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As Web services have become the grand vision these days, more and more people are seeking out the practicalities of implementing and using them for business benefit. It reminds me of when our Bell Labs R&D teams were prototyping cell phones in the late '70s. That vision was grand too, but at times it was hard to see the practical day-to-day applications when a receiver weighed 200 pounds and literally had to be bolted in the trunk of the car.

Still, we knew that the development we were doing had the ability to fundamentally change the way people communicate. Now Web services have the ability to fundamentally change the way applications communicate.

Web services have resulted from the convergence of three important events. The first was the emergence of the Internet as a cost-effective and widespread infrastructure. The second was the adoption of XML as a standard. And the third was the emergence of a set of common Web services standards--namely, the Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) and Web Services Description Language (WSDL)--which have been accepted by major platform vendors in place of proprietary standards such as CORBA and DCOM.

Simply put, Web services make application functionality available over the Internet in a standardized, programmatic way. Applications that couldn't be accessed except by following rigid proprietary protocols can now talk to one another over the Internet, regardless of their native language, platform or internal protocols.

Web services utilize existing IT infrastructures and allow companies to wrap legacy applications in a standardized, consistent and reusable format so every investment can be leveraged. They provide a low-cost way to connect internal applications and collaborate among business partners.

Few people would argue that real-time application-to-application integration is an ideal goal that has proved difficult to fully attain. The ability to have applications--internal or external--share data automatically with no human intervention creates cost savings, productivity increases, error reductions and competitive advantages that are easy to understand and easy to quantify. There's been no lack of interest or demand for a solution, but until now the cure has been harder to live with than the disease.

In the real world, applications are written in different languages using different platforms, heavily customized for specific uses within different corporations and existing behind layers of firewalls designed for the express purpose of prohibiting them from talking to applications on the outside. Typically, real-time integration has required complex and expensive solutions as well as private networks to ensure secure transport and management capabilities. The hallways to most CIOs' offices are littered with application integration solutions that came up short in delivering the grand vision of dynamic, real-time application integration.


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