Related Topics: Java EE Journal

J2EE Journal: Article

Why Web Services Work

Why Web Services Work

Having been endorsed by virtually every technology vendor on the planet, Web services are now evolving from "feature" to "fabric." They are moving from the latest buzzword (hot new feature) to a mature and accepted technology (fabric of the technology landscape). The hype is fading; it is no longer interesting to develop Web services simply as a proof of technology, or as an end in themselves.

This series explores the use of Web services in real-world situations, with the purpose of identifying usage patterns. The idea behind the series is to help answer questions like: Where and how do Web services deliver value? Where might they be counter-indicated? What works? What doesn't?

For the first time, there is enough data from real-world, business-driven projects to allow us to begin to recognize patterns. The data analyzed here is drawn from production Web services case studies culled from two sources:

  • Sand Hill Group's study, "The Web Services Derby" (
  • webMethods customers employing Web Service-Based Integration (WSBI)

    Where possible, case studies are attributed to specific companies. However, in many cases organizations requested anonymity, generally because their projects are not public and are considered competitive differentiators.

    Reasons for Choosing Web Services
    This month, we explore the reasons project executives gave for why they chose Web services. Companies that have deployed WSBI projects reported that Web services have such compelling characteristics that they translate into tangible business benefits. Early implementations have shown that Web services can significantly reduce development and maintenance costs while yielding a highly responsive IT infrastructure. Web services are so important that 25% of the companies interviewed indicated that their projects would not have happened without Web services because of the lack of feasible alternative approaches.

    Four major reasons for using Web services emerged from the analysis. A few initiatives were too broad or too unique to categorize, but the vast majority - over 70 of the 80 case studies reviewed - coalesced around the following major themes:

    • Simplicity
    • Interoperability
    • Abstraction
    • Reuse
    According to the companies interviewed for this research, each of these contributed directly to business benefits such as increased revenues, decreased costs, and improved customer satisfaction.

    Reason #1: Simplicity
    Let's face it: the big draw of Web services is that they're easy to work with. Compared to EDI or programming interfaces, WSDL is much easier for people to understand. Even nonprogrammers can use Web services tools to create useful solutions, and they don't need to be SOAP or WSDL experts. No specialized training is required, and chances are your developers can get ramped up quickly (if they aren't already).

    For example, a logistics and transportation company needed to make it easier for developers at partner companies to remotely call the company's shipping functionality from within their applications. In the past, the company distributed software development kits (SDKs) for several platforms, but it was a nightmare to maintain and never gained any traction. Web services were a perfect solution that allowed developers to use whatever development tool they already had. The company believes that its transition to Web services will make its shipping functionality ubiquitous, and will serve as a customer acquisition tool.

    Andy Ellicot, technology director for Infinity Pharmaceuticals, notes that he didn't have to hire expensive programmers to implement his Web service projects. "Our team of technical analysts was able to deliver the project without having to get the engineering team involved. This helped us save time and money," adds Ellicott. The technical analysts, who knew the end-user application but weren't programmers, used a Web services-based integration platform to orchestrate individual Web services developed by engineering into business process-spe- cific Web services that were exposed to the portal team. The graphical environment made this easy, and they didn't require expertise with Java, .NET, or WSDL.

    Reason #2: Interoperability
    The most common technical reason cited for using Web services is platform and technology interoperability. For the first time, an entire industry has agreed on a common messaging format. Almost every software vendor is adding Web services support to its products, allowing "plug and play" interoperability among the portal, desktop, and back-office applications.

    Because of Web service interoperability, companies can implement a loosely coupled, global IT infrastructure. Consider the CIO of a large rental car company in Europe, faced with the difficult task of integrating every reservation system in Europe so that a customer can pick up a car in France and drop it off in Germany. This company has grown by acquisition, and each country has their own custom reservation system. Without Web services, his alternative was to standardize on a technology, and then force each country to implement it. A risky venture, even if he wins the political battle. With Web services, though, he just needs to define and gain consensus on the interface. The interface, then, can be implemented by each of the countries with whatever technology they prefer.

    Web service interoperability was a key factor for companies that needed to connect their portals to their back office. In fact, over half of the companies surveyed used Web services with a portal or application server. In this scenario, an integration platform is typically used as the central Web services provider that feeds the portal with various back-end data sources. For example, at NEC Electronics America, Web services connect their application server to their back-end databases' integration platform. The project would have taken another 4-6 weeks with an alternative, proprietary approach, such as RMI, and may not have been easily reusable by other business units.

    Perhaps the most significant aspect of Web service interoperability is the ability to bridge J2EE and .NET environments. For Infinity Pharmaceuticals, this was the primary driver for using Web services. Andy Ellicot says, "because many applications speak SOAP they can be easily plugged into the architecture. I'm not locked into any one proprietary solution." Various commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) products plug into the integration framework via Web services. This has allowed Infinity to quickly adapt their IT infrastructure to take advantage of market opportunities. A leading mortgage lender and financial services company relied on Web service interoperability to efficiently connect their various portals to their integration platform. Because of acquisitions, the company had to maintain both J2EE and .NET environments. Web services were the only way to feasibly connect these portals to their back office.

    Reason #3: Abstraction
    Abstraction refers to the process of hiding all but the most relevant data about an object in order to reduce complexity and increase processing efficiency. Companies indicated that Web services abstraction:

    1. Eases integration between organizations
    2. Reduces complexity
    3. Enables application "plug-and-play"
    Eases Integration Between Organizations
    Nearly all of the companies interviewed are using Web services in projects that require integration with another organization, i.e., another internal team or an external trading partner. The issue with integrating with another organization is that you rarely (a) control them and their technology decisions or (b) have expertise about their systems. With Web services you agree on the interface, not necessarily on the technology, and you don't require domain expertise about the other's back-end systems. Therein lies the power of Web services abstraction.

    Future Electronics, a multibillion-dollar electronics components distributor, decided to use WSBI to help ease integration between their e-commerce portal and the company's mainframe system that processed all orders. Without Web services, the only way to accomplish the integration with the mainframe was for the e-commerce team to access the mainframe database tables directly. Understandably, the mainframe team was highly uncomfortable with this. Furthermore, the e-commerce team would have had to acquire mainframe expertise. Instead, they agreed on the (WSDL) interface, and implemented that interface using technology that was already familiar: the e-commerce team used the webMethods Integration Platform and the mainframe team deployed a mainframe SOAP add-on product. Brad Hudon, director of IT Development for Future Electronics, says "Web services allowed us to implement a 'black-box' integration framework that lets each of the teams retain their existing business logic." He adds that the project would not have succeeded without the use of Web services.

    Reduces Complexity
    Many companies are building "business service hubs" that consolidate and standardize the myriad interfaces, protocols, and data formats they had before. A single Web service may trigger a complex business process that touches several systems and data sources. However, the consumer only invokes a simple Web service and need not be concerned with the intricacies of the back-end systems.

    A large financial services company consolidated 50 back-end systems into a simple set of Web services that are consumed by 20 front-office and customer-support applications. One Web service operation, called Update Customer Information, for example, sets off a complex business process that sends the data to 10 different customer systems. However, all of this complexity is abstracted to the consumer of that service, greatly speeding the integration.

    Avnet Computer Marketing, a leading provider of enterprise systems, software, networking, and storage, was able to reduce the cost of maintaining and extending their integration architecture by consolidating their FTP, XML, and IP socket interfaces and standardizing on Web services. Now the e-commerce portal team can focus on the presentation layer and no longer needs to know about these various proprietary interfaces and file formats - they just call a Web service.

    Enables Application "Plug-and-Play"
    With Web services, companies can replace a back-end system without impacting the overall application if they maintain the WSDL interface. An auto manufacturer, for example, had to retire its legacy system as quickly as possible. The company wrapped the system with a Web services interface with the goal of replacing it with newer technology. The interface was designed carefully so that it can be kept stable while migrating the application.

    Reason #4: Component Reuse
    Many companies are building business service hubs not only to consolidate their interfaces but to maximize reuse. These service hubs aggregate individual application capabilities into coarsely grained business services that are exposed for use by multiple systems. Business service projects are very common where multiple front-end systems need to access multiple back-end systems. The biggest benefit of Web services doesn't occur the first time, but on recurring integrations. The speed of execution becomes faster as previously developed services are reused because developers do not constantly have to rewrite code.

    For example, a large financial services company implemented Web services because they planned to connect multiple front-office applications that needed to access the same type of data. A service hub exposed their back-end systems as a simple set of Web services. While Web services didn't save time on the first connection, they did have significant impact for subsequent connections. Implementing the first Web services-based business process and integrating it with the customer portal took seven weeks, but the second connection to the automated voice response system took only several days (much to the surprise of the project manager, who had initially budgeted two months!).

    Avnet Computer Marketing already had several Web services projects under their belt, and today integration projects are measured in days instead of weeks. Integrating the quote-to-order application with the mainframe took about six weeks, but connecting the order entry e-commerce system to the same Web service took only one day.

    The companies that have deployed WSBI projects report that the combination of simplicity, interoperability, abstraction, and reuse make Web services so compelling that they translate into tangible business value. These pioneering companies say Web services will survive because they make a business impact, rather than being adopted for technology's sake. These companies are realizing genuine business benefits and plan to continue on the road to adopting Web services.

  • More Stories By Michael Blank

    Michael Blank is a founding member of webMethods, Inc. and was its first software engineer. During his tenure, he has started and commercialized several product offerings. As director of developer marketing, he manages webMethods’ developer communities as well as the software evaluation program (

    Comments (4) View Comments

    Share your thoughts on this story.

    Add your comment
    You must be signed in to add a comment. Sign-in | Register

    In accordance with our Comment Policy, we encourage comments that are on topic, relevant and to-the-point. We will remove comments that include profanity, personal attacks, racial slurs, threats of violence, or other inappropriate material that violates our Terms and Conditions, and will block users who make repeated violations. We ask all readers to expect diversity of opinion and to treat one another with dignity and respect.

    Most Recent Comments
    henry liu 08/14/03 03:41:35 PM EDT

    This is truly a great article, written by a great software engineer and a great visionary. While others are still hyping about web services, webMethods has had so many successful web services projects that delivered great values to their customers. The essence extracted out of each successul project is a valuable reference for anybody who is interetsed in web services.

    Nasir 08/01/03 01:57:00 PM EDT

    A great article. Discusses web services in detail, impact on different companies and its future prospects.

    Prasad Pondugula 07/11/03 07:38:00 AM EDT

    Its really a good article. The author has covered different real world scenarios, which makes us understand what are Web Services and how they can benifit our organization.


    Rajesh Kannan 08/02/03 02:41:00 AM EDT

    It is one of the interesting article. It is a good intiative towards the use of web services in the real world situation. Hope to see more article on the challenges to be faced in the road of Webservice implementation.