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Web services-Bringing the virtual factory online

By Judith Lamont, KMWorld senior writer

Milford Manufacturing faced a crucial decision point about a year ago: either reinvent itself or be defeated in the increasingly competitive market of electronic contract manufacturing. The choice was rather stark, but the company opted to pursue a new vision of contract manufacturing, believing that as the electronic industry rebounds, those contract manufacturers that survived would be the ones that offered something unique. With the maturing of Web services technology, Milford is now able to provide that unusual service: the opportunity for customers to be fully engaged in the manufacturing process at every step.

"Our virtual manufacturing vision actually predated the Web and Web services," says Doug Voiland, VP and general manager at Milford, "but we had to wait for the technology to catch up." The company makes electronic devices for a wide range of original equipment manufacturers, from environmental sensors to telecommunications products. Milford was using the Extended Enterprise application from MAPICS for general enterprise resource planning and accounting purposes. While the application was particularly well suited for use by smaller companies with limited IT resources, such as Milford, it lacked an interface for customers and trading partners, since it was designed for internal use by Milford's employees. MAPICS and Milford worked together to develop a portal called The Looking Glass, through which Milford's customers could access a much deeper layer of the manufacturing process and supply chain in real time, and on their (24/7) schedule.

"Customers want to know two things," Voiland says, "Where is my product? and When am I going to get it?" By assigning a serial number to each assembly, Milford tracks each manufactured part across the manufacturing floor all the way to the delivery site. As the job moves forward, wireless mobile scanners collect data about its status and store it via the Extended Enterprise application.

"Using The Looking Glass, customers can see not only where their product is physically on the manufacturing floor, but also their material liability, design for manufacturability analyses, how quality control issues were resolved, and so forth—all in real time," Voiland notes. "The serial number is also used to link to product warranty and service information that is also available through The Looking Glass."

At the other end of the supply chain, companies that provide Milford with materials, such as sheet metal, can see what orders are coming in, and better anticipate what they will need to deliver. A variety of enterprise applications interact with each other through Web services to achieve this end-to-end visibility.

Linking with other applications is much easier with Web services than with traditional integration processes. Alan MacLamroc, CTO of MAPICS, says his company, which provides software solutions for manufacturing organizations, saw the potential for Web services to integrate legacy data for their customers and to extend functionality to new areas such as procurement.

"We are using Web services not only to develop new applications for our customers," MacLamroc says, "but also to integrate applications of companies that we have acquired into our own product mix." He believes the flexibility and the practical aspects of Web services give the technology a big boost.

Typically, organizations deploying Web services might begin by using the technology behind the firewall to access information from multiple legacy systems.

"At this first stage, it's all about virtual data aggregation," according to Stephanie Race, VP and general manager of CommerceNet Services, which assists companies in adopting emerging technologies through the use of open standards for business services. "Companies are deploying Web services for business processes around their traditional transaction sets, such as inventory visibility and availability to promise."

A second category of adoption covers solutions that automate self-service processing to reduce costs through more efficient transactions. Many organizations are personalizing their portals to be adaptive and to provide user-specific information regarding orders or service inquiries. Thirdly, organizations can deploy Web services technology in the context of migrating to a services-oriented architecture (SOA). Reusable integration makes a better case for ROI in organizations that have not seen a payback on previous e-business investments. Web services technology provides a lower cost to connect to existing and small and medium-sized trading partners.

Finally, some organizations are using Web services technology to create new lines of business. Those solutions enable access to core intellectual property that is offered as an outsourced service to new trading partners.

"In this model," says Race, "Web services technology is used to expose legacy functionality to new trading partners." Those four stages are not mutually exclusive; each implementation type can exist within any given enterprise or trading partner community. Each organization may also have a different point of entry, depending on its business objectives.

Security concerns

"Companies are realizing how important the issues of integration and interoperability are," says Toufic Boubez, CTO of Layer 7 Technologies, which assists organizations in addressing security issues in Web services applications. Boubez sees early adoption in the financial and insurance industries, "everything from internal nuts and bolts integration to transactions among banks." However, he cautions that not all developers are making the most of Web services' ability to "loosely couple" systems.

A key advantage of loosely coupling applications is that a change in one system does not mandate a change in another. But culturally, programmers may be inclined to remain in their comfort zone of building applications in a way that still binds the interface of the service tightly to its implementation, and the clients tightly to the interface. The result is a brittle system of interdependencies rather than a flexible one. Security may also be written into the application code, which exacerbates the problem.

Standards for the underlying elements of Web services (SOAP, WSDL and UDDI, see sidebar) are in good hands at W3C and WordsToHyperlink OASIS (oasis-open.org), according to Boubez, and the development of security standards at OASIS also is proceeding well. However, writing to the standards for XML encryption can be difficult and complex. Boubez advises companies not to write the security into the application code, but to provide it through an administrative layer to maintain maximum flexibility.

Web services development is a "push-pull" phenomenon, with vendors providing the tools and users wanting the functionality.

"Many available tools are now geared toward Web services," says Boubez, "from Microsoft, IBM, Sun and other industry leaders." Having watched technology over the past 20 years, he believes that a Web services strategy is both pragmatic and powerful.

Vendors that are taking a Web services approach in their software have become more sophisticated. "At first, vendors were just exposing their APIs as Web services," says Mark Hale, VP at Interwoven, "but now they are providing Web services as part of a service-oriented architecture." The difference is that APIs are intended for integration with local applications and do not provide the flexibility of SOAs, which can integrate enterprise applications across servers and network boundaries. Th

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