Web services on a platter

A couple of years ago, in the hype over Web services, IT leaders were told that their prayers would at last be answered. A simple set of XML-based protocols would enable IT to create reusable application building blocks that could be recombined ad infinitum, slashing application-development and maintenance costs. And because Web services components were accessible over HTTP, they would herald a new era of zero-cost business integration.

Of course, that hasn't happened.

"People in general thought Web services were simple and cheap, and it turns out they are complex and not so cheap," said Bernard Borges, an IBM Web services architect. "I think the whole notion of a Web service was intuitively appealing because the original scope of Web services was using them as a simple integration tool. (But) it painted a rather rosy and low-tech picture compared to proprietary EAI products."

Of course, as one of the inventors of Web services, IBM helped paint that picture. And many enterprises swallowed the value proposition whole, mainly because the time was ripe for a broadly applicable solution to integration woes. The promise remains compelling -- and most enterprise developers have at least given Web services a whirl. But planning, deploying and managing an enterprise-wide Web services implementation can be dauntingly complex.

So guess who's ready to jump in and lend a hand? IBM Global Services -- along with other monster consultancies, including Accenture, BearingPoint, Cap Gemini, Deloitte Consulting, Electronic Data Systems and Hewlett-Packard's new Services division. All now offer Web services "solutions" as part of their overall IT services portfolio. Meet the new boss; same as the old boss.

"As Web services-based projects move outside of enterprise firewalls and become more complex, organisations will increasingly request the help of external services providers," concluded IDC in a recent competitive analysis of Web services. Moreover, the big consultancies have moved down-market, targeting midsized companies as well as the giant corporations that were once their exclusive domain.

Services on tap

But wait a minute. Weren't Web services supposed to be a bottom-up endeavour? The thinking was that IT could incrementally build Web services components that could be linked as needed -- to add functionality to enterprise portals, collect real-time business intelligence, hook into business partner billing systems and so on. To be sure, these notions have been embraced by enterprise developers, many of whom have applied the new technology for one-off projects. But managing and tracking Web services across an enterprise and ensuring interoperability, security, and performance require a new order of architectural discipline.

The unifying concept that illuminates this top-down view -- and dovetails nicely with the grand ambitions of the big consultancies -- is SOA (service-oriented architecture). An SOA formalises how Web services should be built, deployed, executed, and managed throughout an organisation. It also stipulates that Web services components meet quality-of-service targets, or else one faulty component could bring down all the distributed applications that depend on it.

Once users get beyond their first entry-level implementations, says IBM's Borges, most encounter unexpected difficulties when they deal with server-based integration issues -- along with the considerable amount of groundwork necessary before they can fully implement a Web services management plan.

"When you mention SOAs to most IT shops, they are very hesitant," Borges says. "It's almost like looking at an ERP project 15 years ago. The notion of an SOA or ERP package is appealing and looks simple. But once you get into it, it is not. On the back end you have to do the preparatory work for a Web services or XML-based integration, such as building a connector. On the applications side, you have to do the proper data quality preparation, and that has always been a very expensive component."

In addition, Borges adds, IBM believes engineering an SOA rises above the level of IT and into the "business stack”, where business processes must be re-examined or sometimes re-engineered to create an application infrastructure of reusable components.

Rolling out a complete SOA implementation may be a long and complicated process, but it should prove cost effective over time, especially in businesses that still suffer from poorly integrated systems. The ultimate goal, after all, is self-service, so the business side can experiment with recombining applications to meet specific demands without overloading IT. "There are tremendous cost savings and productivity gains to be had at the end of the tunnel," Borges says.

What IBM and HP are selling

Big consultancies that provide an overarching Web services solution can be divided into two groups: IBM and Hewlett-Packard on the one hand (both with their own huge hardware and software portfolios) and on the other, the large, independent organisations that pick and choose from third-party technology.

The breadth of resources offered by IBM and HP is impressive, but also inspires caution, says Brent Sleeper, a principal of research and consulting company The Stencil Group. Obviously, there's an incentive to sell their own products as well as services. "This is not to say they don't do a great job, but it's something you may want to think about," he says.

Of course, neither company will admit to a conflict of interest. IBM's lofty Web services vision aims to establish interoperability across platforms, applications, and programming languages, with an evolving SOA that provides frameworks and specific implementations, according to IDC's report. And with IBM's leadership in the development of Web services standards, Global Services can exploit beta tools based on prerelease protocols and extend its e-business-on-demand road map.

HP must call upon third parties -- mainly Microsoft and BEA -- to deliver basic Web services development and deployment platforms. An alliance with Microsoft and a small army of 3000 .Net-certified consultants make HP's commitment to .Net particularly strong. In addition, the company is in the process of extending its popular network management software, OpenView, to monitor and manage Web services. "HP is looking at SOA as a way to play up its strengths in system management with OpenView," Sleeper says.

HP's stated goals, of course, lack any proprietary flavour. "From a services perspective, we are dealing with J2EE and .Net, and we also have an architectural implementation we call AAA, Adaptive Application Architecture," says Rick Fricchione, vice president of application services at HP Services. "We design and support heterogeneous technology platforms and applications."

In one case, HP Services developed a Web services SOA for Midwest Wireless, a regional wireless services provider with 250,000 subscribers. HP Services developed Web services applications that allowed Midwest to activate cell phones instantly at the point of sale for retail outlets and resellers while adding such features as catalogue management, security administration, improved sales reporting, and phone activation.

Mark Allen, CIO of Midwest Wireless, says HP Services helped establish a Web services road map that included managing security and platform integration. "Stores in rural areas have a crazy quilt of technology platforms," Allen says. "And we had no control over those platforms. HP provided Web servers from their ProLiant line. And they developed our externally facing systems and the security around them so we could move our existing portals to that system."

The real differentiation for HP, however, is in Web services management through OpenView. Al Smith, CTO of HP's Web services management organisation, says the HP OpenView Web Services Engine, released in March, will let IT administrators define and manage services. "Our focus is on middleware and we will build out from that, starting with Web services management and SOA management," Smith says.

IBM appears to be following a similar line. Last month, the company demonstrated its Web Services Management Middleware technology, designed to help corporate users guarantee SLAs for Web services across a patchwork of environments. The technology should make its way into IBM server-based products such as WebSphere, Tivoli, and Lotus Notes over the next 12 to 18 months.

You want an SOA with that?

Services and consulting companies such as EDS, Cap Gemini, and Accenture "play the field" of software and hardware vendors as they design and build Web services SOAs, Sleeper says. "They say they will bring you whatever software is best for the job, although they have vendor relationships as well."

The value proposition offered by these companies is the same as it ever was: Build technical solutions around a deep understanding of an organisation's business requirements and processes. The consultancies are very good at targeting vertical industries and customising architectures to fit their clients' needs, Sleeper says.

Kevin Pollari, an architecture strategy partner at Accenture, sees every reason for Fortune 500 companies to embrace Accenture's customised SOA solutions for Web services. "Worrying about architectural plumbing has been dramatically reduced," Pollari says. "The real secret sauce of SOA is enabling better uses and standardisation of business-application logic."

EDS is taking a somewhat different tack, emphasising SOA as a way to make outsourcing arrangements easier, Sleeper says. EDS calls its SOA practice a Service-Oriented Meta Platform, which includes development of business logic and infrastructure services that can support J2EE or .Net environments. "With our SOA, we want to build services that are the building blocks of enterprise need," says Barry Box, the EDS Web services national practice director. "Our clients want us to help them employ Web services in a services-oriented architecture that makes sense for them."

Ed Knowles, a systems analyst at a large transportation company, says that while he internally manages the handful of Web services his firm has deployed to date, when he launches more outside the company -- for such complex endeavours as supply chain management -- he will likely turn to larger independent services providers for help.

"We have a mixed ship of IBM, Sun, and HP servers and desktops across the country. I will feel more comfortable with a larger company like an Accenture or EDS who knows all these environments and ... can make some objective decisions about how to tie all this stuff together and maintain it," Knowles said.

Not just a toy any more

What might nudge more IT shops to get outside help is the increasing adoption of Web services in mission-critical applications, particularly those facing customers. Before an enterprise starts offering SLAs, it needs to make a serious assessment of its Web services architecture to ensure those commitments are met. "We think this can help users build a dependable services business through better management of Web services," said Dan Sturman, IBM's director of emerging technology for WebSphere.

Due to the distributed nature of Web services, effective change management is particularly critical to maintaining service levels. A change to one component in a distributed application comprised of Web services may require changes in many other components. IT departments will find themselves hard- pressed to handle such complexity without assistance.

Whether that help should come from consultancies or from off-the-shelf tools is an open question. Several Web services pure-plays have concentrated exclusively on the problems of Web services management and have developed compelling software solutions to orchestrate components across an organisation. After all, the original idea of Web services was to give IT -- and even business users -- the self-service tools necessary to reconfigure applications on the fly and better serve business needs.

Enterprise chief technologists considering tapping large services companies need to make sure their need is equal to the cost of deployment. "The merits of using a consultant depends on the objective for building an SOA," Sleeper says. "If you are dealing with systems or applications that are unique to your business, and where a high degree of customisation will result in a payoff, consultants may be the way to go."

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