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Web Services: Everyone’s EAI?

Web services, first hatched by vendor-led standards bodies in 2000, were first touted as integration points for business-to-business e-commerce communications across firewalls. However, IT executives quickly latched on to these standards for another purpose: cost-effectively deploying internal integration projects.

Enterprise application integration (EAI) has gained a reputation – some say well earned – as an expensive long-term project, running into the hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars. Often, EAI consists of building new composite applications that mimic processes embedded in back-end systems. Now, Web services show potential as integration standards that can tie together disparate applications, rendering some aspects of EAI – such as the building of composite applications – unnecessary. Many enterprise developers and IT shops are beginning to build applications around Microsoft's .NET architecture and BizTalk Server, which supports common standards, including XML. Will Web services change the course of EAI, and even make it more accessible to smaller to mid-size IT shops?

While Web services has been heavily promoted as a means to develop business-to-business interoperability, a new survey from Evans Data Corp. finds support for internal enterprise applications is the most prevalent area of deployment. At this time, more than one out of five enterprise developers, 21 percent, say that they are working on Web services deployments that will support internal enterprise applications. In contrast, just over 15 percent of respondents indicate that they are developing Web services deployments will support business-to-business e-commerce applications.

Not to miss out on an opportunity, many vendors – including EAI providers – are attaching the "Web services" tag line to product offerings. The big question is; how and when will Web services impact mainstream enterprise application integration efforts? “Will Web services become an EAI killer?” asks Michele Rosen, enterprise software analyst with IDC. “EAI is a very expensive proposition. A lot of companies have felt burned by overpromises – just as we hear in a lot of other areas of software – that they would be able to get more out of their EAI solutions than they have.”

The greatest challenges around application integration include API access, and potential previous customization of applications, says Rosen. “SAP is a classic example. If somebody's gone in and made a lot of changes to the BAPIs in SAP, you're not going to be able to use an out-of-the-box adaptor for SAP, you're going to have to customize the integration solution to the customizations you've made in-house. And then of course every time you change the application, you have to change the integration solution.”

Web services, with standard interfaces and protocols for communicating between applications, “has immediate applications within the integration space,” Rosen adds. “If applications were Web services-enabled, if you could put either a wrapper or native Web services interface into SAP or Siebel, you would remove the whole issue of adapters. The theory is over the long term, if Web services really takes hold, we could move to a world where interoperability, communication between processes is much less difficult to implement. We'd all be happy and hold hands, and everything would be great.”

Of course, this is what Web services proponents would want IT executives to believe, Rosen points out. EAI solutions handle numerous functions beyond the basic Web services standards. “There's a reason why a lot of the EAI solutions are expensive, there's a lot that goes on when you're doing inter-process communications. You have to handle the messaging, potential transactional issues, data transformation, and security. There are all kinds of things that EAI systems handle that are not in any way defined by the existing formal Web services standards."

Vendors in the EAI space – such as Tibco, WebMethods, Vitrea, SeeBeyond, and Mercator – have been heavily promoting Web services connectors or value-added features. However, some dismiss the current level of interest as hype without substantiation. “The concept of Web services is mostly ‘marketecture,’” says David Linthicum, CTO for Mercator Software. “The advantages and limitations of this technology are not yet fully understood." He adds, however, that Web services will “deliver additional value to application integration."

Web services standards do not go far enough in addressing basic functions, agrees Rosen. She notes, however, that a number of application server vendors – such as IONA, Novell/Silverstream, and BEA Systems – “are talking about standards-based integration. This is where there's a real threat to the EAI vendors. Standards-based integration uses generally XML, Java, and BizTalk from Microsoft. These standards solutions are an order of magnitude less expensive than EAI solutions. EAI vendors don't seem to recognize that even if these solutions do not perform as well as the solutions that they have, the current economic situation makes the standards-based solutions very attractive.”

Bernhard Borges, managing director for PwC Consulting, agrees that Web services will "substantially" lower EAI costs, particularly with regards to licensing. However, there's still quite a bit of up-front work and costs involved in a Web services-based integration deployment. "If you have a legacy system that needs to be exposed as a Web service, needs to be connected to the rest of the world," he explains. "You've still got to do your data mapping, and you've still got to do your XML formatting. Quite often, it's a one-time hit, but it's a very substantial effort in many instances to map, normalize, and create metadata.”

Plus, Borges cautions, "Web services from an implemented architecture perspective, is fairly immature. You're looking at version 1.0 of everything. Also at this point, it's only asynchronous, it's not synchronous. On top of it, Web services in and by itself, relies on other components for the transport mechanism, for the serialization, within the workflow and process management.” He also cautions that the discipline of EAI itself is only about three years old.

The real cost savings in Web services comes in the software itself, says Borges. "The average EAI vendor connector, that goes from $50,000 up to $500,000 or more. Versus free for Web services standard components – that's a big difference."

About the Author

Joe McKendrick is an independent consultant and author specializing in surveys, technology research and white papers. He's a contributing writer for ENTmag.com.

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