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8/23/2002
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Look Past Products To Web Services' True Promise

Service-centric technology model ushers in efficiencies

With nearly every enterprise software vendor pledging support for Web services recently, much of the buzz surrounding them has centered on the technology. Product features and functionality certainly count, but they don't embody the real importance of Web services. Instead, the technology is poised to make its greatest contributions as an enabler in the evolution from conventional, distributed computing to service-centric computing.

Service-centric computing provides a high-level model for how applications can be assembled from a distributed network of constituent parts, and Web services contribute the nuts-and-bolts details for technical implementation. The service-centric model also creates a new ecosystem of interrelated suppliers and consumers of not just technology but information. It does so by providing access to distributed services, which themselves serve as information providers. The ecosystem being created around this web of information providers and consumers includes software vendors, application service providers, publishers, exchanges, and standards bodies.

Suppliers of technology components such as server software, development toolkits, and service frameworks have gotten the most attention as the business-technology world has turned to Web services. Now it's time to turn to service-centric computing's ability to catalyze fundamental changes in the way software services can map to real-world functions and processes.

In the real world, business relationships and processes cut across groups inside companies, as well as across companies, with individuals and automated systems making contributions along the way. Efficiencies are introduced into the system when the friction between these interactions is reduced. Service-centric computing can reproduce these interdependencies as well as optimize the interactions.

It's important to separate the tool from the implementation in service-centric computing. To put that concept in perspective, think back to the avalanche of hype that accompanied the public's discovery of the Internet. Money flowed into any technology that billed itself as Internet-related, with the implicit understanding that the simple act of having an online presence would be enough to breathe new life into old-economy businesses.

One fatal flaw seems obvious in retrospect: Focusing on enabling technology as the end game, rather than as a means to an end, proved to be a critical mistake. Given the carnage in the technology market, this distinction seems all the more relevant. In the late 1990s, many businesses made investments in technology without fully justifying the cost versus tangible return on investment. One result: an explosion of shelfware that never helped users achieve their goals.

The fact is that the Internet never made anyone rich, never increased a company's bottom line, never made anyone's life easier. What the Internet does do is provide a valuable tool that lets businesses and individuals benefit from squeezing inefficiencies out of their processes. Just as a Steinway piano won't turn an ordinary person into a virtuoso, new technology won't let an IT department with a lackluster plan achieve significant benefits.

In a similar way, even though some Web-services implementations are available from enterprise-software vendors and others are on the drawing board, buyers won't benefit without road maps that clearly define how this technology will apply to and help automate their existing business processes.

The first question to answer is whether Web services can address an existing pain point. For most businesses, this answer is clearly yes. But for smaller shops, the benefits may not be as obvious. And for some larger companies, full-blown implementations of enterprise application integration technologies may be more practical. Where security is critical, it makes sense to hold off on Web services until more-comprehensive standards are put in place.

Yet once you've identified specific business problems where Web services make sense, plan your implementation road map in a series of discrete phases and use earlier phases as proof points for more-extensive architectures. Learning the limitations of any new technology through a series of small, behind-the-firewall implementations is a prudent step to take before deciding whether to commit serious resources.

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