Web services: practice and promise
By Judith Lamont, KMWorld senior writer
Web services will help knowledge management initiatives by allowing easier integration of business processes and content, but the customer-facing applications that have received so much hype will take some time to be materialize. Right now, companies are focusing on using the technology in-house, to learn how it works and where the barriers are. Many of the enabling technologies for knowledge management, such as content management, workflow and business intelligence, will benefit from having a smoother path to integration. But claims of seamless connectivity are premature.
“The development of Web services has been an evolutionary process,” says Steve Holbrook, program director of emerging e-business standards at IBM. “The architecture has not been forced on the world, but is following the model of how the Web itself evolved, a few standard protocols at a time.” This development is part of a trend toward open architecture and away from proprietary systems.
“Organizations want to protect their investments and have them work with one another across the Internet,” says Holbrook. “Web services allows legacy applications to remain intact while interacting with new ones.” IBM’s WebSphere is an XML-compliant, open-architecture development platform for e-business applications, and includes an application server, portal and business process software.
In the same way that the Web is now primarily a “web of documents,” Holbrook observes, it could become a web of executable programs with the power to automate diverse transactions. A WebSphere application under development by GIS Express (gisexpress.com), a distributor of satellite imagery products and services, illustrates how that would change from a multistep, heavily manual operation to an automated one. Currently, when a customer places an order, GIS Express first searches its archives to find out if the imagery is already available. If not, GIS Express contacts its network of vendors or, if the imagery is not available, initiates an order to acquire it. Many of the orders are placed via phone or fax, and the time to acquire new imagery is three to six weeks.
Using Web services architecture, GIS Express will be able to integrate with vendors to query their archives, and, depending on the outcome of the query, place orders for either existing or new imagery. In addition, GIS Express will integrate its internal accounting, CRM and e-commerce databases with the ordering process. Web services will enable linking all of those functions despite a diverse array of platforms, operating systems and data models.
Stellent, a content management solutions provider, was an early adopter, having developed a Web services component nearly two years ago. “Software partners such as Plumtree and Citrix were starting to take a Web services approach to integrating content into their portals, and enterprise customers wanted to use Web services to integrate their internal applications,” says Dan Ryan, senior VP of marketing and business development at Stellent. “Stellent’s Web services component enabled us to quickly implement such integrations.” Stellent’s Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) interface allows any XML Web services-enabled application to access content or any of the 600 content management services offered by Stellent Content Server.
Integrating content into other enterprise applications is an ideal application of Web services. For example, a user who looks up a part number in an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system from SAP SAP may also want to see data sheets on the product. That requires an integration of structured information from the database with unstructured content stored in the content management repository. Similarly, a user of a Siebel customer relationship management (CRM) system might want to view contracts or proposals along with what the customer has ordered. The use of Web services makes those applications readily accessible, reducing the time and cost of integration
Web services will make business process management (BPM) and workflow easier by reducing the time and cost of integration. “Workflow moves information to and from people and applications,” says Rashid Khan, CEO of Ultimus, a workflow vendor. “A large, complex application such as SAP might have a thousand APIs. It may be difficult to find the best point at which to integrate. Web services will help both with the discovery of those points and the integration itself.”
Khan agrees that initial usage has been largely in-house. “There is still some confusion about Web services security models,” he adds, “so companies want to test the technology in a controlled environment.”
Khan expects that the next phase of Web services will focus on simple processes with partners, and then extend the applications to larger audiences. So far, only a limited number of Web services are available, and there are still some differences in how people are interpreting the protocols. Ultimus has developed a set of components for enabling workflow processes based on the Ultimus Workflow Suite to be accessed as Web services. Similarly, the Ultimus workflow processes can now invoke Web services from any step in the process.
Business intelligence is another type of enterprise application that is well positioned to benefit from Web services. Until recently, sharing data warehouse information with partners and customers was cumbersome and expensive because of the integration requirements. MicroStrategy's XML-based architecture makes the functionality of its MicroStrategy 7i business intelligence platform easily available to other applications as Web services. For example, a supplier would be able to access the contents of a retailer's data warehouse and tie the information into its own applications to trigger events such as shipping products. In the past, without the help of standards like Web services, information could be accessed, but integration with other applications proved more difficult.
As an evolving practice, Web services will require some time before all the wrinkles, including standards and security, are ironed out. The most common mistake organizations make right now in developing Web services is in failing to define the overall architectural framework, according to Robert Wegener, director of solutions, Web services, for RCGIT, an IT services company. Instead, they become too focused on specific development tools. “Fortunately,” says Wegener, “the leading software providers, such as Microsoft, IBM and Sun, have created excellent environments and platforms to exploit the power of Web services.”
Wegener also sees some obstacles in determining pricing models for Web services. “If a company is offering a lookup service for financial information,” he says, “they may not know whether to charge based on how many transactions, as a subscription, or some other approach.” However, he believes that because Web services are enabling clients to do things that were difficult or impossible to do before, the outlook for success is excellent. In particular, removing the requirement for partners to have detailed knowledge about each other’s applications will enable the flexibility and responsiveness needed in today’s business environment.
Web services standards
The Web Services Interoperability Organization, which was established in February 2002, aims to promote Web services interoperability across platforms, operating systems and programming languages. Working with other interested groups such as the