You might feel the name makes it sound rather like old news, but there’s no doubting that the IT industry is currently banging a big drum for Web Services technology.
Since Logistics Europe wrote about this new technology in the early part of last year, more and more IT suppliers, consultants and industry pundits have clambered on the bandwagon. What started out as half hype, half search for an alternative to the ebusiness bonanza, seems to have settled down into the IT business’s ‘next big thing’.
So why is your IT department likely to be enthusiastic about Web Services? Mainly because it promises to solve what is fast becoming the number one IT headache – how best to link applications together.
Just three things
At present, if a company wants its different systems to talk to one another – or for its systems to talk to other companies’ systems – then it can do one of three things: it can use software from the same supplier, spend an awful lot of money buying so-called middleware programs or pay for custom interfaces.
Whichever way you look at it, this is an expensive business that sometimes just won’t work – or results in IT that runs below par. American businesses are estimated to spend $5bn on integration each year. However, management consultant McKinsey & Co estimates Web Services can cut the time and money for systems integration – the largest IT expense – by up to 20 per cent.
The supply chain is particularly dogged by these incompatibilities because of the number and age of systems involved. When Logistics Europe looked at warehouse management systems last year, we were told that often 20 or more different systems had to be integrated to create effective warehouse applications.
Web Services promises not only to cut the integration bill, but also to enable previously impossible business transactions by providing a standard way for companies to integrate their systems. Any application program or database with an interface that conforms to Web Services protocols will be able to talk to any other system – and in close to real time.
Web sites are used to conduct business via browsers, but Web Services is concerned with the machine-to-machine communication that is critical to speeding up the supply chain, enabling greater collaboration between companies and automating the process of decision-making.
Many of the collaborative initiatives in the supply chain are ideal applications for Web Services: automatic replenishment, forecasting and order tracking, for example.
There are four main standards being developed for Web Services. First there is a language called extensible mark-up language (XML), in which communications between systems are written. XML is particularly useful for swapping information involved in business processes because it can tag data with descriptions of what it is and what it does. This feature can be exploited to create applications for specific industries.
Secondly, there is a protocol called simple object access protocol (SOAP) which describes how those communications take place. Then there are two new ideas, a catalogue of web-accessible services called universal description, discovery and integration (UDDI) and a language, called Web Services description language (WSDL), in which those descriptions are written.
Not only does Web Services provide an interface between programs that wasn’t there before, but the protocols also provide a mechanism for telling other systems that your program and its interface exists. This second property of Web Services should make it possible to make and break electronic relationships between organisations very easily.
Although you won’t find many companies running Web Services yet, the pundits reckon that 2003 is the year when the number of installations will take off, although they said that in 2002 as well – and in 2001, come to think of it. Before it happens though, there is a lot of work to be done in getting Web Services ready for the supply chain, or indeed any other business process. For the moment its impact on supply chain IT is more a case of evolution rather than revolution, which is probably no bad thing.