Is Web Services the Next Big Thing?

No technology since the dotcom revolution has received as much attention as Web Services. Imagine a world where business transactions are conducted over the internet with little or no human intervention. Imagine a world where hardware and software (applications, networks, devices, PC's, Cell Phones, PDA's, etc.) are all integrated through the internet, allowing seamless flow of business information across the entire value chain. And the good news is that no major investment in technology is required – existing infrastructures of all kinds are pulled together through a standard model. Such a vision of business is called Web Services.

“Web services will quietly transform the way you do business, whether you're ready or not. A web service application is simply a piece of software that sits between my partners and me and allows all these desperate systems to communicate more easily. So if we can reduce the complexity of connecting systems together, we can either reduce our IT resources or put them to better use to make companies more efficient and competitive.”
- Harvard Business Review, September 2003

Let's illustrate an example of how web services can transform what you do. Almost everyone uses the internet to display documents using a web browser (such as Internet Explorer). However, there is limited functionality in how you can use this data when viewing it over the internet; i.e. you can display it, but you can't download it into a spreadsheet. Suppose we could go around the web browser and place the data directly into a spreadsheet or perhaps, we need to send data to our PDA (Personal Digital Assistant). Web Services is programming for the internet and since everyone and every organization is connected through the internet, the potential is enormous.

“Web services technology – which represents the next stage in distributed computing – will profoundly affect organizations in 2002 and beyond. Almost every type of business – from small organizations to large, global enterprises – can benefit from web services. Companies are already implementing web services to facilitate a wide variety of business processes, such as expediting the development of corporate software, integrating applications and databases, and automating transactions with suppliers, partners, and clients.”
- Web Services: A Technical Introduction by Deitel & Associates

So how does it work? Web service's relies on a protocol called XML or Extensible Markup Language. XML places descriptive tags around data, making the data portable across all kinds of platforms and applications. From an IT (Information Technology) perspective, XML is the language for processing business transactions. Besides XML, web services uses three other protocols:

- SOAP (simple object access protocol) provides the instruction code that gives the XML data processing power in the web service world; i.e. we need to submit request, process the request, and get a response back.
- UDDI (universal description, discovery and integration) provides a directory of web services, similar to how you look up a business in the Yellow Pages.
- WSDL (web services description language) provides a description of the web service so you can distinguish different types of services being offered by service providers.

“There is much debate as to whether web services are an evolution or a revolution. My view on this issue was expressed in the title of a column I wrote for IBM developerWorks. The column was called ‘The Web Services (R)evolution' because I think that web services are both an evolution of distributed computing and the launch point for a revolution in the way we think about building large scale systems.”
- Web Services: Building Blocks for Distributed Systems by Graham Glass

Before you rush out and launch a Web Service Project, some words of caution are in order. Web Services has failed to really take off due to issues such as reliability, security, and scalability. Also, XML is a sword sharp at two ends – it makes data very portable, but it can more than double the data load since everything is wrapped in a descriptive tag for processing. Additionally, web services seems to be stuck as a basic message processing service, unable to handle business transactions that require logic and business rules.

However, for businesses that rely heavily on technology, web service's warrants some serious attention. Just like when the Personal Computer was introduced, the potential of web services is significant. Therefore, if you are serious about technology and business processes, then you need to keep web services on your technology “radar screen” since it could be the next big thing.

“Web services are much like the magic stone in the folk tale about stone soup. As the story goes, a soldier comes to a small town where there is little food. The soldier declares that he has a magic stone that would make a great soup. The villagers, one by one, not wanting to be left out, bring meat, vegetables, and spices to add to this magic soup. In the end, they all enjoy the soup and everyone marvels at how wonderful a meal could be made from nothing but a stone.”
- Brave New Apps by Robert P. Lipschutz, PC Magazine, October 1, 2003

Written by: Matt H. Evans, CPA, CMA, CFM | Email: | Phone: 1-877-807-8756

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