Talking Blocks steers clear of Web services hype

Having secured paying customers ahead of its formal launch later this year, the Web services management startup is hoping to avoid being lost in the hype and noise of the many Web services products vying for attention and dollars.

Talking Blocks, a Web services management startup, has secured four paying customers and is gearing up for a formal

launch later this year. Although the company is keeping quiet for now, it has developed software that enables companies to manage the deployment of Web services inside and beyond the firewall, insuring secure delivery of Web services and making certain that the most up-to-date versions are being used.

Context: Talking Blocks started life about three and a half years ago when some of its cofounders were at Xpedior, the systems integrator acquired by PSINet, which subsequently contributed to its downfall as the consulting market collapsed during 2000. The three founders bought the intellectual property from Xpedior, and Talking Blocks was incorporated in 2000.

Cofounder and CTO Mark Potts said the products they have developed are a reaction to the unfulfilled promise of component reuse in object-oriented programming, which became popular in the early to mid-1990s. Their answer was to 'service-enable' applications to allow them to be reused at runtime, rather than at build-time, making reuse much simpler. That's the same thinking behind the Web services standards, and Talking Blocks has adapted these as they have come along.

Products: Talking Block's Web Services Management Suite is currently on version 2.0, with 2.1 just about to complete beta testing. The company has not really had a formal launch yet, as it's waiting for better market conditions and wants to have enough reference customers. It has four live customers currently -- including Moody's Investors Service -- and more in pilots.

Talking Blocks enters the Web services picture at the deployment and management stage, rather than at the development stage, which has become commoditized as the large ASPs have begun to dominate. It is trying to add another layer of abstraction on top of both Java and Microsoft application servers (although it runs only on J2EE servers) to provide a set of security, version control, integration and monitoring services that are truly cross-platform. Of course, that's exactly what Microsoft and the J2EE application server firms are claiming to do using Web services standards such as WSDL and SOAP. But Talking Blocks claims they still have proprietary aspects to their technology. It is certainly true that aspects of IBM's WebSphere Studio development tool tie applications to the WebSphere application server, for example.

Technology: The heart of its product suite is the Runtime Service Registry. This resides within the environment of the Web services provider and enables it to create a virtual network of consumers of its Web services, which are applications either inside or outside the firewall. The registry incorporates interfaces to the various existing tools in an enterprise, as well as legacy applications. These could include Java/RMI, Corba and enterprise application integration (EAI) tools, systems management tools, messaging transport interfaces, such as HTTP, JMS and SMTP, as well as security through interfaces such as XKMS and SAML.

Talking Blocks is looking to make use of existing infrastructure and 'service-enable' it, and where the infrastructure does not exist to provide enough management features for the deployment and management of Web services. Here it is talking about things like load balancing and single sign-on. The Web services themselves, created using one of the numerous third-party tools, are fed in via a SOAP interface and described using WSDL.

The 'change variability' tools are some of Talking Blocks most interesting technology. These offer the ability to differentiate and route services based on the status of the consumer, and they can do things like side-by-side versioning and managing the change of a service's location without breaking off the applications of its consumers.

Financial: Talking Blocks picked up $9 million in December 2001, in its first round from outside investors, split between Sigma Partners and Foundation Capital. Until then, funds had mostly come from CEO Dave Stanton and his associates, who have put in more than $2 million. Prior to Xpedior, Stanton founded Sage IT Partners, which Xpedior bought in 1998.

Competition: Foundation's Paul Holland says Talking Blocks is attractive because of the management team (the vice presidents of sales and engineering came on board with the new money), the technology know-how of Potts and the architecture. He considers the company's approach preferable to using hosted Web services networks to manage applications, mainly because companies will likely be reluctant to outsource because of security. But companies such as Blue Titan, Flamenco Networks, Grand Central would say their value proposition lies in reducing -- not increasing -- the complexity of deploying and managing the software and handling security. Potts sees those firms as complementary rather than competitive.

Apart from the J2EE application servers firms -- BEA, IBM, Oracle and Sun -- Talking Blocks will face competition from companies such as Actional and Iona, which claim to do something similar. Smaller players, such as Blue Titan and Infravio, are less of a threat. It's also likely that traditional application development management vendors, such as Rational, might get in on the act, at least on the deployment side, as well as content management firms such as Interwoven. Talking Blocks claims tight partnerships with BEA and IBM, but ultimately it will face competition from those firms.

Assessment: Talking Blocks is wise to wait a while, as its proposition depends on the adoption of Web services -- and like most things in enterprise software at the moment, the pace is slow. It is also still a messy market, with Web services development tools, hosted networks, management suites and other types of technologies all vying for attention and dollars. But Talking Blocks has some paying customers already, and if Web services and the whole services-oriented architecture does take off, then management tools will be needed. The application server vendors, however, are sure to want a significant piece of the market.


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