Waiting for the haze to clear

While industry vendors climb over one another to get to the top of the Web services heap, users are opting for caution until critical technology and business issues are resolved.

Concerns about hazy pricing and potential interoperability problems have surfaced as vendors dash to differentiate themselves in the standards race. But far and away the biggest question looms over security.

"There's nothing about Web services that solves security," said Daryl Plummer, an analyst at Gartner. A new framework for security "has to come for Web services to make people feel comfortable."

Stumbling blocks or not, major vendors this month plugged Web services and plowed full-steam ahead with initiatives. Last week, Microsoft heralded the second beta of Visual Studio.NET and the .NET Framework, its tools for building Web services. Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates described Visual Studio.NET as the centerpiece development product of the .NET strategy.

Sun Microsystems recently unveiled Sun Open Net Environment and last week teamed with Oracle to offer a kit for moving Windows code, data, and applications to Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE). Lotus Development embraced the model by unveiling Workflow 3.0 to offer a graphical system for managing business processes that integrate with standards-compliant Web-based applications.

Debuting at last week's DevCon show, the Workflow upgrade includes support for Java APIs, XML, and other standards, allowing developers to easily build Internet-based workflow applications. Available this fall, Workflow will also offer Lotus Sametime instant messaging and support for Linux.

Lotus parent company IBM and Hewlett-Packard are also on board with the WebSphere application server and Core Services Framework, respectively.

Analysts say that momentum is building but that users have time to sort through the hype and discover how Web services can benefit them.

"We see this as the next shift. It's hype today, but this is the seed," said Mark Driver, an analyst at Gartner. "We'll see an explosion of Web services, mostly within the firewall, next year with the release of Visual Studio .NET."

Behind the growing interest in Web services are the promises of cost savings in application development as well as more powerful e-business interactions when business processes are exposed. The model has already attracted many enterprises to set up limited systems as they wait for Web services to evolve.

Ahead of the curve, Dollar Rent A Car Systems has been one of the early adopters of Web services. The company set up a link from Southwest Airlines' Web site to Dollar's reservation system using Microsoft's SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) Toolkit and a Windows 2000 Server. Visitors can now rent a car from Dollar without leaving Southwest's site.

The link has been successful, and Dollar is looking to use Web services for internal projects, said Larry Zucker, Dollar's executive director of application development. But questions about security hamper the framework's potential, Zucker said.

"I might say I want to open up my system to anyone, but I'm not going to let them in too far," Zucker said. "If we expose Web services that would allow a company to book a car, fine."

The company is hesitant to deploy a more public, Internet-based framework that could expose company applications to competitors or hackers. "With Southwest, we had a dialogue first [before forming the link]," Zucker noted.

Likewise, CSE Insurance is developing, through e-business ASP (application service provider) Avinon, an Internet-based insurance rating system for its agents, said David Brinker, the company's CIO.

CSE currently uses a rating package that is distributed to its agents, Brinker said. When an online rating system is installed, the company will give its agents digital certificates, according to Brinker. "The first step for us is to use Web services to integrate the system we created," he said.

Brinker envisions an expanded rating service but said security concerns now preclude it. "We haven't got applications close to solving the problems," he explained.

Jonas Berggen, manager of IT architecture at SAS Airlines in Stockholm, Sweden, agreed that security is a top concern. SAS is using .NET tools and servers to enhance the booking and travel-status online services it offers, which are accessed by disparate devices and integrated with partners running on a variety of platforms.

The inability of Web services to solve security questions thus far limits its deployment, Gartner's Plummer said. Until a new security framework is in place "we think the biggest growth in Web services will be in private exchanges -- trading behind the firewall and not worrying about the public Internet," he added.

The standards debate remains another unresolved Web services issue. XML, UDDI (Universal Description, Discovery, and Integration), SOAP, and WSDL (Web Services Description Language) "are the Four Horsemen of Web services; everybody loves them," said Dana Gardner, an analyst at Aberdeen Group Inc. in Boston. But the evolution of the standards will parallel what has occurred in other technologies in that "there will be less agreement as people look for differentiation," Gardner added.

As Web services become more prevalent, customer ownership concerns will be more pressing, said Niall O'Cleirigh, CEO of Macalla Software, a mobile computing middleware vendor for financial services.

Macalla helped the Amsterdam, Netherlands-based mobile operator Telfort and retail bank Postbank Nederland deliver free Internet-enabled mobile phones with prepaid service. The phones provide access to Postbank's financial services and will enable as many as 500,000 bank customers to add prepaid services via a mobile Internet portal, O'Cleirigh said. The microbrowser-based transaction service is supported by a Sun 10000-level server. "There's a lot of discussion [about] who owns the customer and the customer relationship," O'Cleirigh said. "That issue hasn't been resolved."

Another concern is the lack of a pricing structure, which should be based on users, servers, or subscriptions similar to the ASP model, said Sunny Wong, the managing director at Component One, a tools vendor for Microsoft's Web services environment.

Additional reporting by Eugene Grygo and Cathleen Moore.

Core standards:

Several developing standards will make Web services possible. These four are the foundation.

* XML currently available.

* WSDL (Web Services Description Language) Version 1.1.

* SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) Version 1.1.

* UDDI (Universal Description, Discovery, and Integration) Version 2 announced last week; Microsoft and IBM have live UDDI registries

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