Sun Microsystems' entry into IBM and Microsoft’s WS-I (Web services interoperability) organization was widely interpreted as a good step towards industrywide cooperation.
But as a dazzling array of vendor-driven standards continues to emerge, a fresh set of machinations are proving that the battle for control of Web services standards remains alive and well between two camps: IBM and Microsoft on one side, Sun and to some extent Oracle on the other.
And where enterprises are concerned, the politics threaten to limit the choice of commonly available standards they rely on to drive down the development and support costs related to the integration of disparate systems across the Internet.
The areas in question range from security and transactions, via WS-Security and WS-Transactions, to business processes orchestration or choreography through both BPEL4WS (Business Process Execution Language for Web Services) and WSCI (Web Services Choreography Interface).
And in another twist, questions are now starting to surface over whether patent holders are entitled to royalties for use of their technology in standards implementations. Some fear intellectual property rights issues hovering over standardization could stifle the growth of Web services itself.
The issue reared its head most recently when IBM and Microsoft had declined to participate in the newly formed W3C Web Services Choreography Working Group. But then two Microsoft officials showed up at the initial meeting on March 13 at Oracle headquarters in Redwood Shores, Calif.
According to Steven VanRoekel, director of Web services at Microsoft in Redmond, Wash. , the two officials attended the meeting to determine the scope of the group's work pertaining to contract language, which is intended to establish communications between end points.
But Microsoft discontinued participation after finding out the group's work on contract language did not coincide with its own, VanRoekel said.
The companies have also battled over standards such as BPEL4WS, introduced by IBM, Microsoft, and BEA Systems, and WSCI, introduced by Sun and supported by BEA. The proposals are intended to support the back-end automation of Web services interaction for business processes.
While Sun has submitted WSCI to the W3C, BPEL4WS remains under its authors' jurisdiction.
As a result, some Sun and Oracle executives have accused IBM and Microsoft of not pursuing royalty-free Web services specifications. The W3C encourages royalty-free specifications, but its proposed policy allows for exceptions in special cases.
IBM and Microsoft, who were original authors of SOAP and WSDL, say the issue is not that simple.
IBM has not sought royalties for Web services technologies it has contributed but is considering each submission on a case-by-case basis, said Steve Holbrook, program director for emerging e-business standards at IBM in Orem, Utah .
Royalty-free specifications are a "pretty complicated issue," Holbrook said. "IBM is the biggest patent holder on the planet."
Holbrook promised that BPEL4WS, announced in August 2002, would be submitted to a standards organization in the short term.
IBM and BEA have said they would not seek royalties on BPEL4WS, but Microsoft has not announced its position.
IBM and Microsoft have announced a multitude of other Web services specifications, including WS-Security, WS-Transactions, and WS-Reliable Messaging, as part of a Web services architecture. WS-Security, for example, was published in April and later submitted to OASIS, Holbrook said.
Microsoft's VanRoekel said the company first takes specifications out to the IT community prior to submitting them to a standards organization. But he continued Microsoft's stance of not yet committing either way on BPEL4WS licensing.
Part of the problem the companies face is defining when proprietary specifications become standards.
According to OASIS President and CEO Patrick Gannon, there are a lot of proprietary specifications but practically no official standards for Web services. "The only standard is XML," he said.
But he stressed their importance. "If companies want to deploy Web services beyond a few close trading partners or internally, they can't do it without open standards," Gannon said.
SOAP, WSDL, and to a lesser extent, a directory specification now under OASIS jurisdiction, make up core so-called standards in Web services along with XML. The base SOAP and WSDL specifications provide for loosely coupled Web services, which ship data around but do not provide for more sophisticated tightly coupled services such as verification of transactions, said Eric Newcomer, vice president and chief architect at Iona in Waltham, Mass.
Newcomer is also editor of the W3C WS-Architecture specification, which is intended to determine a definition and scope for Web services. Further standardization is needed in areas such as security, transactions, and business process orchestration, he said.
"(SOAP and WSDL) are very good for loosely coupled data-oriented integration. They're not good for tightly coupled integration with high levels of quality requirements," Newcomer said.
Vendors industrywide have embraced SOAP and WSDL. But the higher level specifications are where industry technology leaders part ways.
Up to that point, many executives acknowledge the importance of finding some common ground.
"I think the customers have been clear to us that driving interoperability in Web services and doing that in terms of vendors getting together and developing quality specifications is Job (No. 1)," said Microsoft's VanRoekel.
"Really, the primary goal of Web services is interoperability, so in order to achieve interoperability, the entire Web services stack needs to be standardized through official standards bodies, whether its W3C, OASIS, or potentially another body that's working on interoperability profiles like WS-I," said Mark Hapner, Web services strategist for Sun Microsystems in Santa Clara, Calif.
Acknowledging the morass of proposed Web services standards and comparing the situation to e-mail, which also required multiple standards, Hapner said standards are needed to establish the right level of communication. "At each and every step, you need to end up with technology that can be incredibly useful," he said.
Fortunately for some enterprises, the debates have not stalled Web services projects.
An official at Fujitsu, which uses Web services both internally and in Proactnet, a network management application for telecommunications companies, cited the Rosettanet e-business process standards as important for establishing business semantics in Web services.
"It definitely solves a lot of problems because that's where all the work is going to be done (in) getting everybody to agree on what the meaning of the data is," said Mark Unak, vice president and chief architect at Fujitsu in Chicago . Fujitsu has deployed a Web services infrastructure utilizing AmberPoint Web services management software.
With the industry commitment at hand, the remaining issue is to balance the standards bodies' need for due process and what many see as the vendors' attempt to accelerate the process for commercial interest.
"Sooner or later, Web services, we believe, are going to become interoperable," WS-I Chairman Tom Glover said. "The issue is how fast and at what cost. Basically, we believe we're accelerating the process."
Michael Sperberg-McQueen, architecture leader for Web services activity at the W3C in Espanola, N.M. , believes that there is ultimately little substitute for complete interoperability. Had base Internet technologies such as TCP/IP required royalties, the Internet might not have grown as it has, he said. "I'm sure (Internet pioneer) Vinton Cert would be a very wealthy man, but I think the Internet would be very much smaller than it is."