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Transforming the World with Web Services

Transforming the World with Web Services

Catalysts? Let's see what Merriam-Webster has to say about a "catalyst."

cat·a·lyst: (noun, 1902)

  1. a substance (as an enzyme) that enables a chemical reaction to proceed at a usually faster rate or under different conditions (as at a lower temperature) than otherwise possible
  2. an agent that provokes or speeds significant change or action
Since I successfully left behind the nightmares and terrors of chemistry class when I graduated from high school (and I want these experiences to stay where they are, buried in my subconscious), let's focus on the second meaning of catalyst, "an agent that provokes or speeds significant change or action."

The history of the recent i-tech world is rife with stories about technologies that brought about change, dramatic change. Let's look at a few we are all familiar with: HTML, XML, and, of course, Web Services.

HTML changed the world as it enabled publishing for the masses. Regardless of how profane, controversial, or violent one's thoughts might be, the Web is a willing medium to endure any kind of opinion. Whether meaningful in the context of world history or not, I'll always remember my first <h1>test</h1>.

XML is changing the world, as it provides a means to describe data in the same willing and submissive way as HTML handles text documents. Never mind what you want to do with your data, as long as you have an XML DTD - or to speak next-generation lingo, "XML Schema"- everything will be fine. I'll never forget the magic text output from my SAX interface as it confirmed that <record><firstname>Norbert</firstname> <lastname>Mikula</lastname></record> parsed successfully.

Web Services will change the world again. Being able to call remote objects, regardless of their location and regardless of their platform, is beyond what was thinkable just a few years ago. And again, I very much remember the first time I was able to convert - via a Web Service - a given temperature from Celsius to Fahrenheit.

Catalyst or Convergence
In either case, what strikes me is that each of these technology waves seems to be bigger and more significant in terms of the change they bring. Why is this? I believe the role these technologies play is not so much a revolutionary role, but is rather that of a catalyst. It is a catalyst that not only brings about change in itself, but is also a way to bring together disciplines and technologies from all corners of the i-tech world, a mind-meld of schools of thought.

Let's look at HTML again. SGML, the meta-language used to define HTML, existed decades before HTML was ever thought of. Neither was Hypertext new to academia. Last but not least, the Internet was already in use through its applications of e-mail, Gopher, Telnet, and FTP, to name just a few.

Tim Berners-Lee attributes the success of HTML to its simplicity. Certainly he's right about that. (Even if he's not, he invented the Web, so who would dare to question him?) But I also think HTML brought about so much change because it was a special catalyst that attracted the interests of scholars and pioneers in so many different industries. HTML, as basic and simple as it is, brought together people experienced in the publishing of large bodies of information, people experienced in Internet technologies, and more recently, people who use HTML and the Internet to conduct commerce - and this list is by no means complete.

The same goes for XML. Also drawing from the rich legacies of SGML, HTML, and publishing, it combines this past with the longstanding traditions of Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) as well as application-to-application integration (again, to name only a few). The revolution XML introduces is startling. Whether because of the marketing hype surrounding it, or because of its technical merits alone, XML draws the attention of numerous disciplines and, due to its extensibility, is attractive to verticals as well. From health care to finance, from EAI to B2B, XML is everywhere.

What's really exciting about the convergence of disciplines and change brought about by these catalysts is that it brings together the most brilliant people from diverse backgrounds and industries.

Enter Web Services
Web Services will effect changes more far-reaching than those caused by HTML, XML, and the Internet combined. Again, IMHO, the transformation won't be the result of the merits of Web Services alone, but in how applicable it is to many previously unrelated disciplines. Let's look at a few of these changes:

Web Services are intimately intertwined with the "X" technologies: XML to describe RPC or Message content, XML to describe routing information, XSL to display it, and XML-Schema to provide class descriptions of it all.

Internet Technologies
Or to be more specific, http et al. While everybody emphasizes that Web Services are neutral regarding transport protocol and invocation style (RPC, messaging, fire, and forget), we still see most of the examples presented as XML-based RPC calls via http. (meaning that instead of creating loosely-coupled applications, we are creating tightly-coupled ones, which is counterproductive to the original promise of Web Services - but I'll save that rant for a future article).

Distributed Computing
From COM and DCOM to CORBA, the wars over which approach will better allow objects to communicate beyond the boundaries of a single virtual machine are well known. Web Services is a new entrant in this battle over object-to-object communication.

Artificial Intelligence
Okay, I admit it. I did AI in the early '90s and I believed it would be the final chapter in software engineering. However, AI - or whatever cover-up name you can find for it - will work very nicely with Web Services and will be an integral part of it. Web Services means we'll have millions of objects (agents) trying to communicate with each other and (hopefully) working towards a meaningful goal. Distributed AI has studied these kinds of systems for a long time and will be more than happy to advise us WS folks on how to solve problems of distributed processing systems. Furthermore, when using Web Services, we sooner or later get into issues such as Ontologies and Logic, and again AI has many answers handy for us - we just need to ask… and listen. (Tim Berners-Lee's vision of the Semantic Web, if pursued, will bring AI back into the center stage).

Business-to-business integration
Esoteric technologies and all that are fun, but without making money most of us won't be happy. Web Services, providing a standards-based means to tie together customers, suppliers, and business partners throughout the extended supply-chain, will have a profound impact on electronic commerce. Whether it's RosettaNet, Biztalk or the OASIS/United Nations CEFACT ebXML effort, Web Services have already shown a remarkable impact on the frameworks of electronic business worldwide, as well as influencing verticals.

Call for Participation
These are just a few thoughts. Let me know what you think, folks. Do you believe Web Services will change the world? If so, please share with us why. If not, please tell us why as well (especially in that case).

Share with us the impact Web Services will have on your discipline. Tell us what Web Services can learn from your knowledge. Help us assemble the most complete compendium of "How Web Services will benefit from my work and how I will benefit from Web Services."

More Stories By Norbert Mikula

Norbert Mikula has more than 10 years of experience in building and
delivering Internet and e-business technologies. He serves as
vice-chairman of the board of directors of OASIS and is industry
editor of Web Services Journal. Norbert is recognized internationally
as an expert in Internet and e-business technologies and speaks
regularly at industry events.

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Most Recent Comments
Norbert Mikula 08/17/01 07:05:00 PM EDT

No disagreement there.

I believe though that
we also need to look at Web Services from the perspective
of user-interaction and not only as a cheaper
way of doing machine to machine.

To quote our friend JP Morgenthal
"all complex B2B processes inevitably require some kind of human decision-making" (so he said in :

This is where it gets really exciting
for portal software and what it does with Web Services.

Gaurav Lamba 08/14/01 04:00:00 PM EDT

web services is a major step toward inter-enterprise cooperation .They will standardise the calls between hetrogeneous applications of strategic partners to facilitate the cost-effective partnerships.I believe webservices are as important a step in w3 as was html .

Norbert Mikula 08/14/01 01:18:00 PM EDT

GREAT question.

I have not seen any such data so far. I would be careful though as to what I

I would not look a just how much it costs to establish a session as such but more what other stuff is involved in making this work.

Once Web Services will have to deal with issues such as
payment processing, security, reliability, authentication,
transactions, business processes and other "overhead"
issues the numbers will look quite different than just a
bare-bones SOAP call.

If somebody were to study this, they would have to
make very clear what they compare. "You get what you
pay for ....".

It does scare me though, how long it sometimes takes to
call one of these Web Services that are posted on XMethods.
(Granted, I have not investigated a lot why that is and
what I can optimize on my end).

If anybody out there has any good data, let us know !

Charles Savage 08/13/01 02:24:00 AM EDT

Really appreciate your vision, energy and candor. Two questions:
1. Do we have any rule-of-thumb cost comparisions between an average DCOM/CORBA connection and a WS connection? What order of magnitude cheeper will it be?
2. How important is latency? Do we have any rule-of-thumb speed comparisons also between DCOM/CORBA and WS?

Note: When printing out our article, your name is left out. Guess you got parsed out. Ouch!

Keep up the good work at OASIS.


JJ 07/26/01 07:46:00 PM EDT

I always keep my dictionary near by