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What's the most pervasive element of IT's future that most of us know the least about? My guess would be Web services, that transparent aspect of computing that will become increasingly critical to the smooth operation of just about everything. They are critical, but their very transparency makes it difficult to nail down and understand.

Essentially, Web services are a necessary business response to the communications revolution created by the Internet. Through the Web, we communicate with people and organizations worldwide; but we've all run into problems opening or downloading media, or even reading e-mails at times. Imagine, then, the difficulties faced by businesses and organizations that crunch mountains of data coming in from seemingly endless sources in seemingly endless formats every second of the day.

The problem arises because, at the beginning of the IT age, there wasn't one big, global store selling everyone the same hardware and software. The story of the Tower of Babel wasn't incorrect; it was just told a couple of millennia too soon. Business integration solutions have helped alleviate many of these problems inside organizations, but we need to better address the situation when the Internet is involved.

Despite all the standards and technologies that have allowed information to flow more freely over the Internet, customers have often had to use a hodgepodge of methods to rewire software programs so they could work together over the Web, across different vendor platforms, operating systems, and programming models.

This has been very time-consuming, labor-intensive, expensive work -- a whole lot of energy, talent, and money spent on plumbing and infrastructure. Each time a customer discovers that an item ordered online turns out not to be in stock, or a company cannot integrate diverse demographic data in order to carry appropriate inventory, they're feeling the effects of software systems that do not communicate well with each other.

Simply put, Web services are a new set of standards that businesses can use along with secure, powerful infrastructure "middleware" to bring down the Tower of Babel. This combination enables diverse existing systems to talk to each other much more easily, and enables data originally in multiple formats and from multiple sources to be integrated into useful forms. Clearly, the more we come to rely upon the Web for our business and leisure activities, the more important Web services become. The alternative - rebuilding or scrapping old systems and software every time the next big thing comes down the pike - is too costly to contemplate.


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