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What Is All the Hype About Web Services?

Finally, we come down to it. What is all the hype about Web Services? Well, Microsoft's own help documentation suggest that there are three primary scenarios for XML Web Services: simple services, application integration, and workflow management. Let's take a look at these three important scenarios.

Using Simple Web Services

Web Services address at least three big problems that companies have. The first is getting data across the Internet. Web Services use XML and SOAP to transport data. Both are based on self-describing text. This means that anything that can be expressed as text can be returned from a Web Service. The sky is the limit here.

All of the implications of simple Web Services remain to be seen. It is difficult to imagine all of the problems Web Services will solve, but I can think of a concrete example right now.

I am working on a project in Oregon with a law enforcement agency. This agency has to coordinate data with police, sheriffs, and other national law enforcement agencies. Many of these agencies are using disparate systems, both hardware and software. With XML Web Services, we will be able to send and receive data using a standardized protocol without waiting for every agency to standardize on software and hardware. (The latter will probably never happen.) All we have to do is agree on the information the agencies need to share to be effective and publish those solutions as Web Services. Microsoft's .NET and XML Web Services makes this astoundingly easy to do.

Integrating Legacy Applications

A nightmare for large companies is how, when, or whether to get rid of old legacy code. The predicament is that a lot of these systems are mission-critical and have been running reliably for decades. With XML Web Services, it will be significantly easier to leave old reliable systems in place and bridge them to future solutions.

By making the capabilities of good proven systems available to new technologies such as the Web and mobile devices, companies can save tremendous time, energy, and money by hanging on to good legacy systems and bridging them to the future. And, if the old systems are not so good, companies can use .NET to reimplement for the future.

Managing Workflow

My favorite scenario is the workflow scenario. If you have ordered from Amazon.com, Dell, or some other excellent company, you might relate to workflow as I do. When I order a computer from Dell or books from Amazon.com, I get a tracking number. If I want to know where my shipment is, the tracking number takes me to UPS or FedEx, and I use that number to track my shipment.

Based on my experiences, I am not surprised that Dell can manage my shipment this way, even before Web Services. Web Services will make these kinds of workflow tasks easier for companies.

The idea behind a workflow is that complex business processes may span several vendors and an extended period of time. Using XML Web Services, vendors can integrate their business processes—without changing them internally—by working together to provide a coordinated solution, just like Dell provides me with a tracking number from FedEx.

There is more to the concept of workflow than package-tracking. Again, I will use Dell as an example because my experiences with Dell have been excellent. Dell provides me with a tracking number, a service tag, customer service, and financing if I want it. If Dell employs Web Services, local third-party providers can send feedback digitally back to Dell when I do have a service requirement. Now Dell knows when I have added one-half gigabyte of memory to my system, its online service people will know it the next time I call, and this information can be taken into consideration when evaluating future problems.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of Web Services is that companies can easily contract and negotiate with third-party vendors to provide goods and services that complement my total experiment, but in which they may not have internal expertise.

My guess is we still don't know the totality of what Web Services will offer, but it will be good stuff.

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