Warning: Go slowly with Web services

Web services may be the next big thing, but a group of users, analysts and even Web services vendors acknowledged last week at a roundtable on the issue that significant barriers to using the technology remain.

Security concerns, interoperability, data trapped in legacy systems, inadequate networks, general confusion over how to use XML, the immaturity of current Web services protocols and slashed IT budgets were all cited as hurdles to using Web services. The message from those attending the first Boston Area Web Services Roundtable here: Be careful.

The lack of security is of concern to Dale Powers, enterprise data architect at Boston-based electricity distributor NStar Inc. He said that packaging XML functions in a document could create unforeseen tunnels through a corporate firewall. If security holes are regularly found in mature software, it's wise to be wary about emerging technologies such as Web services, Powers added.

Standards Doubts and Limits

And Powers is skeptical about the work being done on standards. Supporters "have formed an organization around the fact that we need to talk about standards," he said, referring to the Web Services Interoperability Organization. "They're going to have to do a bit more than that," he added.

Even Web services supporters see limits to the technology. "A lot of the information companies want resides in legacy back-end systems things like [IBM's] CICS and Cobol," said Steve Resnick, field consultant at Microsoft Corp. "That stuff is still hard to get at with Web services."

Fred Holahan, vice president of e-business integration products at SilverStream Software Inc. in Billerica, Mass., pointed out that many legacy systems are home-built, meaning that there's no vendor to supply a migration path for users.

Powers said NStar would only "experiment" with Web services rather than be an early adopter. That's largely because the company works in a highly regulated industry, where it's graded on the performance of its systems, he said.

Ted Schadler, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., said Web services could create a swarm of activity behind corporate firewalls. "Web services, in some situations, is like getting a Mack truck to deliver an envelope," he said.

While much of the focus on Web services has involved putting wrappers around data so that it can be sent, many have forgotten that the data must later be consumed, according to Mike Plusch, chief technology officer at Clear Methods Inc., a Web services developer in Cambridge, Mass.

"It doesn't do you a lot of good to build a wrapper if the applications don't match the data model of the receiver," he said. "Mapping data to your logic keeps biting people at the lowest, lowest levels."

Andy Roberts, CTO at Web applications developer Bowstreet Inc. in Portsmouth, N.H., noted that "users are still trying to figure out how to describe data in XML."

Yet all agreed that the use of Web services will increase and that the key will be to determine a way to use the still-immature technology appropriately rather than avoid it.

"The classic line is that systems integrators make a lot of money integrating systems," Schadler said. "If we can automate that integration and save ourselves that money, we win."

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