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IT Strategy – Web services create a storm

Watch out: the pace of change hasn’t slackened just because technology firms are facing tough times. Indeed, historically it has often been during recessions that the biggest changes have occurred to society’s infrastructure.

The 1930s, for example, saw autobahns and interstate highways spreading across Europe and America, commercial air travel taking off and electrification leading to the dispersal of industry outside its traditional centres.

Similar deep changes are underway now in the IT industry. Changes driven by what is happening to the internet. No longer will it be a collection of web sites for popular use, it will be something computers can use by themselves. This promises to be far more important even than the advent of broadband.

The coming of easier, cheaper and deeper machine-to-machine communication will affect not just e-commerce, but how IT is deployed throughout organisations.

It will also affect how software is developed and licensed, the ease with which many functions can be outsourced and the way customer and supplier relationships are managed.

Fierce struggles are already underway in the IT industry over exactly where the value will be added and the lion’s share of profit extracted.

Similar disruption can be expected to occur in many other industries as changes in the IT infrastructure echo through their supply chains.

The key to this new IT revolution lies with “web services”. These are re-usable software components available over the internet – a typical web service might do something like calculate a price or check inventory levels, or display a chart for some application.

The basic concept is not new, but what’s different now is that a coherent and widely supported set of standards is coming into place for finding such services and integrating them into other applications. This is likely to lead to an explosion in their number and use.

The central industry initiative supporting the emergence of web services is the Universal Description, Discovery and Integration (UDDI) project, unveiled just over a year ago by IBM, Microsoft and Ariba. Since then all the major IT companies have come on board, as well as influential potential users such as Boeing, Ford and BT.

A focal point of the project is the UDDI business registry. This is a series of public databases in which companies can record the web services they offer. It has two interfaces – one for people and the other for programs.

This allows application programs to interrogate the UDDI business registry directly for information on a company, its services and the technical specifications that detail how any transaction is to be conducted.

Though the ultimate intention of some of the participants in the UDDI initiative may well be to create some kind of universal trading hub, it is likely that many of the ideas and standards used in creating web services will be employed in purely private commerce projects too. After all, if they reduce the difficulty of linking applications together why not use them?

But there’s more. Microsoft’s ambitious Hailstorm initiative, announced back in March, is at a practical level just a set of web services. They carry out such tasks as authenticating the identity of the user, establishing what rights the user has to use a particular web service and how much credit they’ve got available.

The whole thing is designed to be almost infinitely extensible, with Microsoft and its partners ending up with a huge database of credentials and permissions organised around personal identity. This can then be used to allow access to and charging for both consumer and business-to-business services.

Of course, Microsoft’s rivals are unlikely to allow it to construct what might turn out to be the largest database of personal information on the planet unchallenged. Already there are signs that an AOL Time Warner’s Magic Carpet project may turn into a direct competitor.

And governments and other powerful vested interests outside the IT industry – such as banks, may try to slow things up or get a slice of the action.

Nonetheless, just as in the 1930s it was difficult for anyone to stop electrification or the coming of the big roads, it is likely that this huge change to the IT infrastructure is going to happen. What’s still to be decided is who gets the most business benefit out of it all.

The official UDDI website with the latest specs, white papers and links to the UDDI business registry can be found at: www.uddi.org.

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