E-Commerce Web Services: Better, Faster, Cheaper

Typically, new technologies tend to promise more than they deliver. That has not been the case with Web services, which are being integrated into just about every new e-commerce application. “Support for Web services has come from application vendors, application development tool suppliers and middleware vendors,” said Jason Bloomberg, a managing partner with market research firm ZapThink.

The support has been widespread because Web services enable companies to simplify application design, deliver enhancements more quickly, and reuse software more easily. Those features stem from the design of Web services. In essence, Web services provide businesses with a standard way to communicate. They replace complex, proprietary programming interfaces with Extensible Markup Language (XML) documents and standard application protocols. XML is used to tag data, and SOAP is used to transfer it, WSDL (Web Services Description Language) describes the services needed, and UDDI (Universal Description Discovery and Integration) tells applications what services are available.

Because compliant software works with open protocols, it can be discovered by other programs, and two or more applications can interact with one another and perform tasks, such as exchanging information. With this flexibility, companies can integrate their own applications more tightly within the enterprise. An e-commerce corporation might connect its order entry program with its accounting applications so that changes made in one area automatically update data housed in another department. This step can be taken even if the applications are coded in different programming languages.

In addition, businesses can exchange data with their partners, customers and suppliers more effectively. In a best case scenario, they can view and use partners’ information as if it was their own. A Web service could carry out payment validation by taking information from one system — perhaps a customer name and address — and initiating a request for other information relevant to the process, such as a credit card account number, expiration date or the card verification number on the back of a credit card.

Taking advantage of such features does not require much of an investment for an e-commerce supplier. “Many of the new applications as well as application development tools arrive with inherent support for Web services,” stated Randy Heffner, an analyst with Forrester Research. In some cases, e-commerce companies initiate Web services simply by deploying applications, such as Oracle’s E-Business Suite.

In addition, Web services have become a feature that many e-commerce suppliers now offer to their customers. “The Web services suppliers win because other companies use their services, and that helps drive up their visibility and eventually their revenue,” ZapThink’s Bloomberg explained. The customers are content because they have more sophisticated functions than they could develop by themselves.

Because of the benefits, a number of e-commerce suppliers are moving into this space. “Amazon and Google are a few of the companies that have developed Web services that they let other companies take advantage of,” Heffner said. Amazon has been in the Web services business since its launch of Amazon Web Services in 2002. The service provides software developers, Web site owners and merchants with access to back-end features found on Amazon’s Web site, such as its payment system. As the services have evolved, the face of the companies using them has changed.

“When we started this business, we imagined that smaller companies, particularly startups, would be the first ones to take advantage of our services, given their low-cost nature and the fact that they get to leverage our massive scaling capabilities with no up-front investment,” noted Kay Kinton, an Amazon spokesperson. “Now that our services have become more mature, we are seeing larger companies take advantage as well.”

While Web services offer many advantages, they face a few deployment challenges. “Web services technology is readily available and works well. The obstacles stem from management issues,” said ZapThink’s Bloomberg. Many programmers do not want to fully understand how to build applications that take advantage of Web services features. Inertia is also a problem: Some programmers resist designing applications in a new way. Companies often need to invest in training courses in order to overcome those barriers.

Another challenge is most existing enterprise software infrastructures conform to other architectures, such as client/server, thin client, or mainframe computing. Consequently, it can take companies a substantial amount of time, money and manpower to revamp their systems and realize Web services’ potential benefits.

To help address these issues, Web services are being rolled up into a more expansive application development initiative: service-oriented architecture (SOA). The goal with this movement is to design all applications so they operate in a plug-and-play manner. Here, support for Web services would be one of the features bundled in with SOA compliant systems.

Because of its potential, major vendors, such as IBM, Microsoft, Oracle and SAP have been promoting SOA. “SOA has the potential to help companies streamline the application development process further, but putting the pieces in place to take advantage of it has proven to be a difficult challenge,” concluded Bloomberg. This problem is expected to be a short-term issue. As SOA acceptance rises, the Web services footprint will grow even bigger in e-commerce companies.

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