Tying the application knot

Web services support will be mandatory for enterprise applications vendors

WEB SERVICES PROMISE to deliver an open, Web-based architecture to connect business processes, which could potentially turn upside down the way we think of, create, and use software. It's reasonable to predict that more granular applications, sized to solve discrete business problems, will replace today's monolithic, all-encompassing suites. Therefore, companies should be able to support their business by building a mosaic of best-of-breed Web services, choosing (and therefore paying for) only those that satisfy requirements.

While the infrastructure for publishing and discovering Web services matures, b-to-b integration vendors such as Tibco and Vitria are realigning their applications, taking advantage of Web services to facilitate business process integration, which in time will entice competitors to do the same. Similarly, SAP, in addition to joining Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and Microsoft to provide UDDI (Universal Description, Discovery, and Integration) registry operator services, has promised to weave Web services capabilities into its applications.

Similar moves from other enterprise application vendors should not be a surprise, because to remain competitive in the Web services landscape, these vendors will have no choice but to facilitate the services-based integration of their applications with those from other vendors and on other platforms, allowing customers to dramatically reduce the time and costs involved in extending IT-supported business processes to business partners.

Although the ultimate goal of Web services is to create increased business value by connecting to services provided by other parties, that objective implies simplified integration of enterprise apps. In fact, in their march toward Web services-capable applications, some companies are already reaping some of the benefits of adopting open technologies such as XML.

Web-based CRM applications are an interesting example. Companies such as Salesforce.com, Salesnet, and Upshot are focusing their development efforts on Web services and already reaping some of the benefits of an open architecture.

For Upshot, an initial benefit of embracing XML and Microsoft .Net was being able to offer Offline Express, an optional feature that allows users to download account information from the Upshot database to an Excel 2000 spreadsheet and modify account information offline from a PC or laptop.

Interestingly, Offline Express does not simply export data into Excel format, it also creates a streamlined VBA (Visual Basic for Applications) GUI that maintains the same appearance and behavior of the online application. Moreover, the spreadsheet cells are protected and data can be changed only using the offline GUI, which prevents inadvertent updates. When a Web connection is available, users can quickly upload just the changes, which are tracked by the VBA software.

Easy integration

For Salesforce.com, XML was the key to offering customers easy integration of their CRM data with existing applications, using Data Junction Integration Suite, a data-transformation engine equipped with a custom data connector. The data integration process begins by installing the Integration Suite and accessing the XML Gateway of Salesforce.com via the Internet.

Users, within the limits of their access rights, select the data to transfer from the Salesforce.com API and map each field to the target in any of the numerous databases supported by the Integration Suite. The data transfer happens via the Web, using a SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol)-like paradigm that involves the transfer of XML documents over HTTP.

Although it addresses a specific problem, the Data Junction-Salesforce.com cooperation is an interesting example of how basic technologies for Web services, such as XML, can simplify the interoperability of CRM applications. In the near future companies such as Data Junction could extend their focus from providing data integration software to providing data integration services, which customer companies could dynamically invoke over the Web using UDDI directories.

Finally, UDDI and WSDL (Web Services Description Language) grant companies the ability to find service providers on the Internet and to learn their modus operandi, but these standards lack the scope of defining business rules to orchestrate the overall Web services-based transaction.

For example, a simple business process for online consumer sales could be to accept an order only after a satisfactory credit check. Similar rules need to be coded in such a way that the resulting transaction will correctly identify partners' roles and rules of engagement, regardless of the providers and services used to build it.

WSCL (Web Services Conversation Language), an interesting set of specifications released in May by Hewlett-Packard, complements the service descriptions of WSDL with essential elements to describe the flow of a business process between partners. WSCL completes a UDDI registry for a company with business process information such as the document formats to exchange, the activities needed to carry on the transaction, and their sequence. However, even with the addition of WSCL, UDDI registries could fall short describing all the roles and interactions that make a cooperative e-business scenario.

A competing set of specifications for e-business, called ebXML (E-Business XML), promises a more comprehensive approach to discovering services and partners and defining business scenarios involving multiple parties. (For an outline of ebXML, see " Building a better b-to-b marketplace ", Sept. 17, 2001.)

New specifications, including WSCL (Web Services Conversation Language) and ebXML (e-business XML), take a more comprehensive approach to describing process flows.

The benefits of Web services are not specific to CRM or any other family of applications, as the ultimate aim of Web services is to mix and match applications according to business requirements rather than technical compatibility. But because CRM is quite often the latest addition to a company portfolio, it also becomes the sore spot of application integration. Embracing Web services could be the cure, and although it bears a non-trivial cost and may seem an extreme approach to the problem, it has the potential to extend those benefits to future integrations.

Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.