Web services group sorts through the standards

TORONTO — It may be up to IT managers to determine which standards are adopted in the enterprise, but a coalition of vendors including Microsoft and IBM want to make sure some worthy contenders don’t wind up the Betamax of Web services.

The Web

Services Interoperability Organization (WS-I) Thursday convened Canadian representatives of some of its member companies to discuss its role in the standards development process. Web services, a way of programming software so that applications communicate with each other through standard Internet protocols, are seen by many IT experts as a way of working more closer electronically with trading partners and customers. The WS-I, which was founded in February 2002, sees itself as a forum for discussing enterprise interoperability requirements and a sort of guidance counsellor for companies that are considering adoption.

Tom Glover, the WS-I chair and an IBM employee based in the United States, said the organization has created working groups that will try to develop profiles and case studies of Web services adoption. The WS-I will also make test tools and even sample applications that use various standards.

“”Relying on Darwinian selection is not the model we would want,”” he said, likening the situation to that of companies that lost money making Beta video tapes before VHS was embraced by the public. “”It’s not efficient and it costs too much.””

Customers have already shown considerable support for some standards, like extensible markup language (XML) and simple object access protocol (SOAP) for Web services functions like messaging between applications. This is where the bulk of early adoption is taking place, according to IDC Canada analyst Warren Shiau. Customers are primarily working on Web services projects that allow internal systems to work better together, something Shiau called the “”intranet”” phase. About 20 to 25 per cent of Canadian companies are at least considering moving to or are at this stage, he said.

Once things move outside the firewall, however — when Web services allow communications with partner or customer systems — security fears and other concerns keep enterprises at bay, Shiau said.

Phil Eldholm, CTO and vice-president of network architecture at Nortel Networks, said his company sees the benefit of Web services in achieving interoperability between its own order entry systems and those of Bay Networks, which it acquired in 1998. Eldholm, who helped found the Frame Relay Forum several years ago, challenged the notion of leaving standards adoption to customers. “”Often you don’t get to a point where there’s a final standard,”” he said. “”Eventually, you have to pick one for a number of specific reasons.””

Glover admitted that the evolution of standards will likely involve “”vigorous discussion”” in the IT industry, particularly given that vendors on the WS-I are privately pushing one standard over another. There is some controversy, for example, over potential overlap between the Microsoft and IBM-backed WS-federation specification and a similar standard proposed by the Liberty Alliance, which is supported by Sun Microsystems

The debate is healthy, Glover argued, adding that the WS-I is also getting participation from vertical market groups in transportation and insurance, among others.

“”The only thing more important than the politics is the economics,”” said Ben Watson, senior Web services product manager at Microsoft Canada Co. “”The customers are saying, ‘Just fix it, guys.'””

There is some question as to whether customers are even cognizant of the choices they face. John Bellegarde, vice-president of product management at Hummingbird Ltd., used the example of Cancer Care Ontario, which is using the programming model as part of its portal deployment. “”(End users) have no idea they’re using Web services,”” he said. “”They never get to the extent of the plumbing that makes it all work.””

Shiau agreed. “”As long as they feel their needs are being addressed, they’re not concerned that the endorsement is overly burdened by the political influence,”” he said.

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