CTO FORUM - Starting small is key to software as a service

The idea of linking companies' business infrastructures via Web services is a grand notion, but many of the vendors helping build the tools to make this vision a reality insisted that companies need to start small and first build services within their own organizations before opening their technology to others.

Massive hurdles around security, interoperability and aligning IT goals with business plans must be overcome to make delivering software as a service feasible and cost effective, said a panel of industry experts here Tuesday at the CTO Forum industry conference. The best way to deal with many of these issues is to take an introspective look at how the IT manager's own company can benefit from linking its applications and data on a modest scale, the panel largely agreed.

"I think we need to start making some distinctions in the types of services we are talking about," said Jon Bosak, online Information Technology Architect at Sun Microsystems Inc., during the panel discussion. "The technology we have is a first step, but it's not everything we need for B-to-B (business-to-business) services."

Web services are a much talked-about topic in the IT world, with vendors scrambling to develop consistent, simple ways to exchange information among their companies and open up new methods of doing business. While definitions of Web services vary widely, they could be used to link, for example, a user's online calendar with a travel provider, for an automatic schedule update service; on a larger scale, Web services could be used to join a manufacturer's supply chain software with its suppliers, allowing them to receive and bid on real-time component price quotes.

The panel, however, warned that advanced Web services will require companies to find ways to securely open up part of their networks to partners and to make tough decisions as to how much of their information they are willing to share. In addition, IT divisions and business units will have to work more closely than ever before to make sure that reliable software services can meet the financial goals of a company.

"The business pain and costs of inefficient processes is very high," said John Blair, president and chief executive officer of communications software-maker Kenamea Inc., during the panel discussion. "The challenge is that business process integration has been solved pretty well within the firewall, but now we need to move that over the Net."

The biggest obstacles to linking a company's software services to a partner's system infrastructure is finding a way to secure information that goes out past the firewall. Standards bodies are working to come up with answers to these problems, but even the widely used SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) messaging protocol must still be forced through a firewall in an insecure way, the panel said.

"The only way (to build Web services) is if we can address the security holes," Blair said.

Companies need to start within their own organization and first link disparate business units with shared software services. Once a company has refined its policies for this internal communication, it can begin to think about connecting into a partner's infrastructure.

Blair did provide one example of a relatively large-scale Web service, where several investment banks were able to share secure information across their back-end systems; this provided some encouragement that software-as-services can be implemented now. Still, Blair reiterated that the "low hanging fruit" must be taken care of first before massive projects are taken on.

The panel group warned that protocols and standards for building Web services are still evolving and could take years to reach the level of security and ease of use needed to build complex services.

Other members of the panel included Robert Flannigan, chief technology officer at Divine Inc., Imad Mouline, chief technology officer at S1 Corp. and Dale Skeen, chief technology officer at Vitria Technology Inc.

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