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Suhayl Masud, president of Different Thinking, will present a webcast at 2PM ET November 12 entitled, "Web Services: An Evolution in Technology; a Revolution for Business." Be sure to pre-register for this event.
Web services are like an elephant in the dark. There is an old story that beautifully illustrates this point. A circus came to a village where no one had seen an elephant before. Excitement built around the magnificent elephant show that was opening in a couple of days, but the villagers were too curious to wait and sent some men for a sneak peek.
The elephant stood in a dark tent, and the men had to discover by touch. Great confusion ensued when they returned to the village. The man who had grabbed the trunk was convinced that elephants were like big snakes, while the man who had touched the ears insisted that elephants were soft, thin, and large, like giant leafs. In this manner it continued, with each man claiming he knew what the elephant looked like, and each painting a different picture. None of the men had really seen an elephant; all they had seen were bits and pieces.
It appears the gurus and analysts have only looked at bits and pieces of Web services as well, since there are many differing opinions, and we don't see the Web services "elephant". There are opinions that Web services are a cheap and easy way to develop flexible applications; or that Web services are really for application integration, while others insist that Web services are about business-to-business interaction. The variety of definitions and the lack of a cohesive vision leave people wondering which definition to trust. On the other hand, the criticisms are just as narrow, claiming that Web services are just badly named repackaging of EAI concepts, that service-oriented architecture is not a new concept and that Web services are a media hype that will surely die within a year or two.
The true importance of Web services is distorted by the "bits and pieces" view. Web services offer much more than repackaged concepts, and their value lies not as an innovation in technology, but as a revolution in the relationship between technology and business. Although a minor evolution in technology, this revolution is about business; it lets organizations focus on service, it makes business dialogue technology agnostic, it promises to change the IT culture, and act as a catalyst for large scale innovation and adoption in the electronic business arena.
First things first: focus on service
To borrow from a famous phrase, Web services can be thought of as "a small step for technology; a giant leap for business". This leap is not about technology; it is about enabling organizations to conduct business, with technology assisting business, not restricting it. This leap is the beginning of the era when information technology matures to become invisible in business interactions.
Web services allow organizations to focus on first things first: the services. The most important goal of any organization is to provide services to its clients and partners. This goal does not change when the organization conducts e-business through an electronic representation. Web services allow organizations to design these electronic representations with a primary focus on services, without getting distracted or bogged down by implementation details. All too often e-business projects suffer from losing sight of the business goal and they end up spending the lion's share of time and money on unimportant tasks. The results are often poorly designed systems that do not meet the business requirements.
The advantage in doing first things first ensures that the most important issues are handled first. This is exactly what Web services enable; the design begins right from the top. The first task in the project is to identify the business service and design its public interface, defining how customers and partners can access the service and what messages need to be exchanged. This approach allows organizations to sort out problems from the start, to get the design of the business service right, before getting into expensive implementation and costly error fixes.
Web services address the great disconnect between a business service and the technical implementation of the service. The business vision of the service used to be hidden behind various technologies and applications, sometimes forgotten, and often misrepresented. The electronic representation of the business service could only be found in requirement documents and architecture plans. With Web services, there is a concrete technical representation of the business vision in the shape of a service that can be executed, tested and connected with applications, and rather than being obscured, the services take the most prominent spot.
Technology should assist, not dictate
Web services overthrow technology from its role of the dictator to the role of an assistant in e-business; they put "business" back into e-business. There is something more important in e-business then load balancing servers, outage recovery strategies, crash-free operating systems, open source software, sophisticated firewalls, intranets, extranets, security issues, and all the other things technology has e-business people worry about. That something is the business, and it should always come first. While technologies are really important in creating an "e" representation of the business, the goal of e-business remains the same as before: to conduct business.
For far too long this "e" representation reflected not the business, but the technologies employed for the representation. We thought of business in terms of technology. We thought about exchanging files, sharing databases, serializing objects, server pages, java scripts, downloading applets and a host of similar restricted thinking patterns. The dialogue between organizations was overpowered by the technologies they were using; technology required a similar setup on each end to establish business relationships. Organizations could not sell to customers or create partnerships without putting the technology front and center in the relationship. This restriction is like only being able to call people who have telephones made by the same company.
When an organization describes its services, and provides access to them, the focus should be on the product, the content and not the technology used to deliver the services. When customers purchase a product by calling a 1-800 number, they are excited about the product. They are not really concerned whether the company provides a 1-800 number or a 1-888 number as long as it is free easy access; they are not concerned whether FedEx or UPS is delivering the product, as long as it reaches them quickly. While the 1-800 number is nice and does play an important role, without the product and the service, there would be no transaction.
Web services realize this point and focus on the service and not the technology, and make business dialogue technology agnostic. Web services make a bold statement that the services an organization offers are its public interface, and this interface has no technology restrictions. It is not dependent on any platforms, architectures, programming languages or databases. Services are provided through requests and responses of text messages that are written and exchanged on common formats using standard Internet transfer protocols.
Web services have a public and a private side. The public side is the description of the service, and methods for accessing it, while the private side is how the organization implements the service, and how it integrates various applications to create the business process. With the public side being technology agnostic, the organization is free to use whatever technologies it requires to provide the functionality on the private side. The separation between public and private processes helps contain technology exposure to the private side, freeing the public side to focus strictly on business and allowing the private side to use the best technology for the job.
Web services overthrow technology from the role of a dictator to the role of an assistant, by letting organizations focus on business service design before implementation issues, by making business dialogue technology agnostic and by freeing organizations to use the best technology for the job internally.
Catalyst for e-business adoption and innovation
From the technical front, Web services are an evolution of existing technologies, building upon available knowledge, and adapting to new environments. They borrow concepts from distributed computing frameworks and build upon the idea of high cohesion and low coupling from object oriented and component-based architectures. While not a new invention, it is important to note that even a small evolutionary step in the right direction can bring about terrific change.
XML is an example of a technology evolution that has brought about a profound change in how information is exchanged and processed in virtually every industry. It is important to realize that XML, like Web services, is not a new invention. XML is built upon an older markup language called SGML; actually everything XML put forward, has already existed for over 20 years in different forms. What XML did technically was to make these concepts a little easier to understand and much cheaper to produce. While technologically it was a minor step, it made tremendous change in business computing.
XML made it cheaper and easier to exchange data and to qualify the meaning of the data; it changed flat text files into vibrant information maps that could be read by humans and computers. It promoted industries to standardize information they exchange, it brought about innovation in how information is presented, it enabled dissimilar systems to communicate, but most importantly it lowered the barrier to entry in this previously expensive field. XML had the key ingredients to be a catalyst for profound change, with concepts that were easy to understand and implement, a low barrier to entry and a high adoption rate.
Web services have all the ingredients to act as a catalyst for e-business. Web services re-use existing infrastructure, like transfer protocols over the Web, and description languages built upon XML. They remove costly negotiations of what technology to use when establishing online business relationships, and they utilize concepts that are understood by both business and technical people. All of this adds up to a significantly lower cost for doing business online and encourages more organizations to join the previously expensive arena. As the momentum builds, the costs will decrease, online business interactions will increase, conversation standards will be formed and used, and there will be great commercial incentives to solve any thorny issues.
There are those that argue Web services will die away in a year or two. Perhaps the name "Web services" will disappear, as it is a bit cumbersome, however the idea behind Web services is too powerful to kill. Whether Web services bring about the massive change themselves, or simply act as a catalyst to inspire and evolve future technologies, the revolution has begun and it promises to change the e-business landscape forever.
Copyright 2002, Suhayl Masud. Special to SearchWebServices.com.
About the Author
Suhayl Masud is the President of Different Thinking, a consulting firm that helps people make sense of technology and provides architecture, training and consulting services. Suhayl has also worked as a lead technical architect for RosettaNet, where he helped create the new generation of e-business standards. He can be reached at Suhayl@DifferentThinking.com.