Web Services in Theory and Practice

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The Practice
Although the hype about Web services began almost as soon as the first toolkit was released, it's only now that companies have started to report success using Web services. A few examples help illustrate the way some companies have begun to incorporate Web services into their day-to-day operations.

Countrywide Financial Corporation worked with WRQ, Inc., a Web services development company based in Seattle, to develop a CRM system to handle online claims. One of Countrywide's divisions, Balboa Insurance Group, wanted to use data that was on an IBM mainframe and AS/400 systems with its Siebel 7-based claims system.

Normally the company would develop a solution in-house, but Ed Godycki, the company's EVP of CRM and ebusiness technologies, decided to use Web services. He wanted to keep the IT systems working while the development was occurring. "Interrupting the information flow was not an option," he said. "The task was like giving the car a tune-up while the engine is running."

Four months later, Countrywide's customer service representatives were using a Web-based user interface built using Siebel tools that is able to access data from the interconnected computer systems. They can perform a variety of tasks, including checking payments, getting a claim history or verifying coverage. All of the information they see is current account information, and they can update the information on the fly.

In addition, since the solution was modular in nature, Countrywide's development team has been able to migrate the services for this project into other projects for the company. They plan to develop Web-based interfaces for other uses within the company.

Hewlett Packard created a Web-based financial gateway for customers to apply for credit and for employees to review credit applications. The Centers for Disease Control has undertaken a Web-based project to help it tap into the streams of data coming from doctors, state and local health departments, and medical labs. Major companies such as Raytheon and General Motors have also developed Web-based services for internal and external use.

Even small or medium-size companies can reap the benefits of Web services. One example of how smaller companies can use Web services is found in MyST Technology Partners' SmartSpace, a Web services framework that allows users to tap into and search RSS feeds from inside Microsoft Office applications, including Word and Outlook. Any content delivered in this format can been seen and searched inside Office applications. You can set up SmartSpace so that it automatically finds and links material in the information sources to a document under development. Research time is reduced and so is the possibility of accidentally recreating a document or report that the company already has.

Not every company needs to rush to get involved with Web services, says Hurwitz. "Companies that offer services are the most likely to benefit from Web services, such as financial services—an environment in which up to 80% of what they do is based around computers. If you don't have a pressing need for IT flexibility, then you don't need Web services."

The Future
Today, according to Boubez, Web services have come about halfway down the pathway they need to travel in order to be easier to implement. "What's being done right now is to work out a way that integration can be done easily. The whole ballgame is about integration." Companies that create Web services modules need to work out ways to make it easier to connect modules. Other important tasks that must be easier and more modular include security and routing of requests and information.

There are also technical issues to be solved, including the investigation and determination of standards to form a firm foundation for the work all parties are doing. "Standards are absolutely crucial. We can't do anything without standards."

Gartner is bullish on the transformational promise of Web services. In a Top View article published in November 2003, the company remarked "although Web services are poised to deliver further business value in 2004, these benefits are immature compared to what is still to come. In 2006, the technology will ‘break out of its shell' to improve and extend business relationships and revolutionize product innovation."

Gartner offers scenarios of highly developed Web services from the healthcare industry: "Web services will be come a critical tool for consolidating data from multiple sources. Technicians will be able to compile test results, or monitor results or patient care recommendations via separate but interoperable repository calls." What's more, "Medical device manufacturers will employ Web services to improve patient monitoring, increase product reliability, and establish a strong value proposition for healthcare providers."  

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