In 2002, Web services went from being little known and misunderstood to being well known and misunderstood, leaving CIOs with more questions than answers. How would Web services connections be secured? Whose standards would really become standards? It looks like the answers will come in 2003 as Web services ramps up for full-fledged adoption in 2004.
In case you tuned out the hype, Web services comprises Internet (or other IP-network-based) applications built with XML and other emerging standards that allow machines to communicate without human facilitation. For example, rather than customizing a credit card verification function for every e-commerce application, a CIO could subscribe to a preexisting Web service that his e-commerce app could query whenever it needed to run a credit check. Since Web services is platform neutral, it makes it possible to write a piece of code or even a whole application once and use it over and over again, thereby making integration between systems simple. That's a lot of potential for one technology.
But enterprisewise, Web services is still not ready for prime time. While CIOs have launched internal Web services projects, few have ventured outside the corporate firewall. There are three reasons why. For starters, there are no security protocols right now. Second, nobody knows how to use Universal Description, Discovery and Integration, or UDDI, the Web services directory protocol that's supposed to work like an online Yellow Pages. And most of all, CIOs are skeptical that longtime rivals such as Sun and Microsoft will be able to agree on Web services standards.
The smart money says we'll find out in 2003 whether that skepticism is justified. Vendors and industry consortia currently are championing various standards and protocols, but Gartner Research Director Ray Valdes says that in 2003 the vendors will drop their gloves and cooperate. Working together, argues Valdes, will ensure that the best solutions survive. Of course, IT executives have heard that one before. Remember Java? Many fear that industrywide standards won't, in fact, emerge anytime soon -- or worse, that competing standards will. Valdes replies that such worries are premature. "When people ask me who's ahead, I say it doesn't matter," says Valdes. "We're only 10 percent to 15 percent of the way there."
While CIOs may wish to pursue a cautious approach by running internal pilots until all the standards are set in place, John Hagel, author of Net Gain and the recently published Out of the Box about Web services, says they may not be afforded that luxury for long. "The early adopters driving Web services are business-line managers who have a major business problem," he says. "They've been told to reduce cost or inventory, and they've been looking for ways to do this." Hagel says that he has spoken with at least 60 line-of-business managers who are doing some form of Web services project without the IT department's blessing. For the Hagel 60, Web services, warts and all, is too tempting to resist.
The biggest challenge for CIOs in 2003, Hagel implies, will be to hold off eager business-line managers until the necessary Web services standards emerge midyear.