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Web Services: a Manager’s Perspective

If implemented correctly, Web services can be the building blocks of your IT architecture.

There has been a great deal of hype recently about Web services. Microsoft, IBM, Sun, and Oracle have all been promoting their own Web services architectures, and even the Harvard Business Review has published an article on Web services (Hagel and Seely Brown, Your Next IT Strategy, October 2001). I’d like to discuss what Web services are, why they are important to IT managers, and how IT managers can use Web services to improve the effectiveness of their organizations. I will draw heavily on the concepts outlined in the Harvard Business Review article and supplement the authors’ insights with Knowledge Management Associates’ Web services experience.

Web services are the building blocks of a new IT architecture. C|net describes them as "self-contained, self-describing, modular applications that can be published, located, and invoked across the Web." Hagel and Seely Brown claim that companies will move away from monolithic internally developed and purchased systems to an architecture made up of a series of interacting Web services. Some of these services (such as payment processing) will be purchased from outside vendors, and others will be built internally.

Consider a loan processing application. The application might have several methods for data collection (such as Web-based for customers and client-server for customer service representatives). These data collection methods will be implemented as separate Web services. These data collection Web services will then feed data to one of several different outside Web services for credit checking, before feeding data into a proprietary Web service for loan approval.

Several technology trends have made this new Web services architecture viable:

1. Now that the Internet is ubiquitous, we can build applications that rely on services provided by other applications. And these services can be remote, on other computers and at other organizations.

2. Standards are emerging that allow Web services to communicate with each other. XML has emerged as a common language. Organizations (such as RIXML in financial services) have developed XML standards for their industries. Information vendors are moving away from their proprietary formats and providing data in XML format.

3. Software vendors are building both server software to manage Web services and development tools to build these services. Microsoft’s .NET initiative includes several new ‘servers’ (such as BizTalk Server), new development tools (such as Visual Studio.NET), and programming languages (such as VB.NET and C#) that make it easier to build Web services.

This Web services architecture has the potential to provide significant benefits to companies and their IT organizations. In some ways, Web services are a logical extension of modular programming. They will make information systems easier to maintain and enhance, because each self-contained service (module) will be smaller and simpler than today’s large systems. In addition, IT organizations will be able to meet some of their technology needs by buying services from technology vendors instead of either buying a system or building a custom application.

Web services are still in their infancy. The major vendors’ technologies are still evolving. IT managers should proceed with caution, but they should definitely proceed. Our first look at the .NET development tools indicates that they can significantly increase developer productivity. Microsoft has made it possible to build Web services with .NET and has made it easier to build both Web-based and client server applications.

One approach to getting your feet wet with Web services is to start at the edge of your organization. Many information vendors are providing their data in XML format. Microsoft and other vendors have developed XML readers. Consider building a Web service that receives, processes, and delivers this data. Alternatively, consider a Web service to integrate purchased data into an existing database. This is a relatively low-risk method to learn these new tools and technologies.

David Goldstein ([email protected] ) is a principal at Knowledge Management Associates, an IT consulting firm in Waltham, Mass.

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