Web services a saviour?

What is "web services?" The core concept is that you'll be able to build applications out of prebuilt components scattered about the web using standard protocols that enable run-time binding.

Management Speak: Application of this tool in our environment is critical to successfully meet our objectives.

Translation: We have to find a place to use this, or I won’t be able to justify spending the leftover funds I had to burn to secure our budget for next year.

This week’s anonymous contributor recommends not using this phrase in your environment.

One of Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous promotions was “The Birds is coming”. He got free publicity through grammatical debates. Pedestrian grammarians bemoaned the disagreement of subject (birds) and verb (is). The insightful recognised The Birds as the movie’s title, and thus singular.

What then should we make of “web services”? Is it singular — the name of an architecture — or plural — a series of components offered via the internet? Let’s use the phrase and see how it comes out.

What is “web services?” The core concept is that you’ll be able to build applications out of prebuilt components scattered about the web using standard protocols that enable run-time binding. According to its advocates, the result(s) will be dramatic reductions in development time and orders-of-magnitude improvements in quality.

Unfortunately, web services contains huge, fundamental flaws. Although not insurmountable, they’re not easily fixed. Neal Goldman of the Yankee Group brought one to my attention: version control.

Imagine your company uses a web services application, and the provider of a key component changes its behaviour. The new component runs fine, of course, but sadly, it no longer does what you expect it to do. Surprise! Payroll tax withholding suddenly changes and there’s nothing you can do about it: you control neither the code nor the versioning. It’s like DLL hell, only the application doesn’t crash. You just wish it had, instead of creating business chaos by doing things wrong.

A second big problem is latency. When you run an application on your own computers, components communicate with latencies measured in microseconds. With web services they communicate across the internet, which means latencies measured in tens, hundreds or even thousands of milliseconds. Do you seriously think you can solve this with SLAs (service-level agreements)? Me neither. Imagine a component that computes daily interest for a million customers. Even an excellent service level — 10 milliseconds — adds nearly three hours just from internet latency. That’s a lot of run time to add for just one component, and your entire application is built out of components like this. Web services could easily change overnight batch into over-year batch.

You might think you can solve this through the miracle of caching. Maybe you can; but next week we’ll see how a third major, entirely non-technical issue with web services could kill this option.

Send email to Bob Lewis. Lewis is president of IT Catalysts.

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