A couple of years ago, in the hype over Web services, IT leaders were told that their prayers would at last be answered. A simple set of XML-based protocols would enable IT to create reusable application building blocks that could be recombined ad infinitum, slashing application-development and maintenance costs. And because Web services components were accessible over HTTP, they would herald a new era of zero-cost business integration.
Of course, that hasn't happened.
"People in general thought Web services were simple and cheap, and it turns out they are complex and not so cheap," said Bernard Borges, an IBM Web services architect. "I think the whole notion of a Web service was intuitively appealing because the original scope of Web services was using them as a simple integration tool. [But] it painted a rather rosy and low-tech picture compared to proprietary EAI products."
Of course, as one of the inventors of Web services, IBM helped paint that picture. And many enterprises swallowed the value proposition whole, mainly because the time was ripe for a broadly applicable solution to integration woes. The promise remains compelling -- and most enterprise developers have at least given Web services a whirl. But planning, deploying and managing an enterprisewide Web services implementation can be dauntingly complex.
So guess who's ready to jump in and lend a hand? IBM Global Services -- along with other monster consultancies, including Accenture, BearingPoint, Cap Gemini, Deloitte Consulting, EDS, and Hewlett-Packard's new Services division. All now offer Web services "solutions" as part of their overall IT services portfolio. Meet the new boss; same as the old boss.
"As Web services-based projects move outside of enterprise firewalls and become more complex, organizations will increasingly request the help of external services providers," concluded IDC in a recent competitive analysis of Web services. Moreover, the big consultancies have moved down-market, targeting midsized companies as well as the giant corporations that were once their exclusive domain.
Services on Tap
But wait a minute? Weren't Web services supposed to be a bottom-up endeavor? The thinking was that IT could incrementally build Web services components that could be linked as needed -- to add functionality to enterprise portals, collect real-time business intelligence, hook into business partner billing systems, and so on. To be sure, these notions have been embraced by enterprise developers, many of whom have applied the new technology for one-off projects. But managing and tracking Web services across an enterprise and ensuring interoperability, security, and performance require a new order of architectural discipline.
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The unifying concept that illuminates this top-down view -- and dovetails nicely with the grand ambitions of the big consultancies -- is SOA (service-oriented architecture). An SOA formalizes how Web services should be built, deployed, executed, and managed throughout an organization. It also stipulates that Web services components meet quality-of-service targets, or else one faulty component could bring down all the distributed applications that depend on it.