Users ramping up Web services

While the concept of Web services interests users, many are just starting to cut through the vendor hype surrounding the technology to see how they can turn it to their advantage.

Microsoft, IBM, Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard are some of the companies pushing Web services, which in essence would pull together information from different sources internally and externally over the Internet.

Web services are based on four central standards: XML, Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP), Universal Description, Discovery and Integration (UDDI) and Web Services Description Language (WSDL).

UDDI is universal registry of e-business resources for corporations. WSDL attempts to standardise how a Web service and its provider are described. SOAP transports XML-formatted messages from one business application to another over the Web.

For example, a company building an e-commerce site could integrate credit card authorisation into its site.

Attendees at SD Web Services World recently tried to figure out how Web services would benefit them.

Keith Ehrhard, group manager at H&R Block, says the definitions of how Web services fits in business-to-business and business-to-consumer e-commerce needs to be clarified.

"We'll likely use [Web services] for B2C... I understand it from the perspective of B2B, but I'm having trouble with how Web services fit into an internal organisation," Ehrhard says. He expects the financial company to implement Web services to share customer information among various units in the next two to three years.

H&R Block's potential approach to using Web services internally is one that many businesses will probably implement, according to a recent report from Jupiter Media Metrix. Of 471 IT executives, 60 per cent of companies expect to use Web services for internal applications, such as retrieving customer information from a customer relationship management system or passing transactions from front-office systems to back-office systems, Jupiter says.

The survey also says 53 per cent of companies will deploy Web services to interact with existing suppliers and partners for conducting credit checks or authorising credit card transactions. Jupiter expects businesses to ramp up implementations of Web services in the next 18 to 24 months.

Businesses are also questioning the security of Web services, specifically finding the right balance between exposing their information to partners and suppliers and protecting their assets. Simon Phipps, chief technology evangelist at Sun, says security concerns will be solved by how they use Web services, whether it's offering software through the Internet or replacing Corba or DCOM.

"Security is a generic issue; it's not specifically related to Web services," Phipps says. Businesses first have to decide how they're going to use Web services, and from there they will add in the necessary steps. "If it's software over the Web, then they'll build in security measures such as Secure Socket Layer."

Even though there is confusion surrounding Web services, users believe they will save time doing tasks and inevitably cut costs.

Tom Maher, an independent software developer, says his former employer took 14 months to fine-tune a system to automatically download invoices and other data from Citibank Canada.

"[Web services] would have helped out with the timing and coding," Maher says. "We couldn't find anyone to talk to at Citibank... We went through four to five people until we found the right [one] who knew what we were talking about."

It took weeks for Maher to track down the correct person to speak to, but with Web services his former company could have connected to Citibank through an XML interface, cutting the project's time down significantly, he added.

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