What are Web services? Put a few software developers and enterprise architects in a room and you'll get a lively debate, even though we're several years into this Next Big Thing. Despite the lack of a single, accepted definition, the technical debate is narrowing. Service-oriented architecture (SOA) is the reason.
As barriers to integration fall, technically sophisticated minds leap ahead. Business process management: Imagine what could be done if the integration infrastructure were determined by open standards. Synthesized computing: With SOA in place, organizations might finally connect all their software "artifacts," from enterprise applications to desktop productivity systems and e-mail. Real-time, event-driven computing: The loosely coupled orchestration of services supported by SOA would allow immediate, direct access to all systems that need to be in the know. No more islands of information!
But what will business executives and strategists, whose eyes glaze over after the first acronym, make of Web services? Peter Drucker, the great management philosopher and originator of the term "knowledge worker," tells us that in the Information Age, "the basic economic resource — the 'means of production,' to use the economist's term — is no longer capital. It is and will be knowledge." To these stakeholders, Web services are really knowledge "products." Web services package up everything an organization knows about a process in a manner that is easiest for consumers (including software applications) to interpret and deploy for their own purposes.
We're entering a new phase in Web services. The first stage, dominated by geek speak and crash-test prototypes, is coming to a close. Web services are airborne; it's now safe for business strategists to "move about the cabin" and guide this new infrastructure toward competitive advantage. The coalescing of SOA with business process management (BPM), the theme of this issue's cover package, is about much more than technology. Organizations are arriving at a clearer idea of how they can deploy Web services to gain agility and improve processes within the enterprise and out into their communities of partners and customers.
The enterprise software industry is responding to this shift. The success of Salesforce.com has the attention of all the big players. Let's face it: of all the reasons for Oracle's PeopleSoft acquisition, the dominant one is simply consolidation, which Oracle hopes will give it the license revenue cache and expanded customer base to play in the new world of application services. SAP's NetWeaver is about meeting demand for more open and modular Web services growth.
Siebel's evident success with Siebel Analytics tells us something. To become the knowledge products required of our age, Web services must embody the highest intelligence the organization can muster. Automation, the traditional goal of applications, won't be enough for Web services. The sheer weight of complexity, which became a problem for monolithic ERP systems, could drag down the whole network of Web services. Processes must be smart; services must be shaped by intelligence gained through analytics and data warehousing.
Is BI ready? Enterprise information integration (EII) could be the beginning of a necessary technology restructuring. As Mark Smith notes in his column ("Setting Priorities To Achieve Agility"), SOA excitement shouldn't distract from the vital objective of establishing an information flow that improves business performance. Rather, Web services must embody this objective and thereby increase knowledge capital.
DAVID STODDER is the editorial director and editor in chief of Intelligent Enterprise. Write to him at email@example.com.