IBM, Sun and others tout merits of Web services

Web evangelists from Microsoft, IBM, Sun and BEA attempted to convince Comdex attendees this week that Web services would soon become the de facto method for exchanging data electronically.


LAS VEGAS -- Representatives from several major Web services vendors joined forces at the Comdex Fall 2002 conference on Tuesday, attempting to convince attendees that Web services will soon have a tremendous impact on IT because they will become the de facto method for exchanging data electronically.

During an open panel discussion, attendees bluntly questioned representatives from Microsoft Corp., IBM Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc., BEA Systems Inc. and other firms on several issues, such as how Web services differ from CORBA, Unix and other development paradigms.

IBM's chief evangelism officer, Mark Colan, said that previous development, in a nutshell, focused on passing information between a human and a computer, while Web services enable process automation between two computers without human intervention.

Sun's director of technology evangelism, Simon Phipps, said that Amazon.com's Web service serves as a good example. Even though its purpose is to allow its e-commerce partners to display live product information from Amazon on their Web sites, it creates a new way for third parties to interact with Amazon's database without visiting Amazon.com.

Tyler Jewell, BEA's director of technology, stressed that Web services make data useful even if they are not coupled with applications. For instance, he said that United Airlines, which records a variety of information about its customers in 15 separate databases, faces a challenge when it comes to creating profiles of its customers. Yet with a Web service, it would become easier for the company to create customer profiles by combining data from multiple databases without using multiple applications.

When asked where a company should implement its first Web service, Colan said it is best to start at a "pain point," such as a manual process done with a pen and paper that could be streamlined to save time and money. He said that an initial Web service shouldn't take a small team of developers more than two or three months to complete.

"It's best to go find a tiny project somewhere where you can make all your mistakes when no one is looking," added Phipps.

But before that, warned Jewell, a company should get comfortable formatting its data as XML, because that is the key to making it available to a host of other applications, not just Web services.

One audience member asked the panel why it would be worth investing now -- when standards addressing availability, routing, and orchestration, which are key to the success of mission-critical Web services -- are not yet in place.

"The next 18 months are going to be the most change-oriented period," said Eric Schmidt, Microsoft's technical evangelist for XML Web services. "Learning how to use schemas, SOAP and WSDL is just the beginning."

Phipps admitted that the technological "revolution" that Web services will cause may not begin in some industries for another two to four years, but standardizing message flows today among trusted partners will have value much sooner.

"Web services will be the packages that information is delivered in before long," Phipps said.

Throughout the discussion, the vendor representatives eagerly supported one another's statements, showing no sign of the contentious battles that their companies have often waged against one another.

That "pleasantly surprised" attendee Connie Washburn, a process design and integration specialist with Georgia Perimeter College in Decatur, Ga. Washburn said she is investigating whether Web services can help her school provide better services to its more than 24,000 students by aggregating information that lives in applications from PeopleSoft Inc., Oracle Corp. and others.

Although she doesn't know when her organization will implement a Web service, she said it would probably be soon because "our students are demanding it."

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