June 2003 Cutter Benchmark Review -- An Update on Web Services: Better Definitions, Expanding Use

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June 2003
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About a year ago, we first addressed the subject of Web services in CBR . At that time, Cutter survey results raised many questions about the meaning of "Web services," how companies intended to use these services, and why many respondents seemed so down on ASPs but nonetheless willing to consider using Web services in analogous ways. The data contained seemingly contradictory results, as is probably not surprising for a relatively early stage in the use of a new technology. In my review of that issue (Vol. 2, No. 7), I found the picture painted by the survey responses so perplexing that I exclaimed in my opening comments: "Come on, folks! What's going on with this data?"

Happily, revisiting the subject almost a year later begins to clarify things. Some of the blanks are beginning to fill in, and the overall picture is more complete, though still evolving. Cutter Consortium Senior Consultant Tom Welsh, the author of most of the material in this month's CBR , has done a very thorough job of walking us through four sets of survey data. Most striking in the data is the number of people who have gone beyond the evaluation stage to actually begin using Web services in some way. About two-thirds of respondents are at least prototyping with the new technologies. Many companies seem to be acquiring experience with the new technology very rapidly; that fact, in itself, may serve as a wake-up call to some. In addition, we get a better sense of what is meant by "Web services" than was apparent in last year's survey data: the favorite definitions now are general and inclusive rather than specific and technical, and they amount roughly to components accessed online, XML, and "associated middleware."

Other questions that I raised a year ago are also being answered. Back then, respondents were down on ASPs for security reasons but quite high on Web services. Last year, I asked how this could be: if you're worried about ASP security, shouldn't Web services security worry you, too? A possible explanation that I raised at the time has now materialized in the data: people use Web services far more inside the firewall than outside it. Thus, security worries are not as great as with ASPs, which are viewed as operating almost entirely outside the firewall. In addition, the data in this issue of CBR also points to a continuing emphasis on standardization, a necessity for realizing the platform-independent vision of Web services.

The idea that Web services are valuable because they help companies achieve platform independence recurs throughout the survey responses. For me, this quest for platform independence raises an important question about how the market for Web services technologies will ultimately operate. Though not yet answered, this question may prove to be more important than just about anything else: why would the big IT vendors let the platform-independent vision of Web services come into existence? In the current IT environment -- in which small innovators are essentially dead in the water -- the big companies, such as Microsoft and IBM, are in charge. The good news is that the big guys all have comforting words about Web services; they seem to agree with the vision.

Frankly, though, I'm skeptical. Big companies have the wrong incentives and reflexes to work earnestly toward platform independence. I wonder if they aren't just lying back, waiting for the best opportunity to try to hijack the standards and kill off the vision of a fully interoperable Web services future. Not a happy thought, but it has certainly happened before in the IT industry. There's at least a strong tension between where a lot of optimistic technologists see Web services heading and where I suspect the large IT vendors want it to go. We'll revisit this subject again in a year or so to see whether we have more evidence that helps us answer this "mother of all questions."

Boris Lublinsky and Cutter Consortium Senior Consultant Michael Rosen wrap up this issue of CBR with an overarching look at enterprise integration and how Web services fit into the big picture. All in all, it's a great set of articles on a very hot topic. I hope you enjoy it.

Robert D. Austin
Editor, Cutter Benchmark Review
Fellow, Cutter Business Technology Council