Web services boost data security, efficiency

Building better messaging technology

Web services have been slow to proliferate, at least in part because of shortcomings in industry standards. But recent security and authentication enhancements largely have removed the initial worries that kept some agencies from taking a risk on the technology.

Lately, the focus has been on making the messaging technology that links Web services to each other more reliable and robust ? also the purpose of one of the foundation standards, the Simple Object Access Protocol.

Two new competing standards address message reliability: WS-Reliability, ratified in November by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards of Billerica, Mass., and WS-ReliableMessaging from BEA Systems Inc., IBM Corp., Microsoft Corp. and Tibco Software Inc. of Palo Alto, Calif.


The Worldwide Web Consortium expects this year to release SOAP Message Transmission Optimization Mechanism, which adds an attachment capability to SOAP messaging, according to Hugo Haas, W3C's Web services activity lead.


A new Web Services Addressing standard will let developers specify message destinations and asynchronous interaction among Web services. Coming midyear is the Web Services Description Language 2.0, a major upgrade of the technology for describing Web services.

Web Services Choreography Description Language 1.0 will expand Web Services Description Language to allow for descriptions of processes shared among business partners, an imperative for making Web services viable for business-to-business e-commerce.


One jarring note: Major players such as Java vendor Sun Microsystems Inc., Microsoft with its directly competing .NET platform, and application server heavyweights BEA and IBM have been introducing their own variations on the standards. And, as often happens with even the most well-intentioned independent standards development, the standards for Web services aren't so standard anymore.

LOWDOWN

What is it? Web services essentially provide applications over the Internet or another network. They largely rely on Extensible Markup Language for exchanging data.

Why do I need it? Web services are key in a service-oriented architecture, which can integrate an organization's data and allow transactions while keeping data centralized.

What are the caveats? Many of the development tools that enable Web services are proprietary, which can make development difficult. And because they use Web protocols, security is a concern.

Must-know info? Standards are still evolving, and the market is immature. Closely follow the standards story to ensure that new projects can meet your development goals and that your tools include the latest technology. Web services exist to achieve interoperability; development tools should reflect that.

Government agencies are turning increasingly to Web services to speed application development, share data and conduct transactions more easily.

The move complements federal and state efforts to standardize IT on open standards, such as the Federal Enterprise Architecture and the object-oriented software repositories states use to share and reuse code.

As a universal, cross-platform, multivendor standard, Web services, at least in theory, help agencies meet the twin goals of data security and IT efficiency by keeping their databases securely in-house, rather than moving them around.

There may be security concerns at the outer layers ? at the Web, that is ? but data is centralized. The software to access it, however, consists of widely distributed, easily programmed Web services, assembled like building blocks to make larger applications.

The Web services paradigm is reflected in the new catchphrase: service-oriented architecture, a theory of how to fabricate an architecture from independent business processes that share messages with each other. Web services are just one component. A key element in a service-oriented architecture is the enterprise service bus, a new kind of messaging middleware for Web services.

The tools in the chart (See page 18) purport to do most of the development work for you, automatically converting your Java or .NET code and objects to Web services.

But the development environments that many programmers use to build Web services aren't especially geared to the new technology. They are somewhat generic integrated-development environments with standard programming languages, such as Microsoft Visual Studio and Borland Software's JBuilder, or more automated, visual, rapid application development products. Both types predate the late-1990s genesis of Web services.

Some, including Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Java Studio Creator, can "consume" Web services, but can't write them, according to Sun. Others limit where you can deploy the Web services you've written.

Though vendors of development tools note that adding Web services support was hardly a no-brainer, the technology often gets second billing to more ubiquitous programming platforms such as Java and Visual Basic. Another vendor concern is that Web services, as an open-source technology, create strong demand for free or inexpensive development environments.

"The No. 1 Java development tool on the market today, in terms of developers, is Eclipse, and it's free," said Mark Driver, research vice president at Gartner Inc. of Stamford, Conn., referring to a Java development environment that also supports Web services.

Web services programs, with their ability to standardize the interfaces between brands of software, long have held the promise of making enterprise application integration (EAI) software obsolete. So it's not surprising that webMethods Inc. of Fairfax, Va., and SeeBeyond Technology Corp. of Monrovia, Calif., vendors of established EAI tools, have added significant Web services support to their tools.

A newer class of tools, such as those from Cape Clear Software Inc., emphasizes integration of existing applications rather than new development. Such tools are marketed to help agencies use Web services to implement enterprise services buses to standardize data sharing and workflow.

This year will see major upgrades from key vendors. Macromedia Inc. has released the Blackstone version of its ColdFusion application server, which, along with its Dreamweaver Web site tool, is used widely in government.

Dubbed ColdFusion MX7, the upgrade largely automates the long-standing challenge of processing forms on the Web and bolsters Java support to improve the links between mobile devices and Web content. In beta since June 2004, ColdFusion MX7 has "had a huge participation from government organizations," said Dave Gruber, a Macromedia senior product manager.

Later this year, Microsoft will release Visual Studio 2005, which will support the new SOAP 1.2 standard with its newly added security features. BEA Systems Inc.'s next major upgrade, WebLogic Server 9.0, codenamed Diablo and in beta since December, will enable development of service-oriented architecture with enterprise-class messaging.

The bottom line is that while Web services development tools are now available widely, the technology has yet to take off.

"We haven't seen a whole lot of adoption and desire among our user base in authoring Web services," said Jim Guerard, a Macromedia vice president.

David Essex is a freelance technology writer in Antrim, N.H.

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