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The State of Web Services, 2003 A.D.
They're 'a tool for the times,' say the experts

What do you get if you cross an early 21stcentury visionary CTO with a late 19thcentury employee of the Edison Electric Light Company? Answer: a fantastic keynote address at Web Services Edge 2003 West, held in Santa Clara last month.

The visionary in question was Allan Vermeulen, coauthor of the codehead's classic The Elements of Java Style, and now CTO of the world's largest online retailer, Amazon.com. The Edison employee was Sam Unsell, whose contribution to the development of technology - Vermeulen explained - was to develop an economic model for electricity use in Chicago.

As with electricity then, so with Web services now. This, in Vermeulen's view, is the next shoe that needs to drop.

"Somebody has to be the Sam Unsell of Web services," he proclaimed, meaning that someone in the Web services space has to come up with a good idea for what kind of economic model is best suited to underpinning the technology.

Commercially available electricity, he explained, was only able to catch on and become pervasive because, with Unsell's help, the Edison Electric Light Company invented not just the first commercially practical incandescent lamp but a complete electrical distribution system for light and power - including generators, motors, light sockets with the Edison base, junction boxes, safety fuses, underground conductors, and other devices.

The comparison held the packed audience at the Santa Clara Convention Center, quite literally, spellbound. It was deemed by all who attended to be one of the most memorable and - pun intended - illuminating keynotes in the history of the Web Services Edge series of Conferences and Expos, which is saying something since in previous years keynotes have been given by folks like the "Father of Java," Sun's James Gosling; and the "Father of Markup," Charles F. Goldfarb.

Vermeulen's ebullient opening keynote characterized well a conference that for three days brimmed with good content and animated discussions.

The Complexity Crisis
Keynote discussion panels featured the likes of John Schmidt, CTO of the No. 1 specialty retailer in the U.S., Best Buy, who brought to bear his enormous real-world experience of Web services: Best Buy moves about 100 gigabytes of data a day - inventory data, foundation data (pricing, etc.) - and top management throughout industry, Schmidt reported, is starting to recognize the issues of complexity in IT.

"We need," he observed, "to help take layers of complexity out of our IT environment." Whereas Web services, in Schmidt's view, may take us in the opposite direction.

Coming from a seasoned expert like Schmidt, who also chairs the Methodology Committee of the EAI Consortium, this was a compelling message - especially once he had set the stage with a reference to what he called "the dark side of systems integration - the complexity crisis."

Best Buy alone has over 600 technologies to support 165 technology capabilities, Schmidt reported. "A couple of years ago it took about 20-30 days to build a complete interface," he said. "Nowadays it takes about 4-5 days. Best Buy now adds over 550 interfaces every month (over the past 3 months)."

In other words, and this was Schmidt's point, "As complex as our environment is at the moment, Web services is going to make it even more complicated."

A Web service can be built almost at the push of a button, Schmidt concluded. "Accordingly, they will proliferate on a massive scale."

Keynote Panel: Web Services Paradigm Has Evolved
At another keynote discussion panel the question was "Interoperability: Is Web Services Delivering?"

When panel moderator Derek Ferguson, editor-in-chief of .NET Developer's Journal, asked the panel members to set the parameters of the discussion by first defining Web services, it became clear that the invited experts on the keynote stage agreed that, while defined by the interop protocol known as SOAP 1.1, no longer do Web services necessarily have to be XML, or even over HTTP. The paradigm has evolved.

David Chappell, VP and chief technology evangelist, Sonic Software, stressed that in his view, while Web services interactions do not have to be across HTTP, "XML is key to defining what a Web services interaction should be. It's best suited for the role of serving as the language for describing the data that needs to be exchanged between applications."

Gary Brunell, VP of professional services for Parasoft, pointed out that "If we're going to use the term 'Web services,' it does suggest the Web, and so HTTP and HTTPS. XML is very important too," he added.

Meantime, David White of Microsoft said he disagreed with the "Web" part of the term "Web services." "I'm a big believer in transport agnosticism," White said. "I'm really more concerned about the data representation and the invocation, rather than the transport. The key is to get something back and forth without great expense."

Chappell agreed: "To me the 'services' word is the more important, the service-oriented architecture part. 'Web services' is now a more generic term, for 'the next thing that's going to solve the problems we're trying to solve.'"

Next the panel moved on to pinpoint whether Web services has yet become common beyond the firewall, or is still mostly being used for intracompany use.

Chappell noted that in his experience there is about an 80:20 divide in terms of adoption. "80% is within the corporation's control, and 20% involves the public Internet (the Web) - dealing with other business partners, for example." Brunell agreed that mission-critical apps were still "few and far between," adding, "That's why we are all coming to these conferences."

Microsoft's White noted that on the contrary he had seen mission-critical things happen inside Web services. "We've only just gotten there," he said, "but I have absolutely seen missioncritical Web services in our customer mass." Not out in the B2B space, he conceded.

JBoss Group's CTO, Scott Stark, pinpointed one crucial piece of the jigsaw that's still missing: "Single Sign-On is a joke, I have about 35 accounts; no one has an agreement yet on a one-stop solution, and no enterprise technology can surmount that. J2EE is still basically a middleware technology," Stark continued, "it's not out there bridging enterprises."

The bridging role, then, remains perfect for Web services. But these things take time, Stark added. "Developers are going to have to get comfortable with Web services first: J2EE has taken 7 years to become a reasonably accepted technology." He pointed out that XML wasn't without its shortcomings. "XML is a double-edged sword. My head starts spinning after I've read the 10 different XML Schemas. So the usual technology curve also impedes the adoption of Web services. But that's just the nature of the beast."

Asked if XML might be replaced, White explained that one of the problems is that good tools are often the last thing to appear after a "technology burst" such as the one we are seeing around Web services. "I'm not a seer," White said, but the key to widespread adoption of any new technology is completion of the specs (we're there), demos (we're getting there), and then the tools (they're coming)."

JBoss's Stark agreed. "XML isn't going anywhere. Before there was IIOP and it went nowhere. Clearly XML is the only technology, however complex it might be, that's tried to address the problem. Besides, IIOP was even more complicated, and writing, say, a TCP/IP stack, is not a productive endeavor."

Stark then minted the phrase of the conference. "People have more comfort now with distributed programming; it's a tool for the times."

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