Web services technology is like special effects in motion pictures: the more effective it is, the less you notice it. In your office or in your class, web services is an enabling layer of technology that finds and accesses information. That's pretty much it. But the benefits of the technology are becoming very noticeable.
Even some long-time users of web services will admit that it can be difficult to define, and no one wants to wade through discussions of the complicated programming that makes it possible. But if you think of web services as enabling technologies that simplify data transfer over the internet, you have a fair idea of what it does.
The facilities management department of Bentley College, a business school near Boston, wove web services technology throughout a project it undertook to overhaul a complicated and lengthy dormitory room-inspection process.
As a result, it reduced the process length from up to six weeks to about one week, and it freed up a lot of staff to do more productive work than taking orders and typing on their keyboards. Students no longer phone in their repair needs for their dormitory rooms; now, they go to the facilities management department's website, log in with their student ID number, and type in their problem. Tom Kane, assistant director of Facilities Operations, says his department used to have people doing nothing but answering the phone and taking work orders all day. He had two professional staff members entering work orders along with seven work-study students. Now he has just one part-timer processing orders.
In its old method, Bentley's inspectors visited the student's rooms and logged their reports on paper, which were later keyed into the computers and work orders were then issued. Now the room inspectors enter information into a handheld device that later loads its data into the system.
To make all that happen, Bentley used the Datastream 7i Asset Performance Management application that uses web services to interact with other systems. The application can be run as a stand-alone product, and Bentley originally bought it to do that, but it now talks to several other systems on regularly.
"The accountability that the system brought--which we really haven't put a value on--is staggering," says John Shenete, executive director of facilities management. By connecting previously separated data, the setup allows the facilities management team to capture more information about its operation (and thereby track more of that data; Kane says he now tracks 80 to 90 percent of his budget in the system, up from 10 to 15 percent), the system's interconnectedness with other parts of the campus create other opportunities to run the department more efficiently. And it doesn't just keep track of digital data and online services. "Every night, there's a feed that updates every caller's location on campus," says Kane. "If you move your office overnight and the next day you put in an order, it'll show up in the system in your new location."
Doing things faster and better by connecting information and systems is nothing new, but the reason web services has become popular is because it's simpler and its reach is potentially much greater than older methods.
The traditional--and expensive--way of getting information from one system to be accessed by another system involved painstaking work to get the two different applications to "speak" to each other.
Lots of programming and reengineering was involved, but in the end you got two applications that could connect and speak to each other. Web services takes that further so that many applications can speak to each other, and they don't need to access an entire application in a remote system; they may just need one feed of data or one function--a service--of that application. Now, you can access another organization's services in modular, bite-sized forms.
The bad news? It's still a bit of a frontier situation, but that doesn't mean it isn't already in use. There's just still a lot of work that remains to be done in the background that will enable users to find and access services more easily. Web services is being made possible by the use of open standards that are supported even by the major proprietary software companies.
Microsoft has its .NET web services platform and Sun Microsystems has its J2EE web services platform, but the use of open standards is designed so that the end user is no longer beholden to the framework of one major vendor and can now take advantage of the smorgasbord of data and services regardless of location and original format.
Experts say we've only begun exploring the potential of web services and the best is yet to come. The first phase of the technology involved the development of messaging and description languages to lay the groundwork for services, according to Jim Klune, director of web services technology at Parasoft Corp., a maker of applications for testing web services programs. Now in phase two, technologists are developing languages that will help web services do more complex actions and be able to be combined in flexible ways. Web services can be set up to operate publicly (between organizations) or privately (between departments within an organization). The open standards foundation of the technology is useful in both cases, because even within most organizations there are multiple types of software platforms, operating systems, and application formats.
For most private companies, public web services are unlikely to see wide adoption because of concerns about the privacy and security of their information.
Government and academia, however, are two places where web services could help make publicly available a great amount of data that are intended for wider audiences. "Most universities generate a lot of data that is data that needs to be presented in as wide a fashion as possible," says Kurt Cagle, an author and a consultant for the Center for XML and Web Services Technologies at Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York.
Cagle has long held that the primary use of web services would be in a department-to-department level, where "you are within a trusted environment. The notion that any company would put sensitive information into web services strikes me as ludicrous. Security considerations if nothing else make that a ridiculous concept."
Development of web services are at a variety of stages within different organizations, notes John Feller, a manager with IBM Emerging Technologies Development. In many cases, they reflect just the latest evolution of long-standing efforts to interconnect data.
One relatively simple web service tool is RSS (RDF Site Summary). RSS is used for newsfeed-type services, providing a user with updates from various sources. "In one screen, I can monitor 30 different websites and I can update my selections whenever I want," says Gary Chapman, lecturer at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and director of the 21st Century Project at the University of Texas at Austin.
He also uses it to produce and update his personal calendar, which he can access from anywhere. "This is a new, powerful way to get information," says Chapman. Web services can be found throughout UT systems, from making available online research and teaching innovations to a site where attendees at an upcoming meeting of the World Congress on Information Technology can make available their own services, said Leslie Jarmon, community engagement and outreach coordinator for the Science, Technology and Biology Program at UT. It also plays a role in a large distributed virtual computing project--known as grid computing--that UT is developing with IBM.
Another complicated use of web services can be found at the University of North Carolina's UNC Health Care, where it is being used to extend the functionality of the Clinical Information System (CIS).
First created in 1991, heavily restructured in 1996, and web-enabled a few years ago, CIS is the main information integration and delivery system for UNC Health Care's electronic records. It supports more than 6,200 users, contains more than 1.2 million patient records, and regularly serves up more than 25,000 patient records each day.
Built on IBM products such as Websphere Studio Application Developer, CIS has been undergoing another transformation to make it utilize web services to make the system less reliant on specific technology vendors and to exchange information more easily. The project focused first on tying in patient laboratory results with an application that evaluates the hazards to a patient of certain medication. Another web services effort will allow any UNC Health Care application to access patient data from anywhere in the system, regardless of the software it's resident in or whether the record is synchronized with a master list.
The story is similar at McGraw-Hill Education, a provider of materials and professional information for higher education and adult learning. The firm wanted to replace a system in which it created new online courses from textbooks from scratch. It also wanted to make it easier to use information from disparate systems so it could pull together new courses more quickly. It was expensive and time-consuming to integrate content from different information providers the old way, and students and instructors often had to learn different user interfaces for each new online textbook.
McGraw-Hill Education built a web-services-based solution with the Infravio Ensemble Web Services Management Suite that lets its editors aggregate information from various sources, and helps outside sources provide their content without having to learn details about the company's internal content management systems.
Now, McGraw can pull together online courses that include text and multimedia (such as video, presentations, and audio), and students and teachers don't have to learn new user interfaces for each course. The users will never know why they suddenly have courses and programs that work more easily and arrive more quickly.
And that transparency is a sign of how effective the web services are.