Too much complexity stifling web services

While agreeing that web services and standardisation is the way forward, speakers at a recent forum complained that complexity was hampering progress. Paul Krill reports

Although web services deployments are happening, a morass of complexity and a long, head-spinning list of proposed standards continues to hobble the technology, according to participants at a conference on interoperability, held last month.

The event was hosted by the SDForum, a non-profit Silicon Valley-based organisation.

Citing issues ranging from competing standards to a lack of end-user participation in standards development, speakers gave a mostly poor progress report on web services interoperability.

Andy Daecher, a partner in Deloitte’s technology integration services unit, noted “My personal observation, living in this world, [is that] it’s still the early days of web services.”

Anne Thomas Manes, vice president and research director at the Burton Group, referred to the confusing situation as “vertigo”. To back up that assertion, she displayed a list of about 15 web services specifications currently vying to become standards.

The list featured specifications such as WS-Federation and BPEL (business process execution language).

“I understand what all this stuff is and it still makes my head spin,” she noted in her presentation to the conference.

While the Web Services Interoperability Organisation (WSI-O) Basic Profile provides some understanding of how to use these specifications, there are unresolved issues, such as the use of XML data mapping, she says.

Additionally, attachments pose problems with interoperability, she says. Java supports MIME (Multimedia Internet Mail Extensions), while .Net supports DIME (Direct Internet Message Encapsulation) and “you can’t make them work together”.

Migrating from Web Services Framework (WSF) 1.0 to WSF 2.0 will be disruptive, she says. Situations have also emerged with competing standards proposals, such as WS-ReliableMessaging and WS-Reliability, although “WS-ReliableMessaging has won that battle”.

WS-Notification and WS-Eventing are also competing proposals, and BPEL and WS-CDL (Choreography Description Language) present yet another competitive situation, she says.

Typically, vendors — not users — are pushing standards, she says.

“The vendors are always pursuing their own agenda”.

While noting the plethora of standard proposals for users to follow, Manes did stress the importance of standards in her speech.

“Just to conclude, interoperability is your goal. You need to get your systems to work together and standards [are] definitely the solution,” she noted. “Unfortunately, standardisation takes time.”

Initiatives are underway to make it simpler to program with web services, Edward Cobb, vice president of Architecture and Standards at BEA Systems, told the audience.

“That has been one of the major inhibitors — you really do need to be a rocket scientist to use a lot of it.”

An audience member concurred with Cobb’s assessment and added that interoperability between Java and .Net “takes a substantial amount of work.”

Cobb says there is a place for tools that make it easier to use web services and while efforts to this effect are under-way at the Eclipse Foundation, tooling alone will not suffice, he predicts.

“The thing we have to be a little careful about is that we need abstractions that don’t assume that you can cover up complexity with tooling.”

Nicholas Kassem, a technology director at Sun Microsystems, cautioned that there is no one single way to bootstrap web services that would be relevant to everybody.

“There is no single magic bullet.”

Another audience member expressed concern that investments in web services technology could become irrelevant because of changing standards. Forum Systems president and chief executive Weston Swenson emphasised that his company uses gateways to enable customers to interoperate with standards.

Despite all the discouraging comments among panelists, BEA’s Cobb stresses that web services standards do work.

“The original question is: are the standards mature enough to work? The answer is [absolutely] yes.”

But more needs to be done to bring about wider use of web services, he says. The industry must enable the great majority of IT users to be able to use web services — not just leading-edge companies, consultants and some others, he says.

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