This month's column was contributed by Velan Thillairajah, CEO of EAI Technologies.

Web services has evolved from main billing on the home page headlines to its current practical use on the relevant detail page showing its functional applicability. It is no longer viewed as a means to handle everything and does not have to be talked about even if it is being used under the covers.

There is an overall increased level of understanding of Web services. Vendors have moved beyond pitching Web services as the panacea for all information technology problems. Service providers have gained some practical implementation experience from helping customers navigate the initial wave. End customers have learned how to "consume" and/or "produce" Web services in a fashion to meet their specific needs.

Analysts such as Gartner, Forrester and McKinsey have covered the topic well in the form of annual summits and/or positioning papers. Combined with vendors continued iteration in their standard presentations, executives are quite comfortable with the concept based on familiarity from marketing speak and external validation.

IBM Global Services' most recent announcement in the new practice area of service- oriented architecture (SOA) bears this out as one example of going one step beyond Web services.

"With Web services, a company can make individual service components available via a network to other systems as well as to its employees, customers, business partners, whomever. Because they're built on open standards, they share a common protocol - in other words, they speak the same language. .... It's a powerful idea. But to achieve this degree of flexibility, you need an equally flexible IT environment. You need a service-oriented architecture or SOA."

Web services maturity/evolvement is visible from the availability of numerous development tools from Microsoft, IBM, Sun, HP, WebLogic and Systinet as well as several open source elements. In addition, several management and monitoring components such as AmberPoint and Actional have arisen to assist with managing these Web services.

The Google indicator level has also gone up considerably. Today a Google search on "Web services" returns 14,600,000 hits. This has grown from 2,850,000 in January of 2003.

Build it and they will come? Web services has to overcome the same business obstacles that any other technology faces. Just because a great functionality is created and made available does not mean it will get used. Another key driver is how much help does the consumer of the Web services require? Some will require sample/client code for their technical environment (Java and .NET or other). Others will only require the WSDL to be off and running. The key to its use depends on its true underlying business value that is being delivered. If it is a corporate-driven mandate that will create cost savings at the overhead level, then potential incentives for use would even be appropriate.

Amazon and Google are probably some of the better examples of more outwardly facing Web services. They expose more to the outside world, because the Web services are used to leverage their own brands in delivering search results that can have revenue impact for them.

As Google and Amazon will attest, occasionally there are unpredictable usage patterns. New products and services that are introduced by Amazon can be quickly leveraged to be "consumed" by Amazon end users with potential unintended consequence of heavy volume say for a graphic add-on that an ambitious third-party marketer has developed.

Domain name registry example - For its partners, VeriSign provides the traditional Java- based API but also provides an extensible provisioning protocol (EPP) or XML mapping guide which can be easily leveraged to interface with the registry back-end systems in an automated fashion. Though theoretically not a fully defined Web service, the EPP mapping is clearly analogous to the WSDL in terms of instructions for use.

In the case of VeriSign, significant investment was made in standards with key resources focused on creating protocols such as EPP that meet the approval process of the IETF and meet the practical implementation needs for their customers and systems. This investment pays off for them in the form of improved customer relations and streamlined technical development.

In addition, using EPP allows for flexibility in future product offerings outside of their current line of services if they choose to do so. VeriSign continues strongly with the Web services model in its work efforts with RFID and electronic product code initiatives in conjunction with EPC Global.

Overall, the business and technical people have come to understand the true use of Web services. Everyone collectively realizes that there are some things that it currently does very well and other functionality that it will grow into. The rules of engagement of Web services will evolve just as a child grows and comprehends its abilities as well as its boundaries for behavior.

As an infant, Web services was misunderstood ranging from being the golden child to autistic savant. As Web services evolves, it is like any other normal child (or technology advance). As we raise the child and get to know its characteristics, we have been able to better employ them and be happier parents. The next challenge is taking them through adolescence and adulthood. Collectively succeeding in this endeavor will help us realize the full potential of Web services.

Velan Thillairajah is the founder and CEO of EAI Technologies (www.eaiti.com). Thillairajah has worked with or for PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Hewlett-Packard, Network Solutions, AOL, Verizon, BMC, VeriSign, KPMG and Agilent. As an active board member of The Integration Consortium (www.integrationconsortium.org), he speaks and represents The Integration Consortium at numerous conferences and events and contributes to content related to Integration best practices and strategies.

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