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AT&T Offers XML-Based Integration Service

WebService Connect will let companies share data without integration challenges
Integrating applications so they can share data among partners, suppliers, and customers is difficult for business-technology managers, especially when they're using different software, protocols, and systems. AT&T last week debuted an XML-based "universal translation" service to make it easier and less expensive for businesses to exchange information.

The service, called AT&T WebService Connect, uses an XML-based hub developed by partner Grand Central Communications Inc. The hub sits in AT&T data centers and lets different applications residing on different networks talk to each other without companies having to write and manage integration software.

What customers get from AT&T is a messaging infrastructure, one that lets them publish information any way they want, without worrying about how their partners want to receive it. The service will work with any application or software that supports standard Web services, including the Simple Object Access Protocol for moving XML messages and languages such as Universal Description, Discovery, and Integration, and the Web Services Description Language. Common supply-chain and other enterprise apps will easily tie in, AT&T says. The service also can handle EDI formats.

The network hub lets businesses establish which protocol and messaging formats they want to use, which applications they'll send queries to or messages from, and which application at a business partner's site they'd like to talk to. After establishing connectivity to the hub, AT&T's WebService Connect handles the message transformation and routing to get it to the target partner's systems. The partner would have previously supplied its own information to the AT&T hub.

Tom Rhinelander, an analyst with research firm New Rowley Group, says the idea is good. "But many companies have their own Web-services-based integration under way," he says. "I haven't seen a huge demand for it. It's still a conceptual sell [by AT&T] rather than customer-demand driven."

Thomson Financial is an early adopter. For more than a year, Thomson has been using Web services to deliver financial research and analysis to customers, writing its own integration software. But as more clients used the technology, it got harder to manage. "Without having somebody in the middle acting like a grand marshall, you end up having to manage all those relationships yourself," says chief architect Bob Lamoureux.

The information and research firm now uses WebService Connect to distribute data, and Lamoureux says it's paying off. The company is saving money on development and maintenance, and customers are happy, since they can exchange information with Thomson any way they want. "It's very compelling," he says. "We don't have to worry about the technology on the other side."

The hub product from Grand Central "resolves a lot of irritating details about how to connect one business partner to another," says Anne Manes, an analyst with Burton Group. But it's not entirely seamless, she says. "You may have to formulate your request a certain way."

Pricing for the service starts at $30,000 per month and can increase based on the number of connections and the amount of usage.

In entering this market, AT&T takes on new competitors, including value-added network providers such as GSX, Hubspan, and Sterling Commerce and, to a lesser extent, software companies such as webMethods. But those rivals don't have as extensive a network as AT&T. Other large telecom providers, including MCI and Sprint, have yet to roll out these services.