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Understanding Web Services

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This chapter is from the book

In this chapter

  • What Is a Web Service?
  • Crystal Ball Readings
  • The ABCs of Web Services
  • How to Use a Web Service

The first revolution with the Internet was all about delivering information to people. We are now in the second revolution, which focuses on delivering information to systems. XML is the tool that makes this new revolution a reality, and Web services are the methods with which businesses will drive system-to-system communication.

This chapter will introduce the Web services concept and teach the basic facts behind both Web services and the various APIs that power it. The goal of the chapter is to introduce most of the major initiatives, standards, APIs, and toolsets that make up Web services. This will help reduce the confusion that arises when too many letters are strung together in meaningless names, a problem that plagues Web services. We will walk you through expanding the development environment that was set up in Chapter 1, "Integrating JSP and Data," to use Web services. Finally, the chapter will show some basic coding examples to get your feet wet with the Web services concept.

What Is a Web Service?

Let's start with the simplest definition. In the purest sense, a Web service is a product in the form of a reusable function built by one company that is exposed on the Internet for another company to use.

You can already find Web services on the Internet. A simple example is the automated site search service provided by Atomz. For a demonstration, use the search engine at http://www.jspinsider.com the search request happens at the JSP Insider site, but the actual search occurs at another site hosting the search service. The Web service concept is growing and an exciting new model of business is evolving. What we now have is a situation where the Web service concept is exploding into new territory and expanding in its capabilities. The basic high-level goal of Web services is to further distributed computing (where application logic is separated into logical pieces and runs across many machines). The practical reason to build a Web service is to permit businesses to provide small, reusable, and self-describing computing methods to each other. A Web service by itself is just a piece of code that can be called by other applications or remote processes; however, if a programmer in the near future could pull together enough Web services, he or she could stitch together most of the features needed to support an entire Web application. The practical goal of a Web service is to permit a business to concentrate only on its core business needs and call up prepackaged "Web services" to complement the core business.

At the time of this writing, Web services are new enough that all of this is still not a reality. However, networks such as Microsoft's .NET Passport are being built on this Web services concept. As the Web services networks are built, we have the chance to watch as they are cobbled together into realistic systems. In many respects, this situation is very similar to when the Internet first began to open up to the commercial world in the 1990s.

The definition given at the beginning of this section applies to a Web service in the broadest sense of the term. The fact is that, at the beginning of 2002, there really wasn't a standard definition of a proper Web service. Every expert would give you a slightly different answer. For this book, a Web service is a remote Internet service that is capable of sending and receiving data over an HTTP network within a well-defined XML package. The difference between a Web site and a Web service is the use of XML to finely define and control the data being sent to and from a Web service. This brings up an interesting point: Unlike XML, which has the W3C to control and define XML, currently no single organization exists to define the nature of a Web service. Instead, a Web service is defined by the collection of tools and specifications a programmer uses to build it. What makes it all work is that nearly everyone is using the same set of standard specifications. Over time, this confusion will be resolved, and some large organization such as the United Nations (see the section titled "ebXML" later in this chapter) or W3C will take control of the larger Web services definition.

It is important to note that in this general discussion of Web services we are discussing both the creation of a Web service and the use of one. The creation of a Web service includes writing, exposing, and registering it for all authorized users to see and use. The use of a Web service includes finding and interfacing with the Web service in a stable, predictable manner.

At this point, it would be appropriate to define the terms client and server. A server is a computer or device that manages resources. According to this definition, a Web service server is any machine or device that responds to requests. This server manages resources by controlling the output of information through Web service responses. A client is any application that relies on a server to perform some operations. In this case, the Web service requestor is the client, as it is relying on the Web service server for information through responses.

Key features of creating and using Web services are listed here:

  • They are accessible using standard Internet protocols such as HTTP or SMTP.

  • They are distributed, which means that a Web service will usually reside on a different server than the applications that use the service.

  • They can be centralized to a single source. This means that you can code once and access many times from many projects. In other words, Web services allow increased code reuse.

  • A single Web service isn't a full application, but rather a standalone function that can be called by many different applications.

  • A Web service can be self-describing. This enables businesses and applications to find and use Web services through automated processes and Internet registries (an electronic yellow pages to let other programs find the service).

All of these features add up to make a Web service a reusable component that can broadcast its functionality across an Internet network.

The advantages of creating and using a Web service come from the distributed nature of the overall system. They include the following:

  • Logic can be broken into smaller reusable pieces of code.

  • The code can be used by many different applications. For example, a Web service written in ASP.NET can be accessed by a JSP page.

  • The code can be registered so that many different organizations can use a single Web service. As a result, the builder of a Web service doesn't need to communicate with every customer.

  • Web services can describe themselves to the world through special registries.

  • Standard protocols, APIs (standard code), and tools (coding development packages) are evolving to allow programmers to build and access Web services. In the future, these tools will allow for the automatic creation of a Web service. This will open the creation of Web services to developers of all skill levels, as they won't need to know the underlying mechanics.

The disadvantages of Web services include the following:

  • You will need to create another software tier to utilize Web services. This new layer means that you must give careful consideration to application and service architecture in systems that utilize a Web service.

  • Accessing Web services over the Internet causes both security and speed concerns for an application designer. However, you can increase the security of a Web service at the expense of speed.

  • Automated tools such as Microsoft's Visual Studio .NET or Sun's Forte that support Web services are currently young and few. This means that in order to successfully build a Web service, you must clearly understand an entire set of protocols and APIs.

  • Web services are new within the programming community. Solid and proven design patterns still need to be established for them. As a result, very few practical online resources exist to help a struggling programmer learn how to successfully implement a Web service.

As is often the case in the computer industry, it takes several iterations to get things right. In the case of Web services, this is especially true, as Web services are truly another iteration of older ideas. Their design aids in the reduction of development time and promotes code reuse.

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