The Web Services Advisor
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Web services are valuable not because they are on the cutting edge of new technology, but because they deliver very real, tangible benefits to those who deploy them. Much is written about the technology itself and where it is headed; very little is written about how it is put into effect and helps businesses work more effectively.
So this month, I'll take a look at how one business is using Web services — the Fortune 500 company Yellow Corporation. In this first part of the column, we'll examine the Web services themselves and the business benefits that Yellow is reaping from its implementation, and in the next column we'll take a closer look at the technology driving it.
The start of the project
Yellow Corporation is a Kansas-based holding corporation whose largest subsidiary, Yellow Transportation, is a shipping company that offers a wide range of services for moving industrial, commercial and retail goods. Yellow Corporation also owns Yellow Technologies, which provides technology solutions and services for Yellow Corporation companies.
For Yellow Transportation, a key to making sure that businesses use its services rather than the competition's is easy access to getting rate quotes, easily scheduling transportation services, tracking delivery and pickup times, and incorporating that information into their own company's workflow.
To help accomplish all that, at the end of 2001 Yellow Technologies began researching Web services. It already had XML APIs for accomplishing some of that, and "We wanted to get out with Web Services before our customers," remembers Pat Williams, Director of Enterprise Services for Yellow Technologies. The company already offered some basic ways to track shipping information over the Internet, "and we thought that Web services would be a natural extension of our Internet functionality," she says. "We thought that we would provide programmable capabilities for our customers, so that they did not have to have someone looking up" the information each time manually. Instead, Yellow Technologies wanted businesses to be able to directly incorporate that kind of lookup capabilities in their own systems.
Building the Web services
The company relatively quickly built a simple Web service for package tracking with the IBM Web Services toolkit, but found that it didn't have the functionality required for coding more sophisticated services, so then moved to IBM WebSphere Studio.
With those tools, Yellow Technologies built three Web services. The generic tracking Web service allows a business to track a shipment by entering information such as a freight bill number or bill of lading number, and so is used to track existing shipments. The Zip-to-freight Web service lets a business enter the Zip code of where it wants to send goods, and Yellow then automatically creates a purchase order number for the shipment. The rate quote Web service allows a business to enter and change a variety of information about a shipment, and then get a rate quote for what that shipment will cost.
For Yellow, one key to deploying all three Web services was that no work needed to be done on its backend systems. They stayed as is. The Web services are just front-ends to those systems, and so it was far less costly and less time-consuming to write a Web service to accomplish the task rather than to have to rebuild a backend system.
Customers can use the services directly over the Web, and can also use Java-enabled cell phones to access the Web services via midlets. Additionally, the services can be accessed not only by individuals, but by a customer's application. This means that customers can incorporate the Yellow Web services into their own automated workflows, saving them time and money — which in turn binds them closer to Yellow.
The benefits of using Web services
Williams says that the Web services are already paying dividends even though they're not yet in widespread use at many customer sites. "For us, it reduces support costs," she notes. "We can put out a Web service and any customer can integrate it into their own systems, now matter how their application is written, no matter what functionality it has. They can integrate it easily, and we don't have to provide support or custom code for each customer."
Additionally, it cut development time and costs for Yellow, because her team was able to create the services much more quickly than using other means. Because they only had to code a front end and not work on the backend systems, more time and money was saved as well. Another benefit, she believes, is that by building Web services before customers are demanding them, Yellow will be seen as a technology leader, and so will draw more business.
While there has not been a great demand for the Web services yet, Williams says that she expects demand to grow, and that's when it will begin paying even bigger dividends. Yellow will not have to do additional work to bring on more customers — the customers will only need to hook into existing Web services. And as more customers see the benefits of the technology, she expects that they will form an even closer bond to Yellow.
In the long run, offering the Web services to customers offers Yellow "a competitive edge," she believes. "When customers use the Web services, they see how easily they can get the information they require from Yellow, and it's another reason to do business with us."
Next column: How Yellow's Web services work, and what the company has learned from the implementation.
Continues in Part Two
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About the Author
Preston Gralla, a well-known technology expert, is the author of more than 20 books, including "How the Internet Works," which has been translated into 14 languages and sold several hundred thousand copies worldwide. He is an expert on Web services and the author of a major research and white paper for the Software and Information Industry Association on the topic. Gralla was the founding managing editor of PC Week, a founding editor and then editor and editorial director of PC/Computing, and an executive editor for ZDNet and CNet. He has written about technology for more than 15 years for many major magazines and newspapers, including PC Magazine, Computerworld, CIO Magazine, eWeek and its forerunner PC Week, PC/Computing, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and the Dallas Morning News among others. As a well-known technology guru, he appears frequently on TV and radio shows and networks, including CNN, MSNBC, ABC World News Now, the CBS Early Show, PBS's All Things Considered and others. He has won a number of awards for his writing, including from the Computer Press Association for the Best Feature in a Computer Publication. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.