IBM preaches web services gospel

New Zealand IT managers last week came by the hundreds to hear the latest great hope for flawless platform-independent B2B integration among applications across the web.

New Zealand IT managers last week came by the hundreds to hear the latest great hope for flawless platform-independent B2B integration among applications across the web.

Once, the answer to “write once, run anywhere” was Java; before that it was Unix. Now it’s the IBM-developed web services.

This is the gospel promoted by Steve Holbrook, officially titled “technology evangelist” for web services. Holbrook is a recruit of about six months to IBM, from Novell.

Web services, now taken up by a multi-vendor consortium, exploits the obscuring of individual platforms under web architecture. Web services – the building blocks of which are the SOAP, WSDL and UDDI specifications and IBM’s WebSphere development platform – provide means for one program to invoke another, independent of hardware, operating system or language, running on the universal computing infrastructure called the web. You no longer have to care what hardware or operating system a business runs when deciding how to relate to it, Holbrook says.

The difference between this claim of complete integration and that of Java and Unix is that, in both cases, “write once, run anywhere” was compromised as vendors tried to outdo one another in adding pieces or offering supposedly superior versions to gain a competitive edge, he says.

A few years ago, there were seven or more versions of HTTP server within IBM, says Holbrook. “Then we thought: ‘why not use Apache, the most widely used server in the world, and build on what’s being given away for free?’ ” Apache is still inside WebSphere. IBM has in return given its Xerces XML parser and Xalan, which transforms XML documents into other formats, to the Apache foundation.

Java had greater success than Unix, and web services will stand an even greater chance of success because it is not centralised within one vendor, Holbrook says. IBM and its collaborators are working the standards out in the worldwide web consortium, W3C.

So far, Soap (Simple Object Access Protocol) and the Web Services Description Language (WSDL) have been submitted to W3C, “a standards body that matters”, says Holbrook. Before, efforts at standardisation with Unix and Java “were just going through the motions”.

Standardisation is most important to the server market, he says. With the rise of Windows, “desktops are not a heterogeneous place any more”. Tools like web services might also be of use in the handheld market where heterogeneity persists.

SOAP was developed by Microsoft from an earlier idea, but IBM decided “not to reinvent the wheel” and simply asked for modifications. SOAP was tied to HTTP, and IBM wanted to broaden its perspective to FTP, email MQ and other transfer mechanisms.

Java is no good by itself as a lingua franca among e-business systems, because any credible such channel has to be able to deal with systems devised in other languages, particularly Visual Basic, Holbrook says. There are roughly three million Java programmers in the world and about six million VB developers.

Microsoft, with .Net, is trying to push its own “next step beyond Java. “They’re trying to come at web services from a Windows point of view. We and Sun are doing it too; it’s a natural thing to do. But the web is forcing us into conversations.”

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