Flamenco Networks offers plug-and-play Web services

Although major vendors such as Sun Microsystems, IBM, Microsoft, and Hewlett-Packard (HP) are still aggressively promoting Web services, the struggle over standardization continues to create openings for smaller, third-party vendors.

The latest entry comes from Flamenco Networks Inc. of Alpharetta, Ga., which on Tuesday unveiled a new solution that eliminates the custom coding required for Web services. The company's Web Services Network acts as a broker, allowing companies to simply plug their existing applications into the Internet.

"It's a buy versus build approach," said John Hanger, Flamenco's chief marketing officer.

Flamenco's Web Services Network consists of two components: a proxy, in the form of a 150KB piece of code, that plugs into a company's Web server, and a centralized network management system that is available at Flamenco's Web site.

Customers can access the system to configure the dual-endpoint links, which include Web service definitions and assignments that determine which endpoint is the requester and which is the provider. Once defined, the endpoint information is transmitted from Flamenco's management site to the respective endpoint proxies, thereby adding intelligence that allows the proxies to communicate peer-to-peer when a Web service invocation is intercepted at the Web server.

Moreover, companies can use Flamenco to meter and bill for their Web services based on such metrics as the number of times the services are invoked and how much data they handle. The information can further be used to trigger real-time alerts to network administrators when problems are imminent.

InfoPrag, a systems integrator with headquarters in Las Vegas, has been testing the Flamenco solution to extend ERP services, such as supply-chain applications, to its customers. The company has already realized the benefits of Flamenco's simplicity, according to Tim Reimer, InfoPrag's president.

"There are different ways of doing [Web services], but it's just too complicated," Reimer said. "There are complications from a licensing perspective, and you have to get your partners to agree on everything. Now, we don't have to write our own Web services anymore. If we can take advantage of [Flamenco's] services and environment, that's fantastic."

For that very reason, some observers believe that Flamenco's play could signal a big step in the maturation of Web services.

"The issues that [Flamenco is] addressing are important to making Web services work," said Jamie Lewis, an analyst at the Burton Group. "It's hard enough to test and manage a distributed application within a large corporation, but taking an application across corporate boundaries and spanning multiple vendors' products and platforms are huge issues. And Microsoft and Sun aren't addressing that core network management issue."

Lewis added that Flamenco's play makes sense because the Internet must develop a software backplane that applications can plug into. Much attention has been paid to protocols and languages such as UDDI (Universal Description, Discovery, and Integration) and SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol), but services for guaranteed delivery and security management are equally critical, Lewis said.

He also echoed the oft-heard refrain that more standardization is needed for Web services to take off, adding that Flamenco's approach might eventually become a cornerstone of Web services methodologies.

"Ultimately, the kinds of things that Flamenco and its competitors are doing need to become part of the standard way the network works," he said. "There's always going to be an interest in a service provider that can help people set up and manage connections with customers and suppliers."

Flamenco is not alone in taking up the idea of networked Web services. One firm, Grand Central Networks of San Francisco, launched a similar service in mid June that lets companies partner with one another for Web-based business transactions. But unlike Flamenco's caching and peer-to-peer approach, Grand Central's solution routes all application traffic across the Grand Central network.

"Any time there's been a many-to-many collaboration problem, it's invariably been solved by a shared infrastructure," said Craig Donato, Grand Central's CEO. "The phone system didn't take off until the public switching network was created."

But to many observers, despite the two solutions' architectural differences and the potential problem of Flamenco users being unable to connect to GrandCentral users neither solution is necessarily better or worse than the other.

"It's not a case of one being evil, wrong, and ugly, and the other being goodness and light," Lewis said. "Some people will favor the peer-to-peer approach, and some will favor a more centralized approach."

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