuff. What's neglected is interactive application experiences, he said.

Two new standards initiatives, WSRP (Web Services for Remote Portals) and WSIA (Web Services for Interactive Applications), will play an important role over the next year in removing proprietary interfaces to access channels such as portals, Anuff said.

"Portals represent a key integration point to end-users. The portlet is the touch point, [but] it can't be vendor-specific in order for it to be viable," Anuff said.

Despite the fact that standards issues are still being hammered out, many organizations are already leveraging Web services to gain better access to legacy data and improve information sharing with partners and customers.

The state of New Mexico is currently using Web services to squeeze value out of its abundance of legacy and mainframe systems, according to Bob Stafford, CIO of the state of New Mexico.

"We have a tremendous amount of legacy applications from mainframes to client/server [systems], and we don't have the money to change them out," Stafford said. "We can't write new applications, we need to use Web services to [make use of the legacy data]," he said.

Citing frustration with the Web services protocol UDDI, Stafford said the state of New Mexico is developing its own directory store combining Web services and LDAP to provide secure access to online files and information.

"Waiting on a standard is like watching paint dry. If there is an alternative that can do 99 percent of what I need to do, I'll go with that," Stafford said.

Amazon.com, meanwhile, is using Web services to expose its internal services, such as search and related product information, to partners, according to Neil Roseman, vice president of eCommerce Services at Amazon.com.

"We are using our internal services to help external partners via Web services," he said.

Web services are also being used to stitch together stovepipe applications at the Princeton Review, which has three lines of business with independent data sets behind each.

"We are [exposing] these data sets though Web services so we can share info across those systems," said Curtis Brown, CTO at Princeton Review.

Furthermore, Web services allow the company to extend proprietary applications into a framework that makes interfaces more usable and more cost effective, Brown said.

Amazon.com is committed to using open-source tools such as SOAP::Lite so the company can remain completely open at the interface layer, according to Roseman.

"A key part of our service is allowing others to innovate on our service. Our goal is to make it easy to consume our service," Roseman said.

For Ask Jeeves, Web services are removing development hurdles from accessing search results, according to Jeremy Rosenblatt, CTO of Ask Jeeves.

"Today we use [an internal] database to get search results. Web services let us get those on the fly from the best source without the development challenges we face today," Rosenblatt said.

In addition to extending mainframe applications, the state of New Mexico also is using Web services to roll out end-user-focused applications such as online drivers license and car registration renewal. Moreover, New Mexico is eyeing Web services to meet deadlines with HIPPA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), Stafford said.

Although most panelists said they had not encountered any major disasters or disappointments with Web services application development, some voiced concerns about the relative immaturity of the technology and underlying issues with security.

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