Web services open portal doors

As a single, easy-to-use entry point for employees, customers and business partners, portals have proved to be effective, if somewhat limited in their capabilities. Linking back-end applications to a portal, especially one outside the firewall for customers and partners, is tough integration work. However, Web services some of the hottest technologies on IT's horizon are beginning to upgrade the humble portal from a simple, personalized GUI view of limited applications to a vital hub for enterprise application integration.

Web services, such as XML wrappers, are standard ways in which one application presents data to another. They promise to ease the burden of application integration by providing a framework of industry standards.

"Web services will have a fundamental impact on how portals are provisioned over the next 24 months," says Hadley Reynolds, research director at The Delphi Group in Boston.

According to Reynolds, Web services resolve a dangerous limitation inherent in portal development today: the linking of back-end applications to a portal via proprietary software, variously called portlets, applets or gadgets. Such links are "an Achilles' heel, an accident waiting to happen," he says.

That's because portals built without industry-proven Web services will be mere tactical ventures, at best. At worst, they'll be bottlenecks that impede application integration because of built-in proprietary software hurdles.

Decision Points

The desire to design software around open standards helped drive the American Productivity & Quality Center's (APQC) decision on what tools to adopt in developing its portal. The Houston-based nonprofit, a co-founder of the Malcolm Baldridge Awards, made Web services one of the requirements in its request for proposals for a new portal.

"We did take standards into consideration. We made sure it was an open platform that we could build on," explains Farida Hasanali, program manager for knowledge sharing networks at the APQC.

She says it was "a very important factor" that the Enterprise Portal Suite her company purchased from Cambridge, Mass.-based Art Technology Group Inc. (ATG) used a Java implementation that follows the emerging Java Specification Request (JSR) 168 Portlet Specification being developed by the Java Community Process.

Hasanali says ATG's Java-based technology will make it easier for the 500 members of the APQC, which includes 450 of the Fortune 1,000 companies and major government agencies, to get better services on the portal, because linkage among services is easier. The use of the Java-based technology means that the data exchanges between applications don't need to be written in proprietary scripts, as is the case with most portals today.

For example, the APQC quickly rolled out personalization services, discussion threads, a calendar and a communities area for members on the portal, according to Hasanali. Once a developer learns to write XML wrappers or Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) interfaces, he can apply that knowledge throughout the programming process, cutting out the time it takes to learn and debug proprietary scripts or portlets.

More important, Hasanali says, "we can leverage the Web services in Java to also build out other areas of the site." A case in point is the APQC's e-store, where the organization sells its numerous white papers, industry surveys and other reports electronically, which cuts costs significantly, she says.

Since ATG's technology is based on Java, Hasanali's group's current portal project integrating APQC's conference registration into the Web site will be a snap, she says, because her staff is already Java-savvy. When the project is complete, the organization will get a better understanding of the demographics of conference-goers in near real time, enabling more targeted marketing efforts to increase conference attendance.

"It's a time and resource saver, as well as a potential moneymaker," Hasanali says.

Bottom Line, Top Line

Cutting costs or making sales is paramount among companies, and portals seem to be a way to do both, according to a recent report by Basex Inc., a New York-based research firm. In "Pure Portal Technology," a survey published last month, Basex analysts revealed that savings can reach up to 3.15 percent of annual revenues for midsize companies, "due to increased productivity, improved efficiency and lower management costs."

Keith Bearden, chief of information at A-dec Inc., a nearly US$200 million privately held maker of dental office furniture in Newberg, Ore., says his company is embarking on a portal that's aimed at helping its many dealers fill orders online. Currently, dealers must navigate through a catalog maze of A-dec's 2 billion options for its custom-made products. Each configuration is different, Bearden says, noting that of the 55,000 dental cabinets that A-dec made last year, no two were alike.

"Less than 20 percent of the dealer orders come in right the first time," he says. By walking dealers through sets of product choices online and eliminating the keyboard-input mistakes, A-dec can save significant amounts of time and money in not having to continually clarify orders.

Unlike Hasanali, Bearden says he isn't focused on industry standards in the Web services arena, mostly because he thinks they're inevitable. He says that going with a Web services approach to the portal is the right way to build for the future. But he's not biased in favor of Java or Microsoft Corp.'s rival .Net development environment, so he's delivering both kinds of Web services.

"The entrance into the portal is .Net-based," Bearden says. "Once inside the portal, the user will have various options related to applications and/or static information. The OrderNet application uses Microsoft Commerce Server as an engine, but the application is a Baan application and has some heavy Java as part of the application delivering up the product configurations and graphics."

Panacea or Potential?

These examples point to the momentum behind Web services in the portal market. But the technology has its limits.

In a report on Web services, market analysts at Hurwitz Group Inc. in Framingham, Mass., observed that "Web services can help solve some of the integration complexity, but it's not a panacea."

Critics say that as a back-end integration tool for portals, Web services remain point-to-point solutions until software developers across the application spectrum widely adopt Web services into their products. This makes long-term maintenance of the interfaces a management headache, which is compounded by the services' lack of the sophisticated oversight capabilities, such as component management, that are found in other development methodologies.

Garland Wong, chief technology officer at Kinzan Inc., a Carlsbad, Calif., provider of the JSR 168-compatible Adaptive Web Services Suite, agrees. He says it's unlikely that Web services, especially for intercompany purposes, will be showing up in a Universal Description, Discovery and Integration (UDDI) directory on the Web soon.

"We think that's a long way off," he says. Therefore, Kinzan has had to figure out how to get its Web services components to work with products from the dominant portal vendors, such as San Francisco-based Plumtree Software Inc. and San Clemente, Calif.-based Epicentric Inc.

And while Web services for portals bode well for the long term, Fumi Matsumoto, vice president of technology at ATG, says the different "dialects" within XML, the Web services standard for data formats, are a cause for concern for portal developers, especially those dialects designed for use with business partners.

"When you're talking about purchase orders on a real-life B2B exchange, you need to get to the lowest levels, where you're talking about important things," Matsumoto says. "And with XML, there needs to be some agreement, even though you're using the same language."

Steps Toward Enterprise App Integration

Many industry observers agree that Web services underpinning corporate portals could very well replace enterprise application integration (EAI) tools as the best approach to EAI. But some go further and predict that these Web services-based portals will be the foundation for the next generation of business-to-business development.

Hadley Reynolds, research director at The Delphi Group, forecasts a six-phase scenario on how this transformation will happen.

1. Web services programming approaches such as SOAP interfaces will replace proprietary gadgets (or portlets) to link portals to back-end application data and business services. This first step is already under way.

2. Web services will provide an infrastructure for a more pervasive use of content. Syndicated content will be available from premium content suppliers this year on a just-in-time, dynamic basis.

3. Portals will become the delivery vehicle of enterprise application development and integration through Web services. Supplementing and changing the product requirements for traditional EAI tools in the long run will begin this year. EAI will be fundamentally changed by 2004.

4. Web services model for corporate process-oriented applications will make inroads by 2003 and be widely adopted by 2005. These will include internal applications (testing and evaluation, human resources administration and self-service tools) and external applications ("private" extranet interactions and supplier/distributor transactions).

5. Private exchanges will adopt Web services for transaction support and information exchange in portals in '03 and '04.

6. Reynolds says Web services will achieve a level of security and operational integrity to automate business-to-business processes, which have been so idiosyncratic that hard-coding definitions between each company was the only solution. But as Web services evolve, making it easier for companies to describe and publish data in industry-standard ways, the new infrastructure will encourage more pervasive business-to-business commerce online what Reynolds calls B2BII.

Web Services Glossary

Web services: A standardized way of integrating Web-based applications using open standards such as XML, SOAP, WSDL and UDDI over an IP backbone.

XML: A specification developed by the World Wide Web Consortium to tag data.

SOAP: Provides a way for applications to communicate with one another over the Internet, independent of platform. SOAP relies on XML to define the format of the information and then adds the necessary HTTP headers to send it.

Web Services Description Language (WSDL): An XML-formatted language used to describe a Web service's capabilities as collections of communication endpoints that can exchanging messages. WSDL, developed jointly by Microsoft and IBM, is the language used by UDDI.

UDDI: A Web-based distributed directory that enables businesses to list themselves on the Internet and discover one other, similar to a traditional phone book's yellow and white pages.

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