Book Excerpt: When to Use Web Services

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Reduction of redundant applications is a key objective of the U.S. government's E-Gov initiative. The U.S. government encompasses hundreds of federal agencies and bureaus, and there is significant overlap and redundancy of systems across these agencies. A 2001 study by the E-Gov Task Force analyzed the agencies to identify the various business activities performed by the government. The study identified 30 general lines of business, such as economic development, public safety, environmental management, and tax collection. On average, each agency is involved in 17 lines of business, and each line of business is performed by 19 agencies. Some lines of business-such as payroll, travel, HR, procurement, logistics, administration, and finance-are performed by every agency.

The U.S. government spent $48 billion on information technology in 2002 and will spend $52 billion in 2003. The Office of Management and Budget estimates that the government can save more than $1 billion annually in IT expenditures by aligning redundant IT investments across federal agencies. In addition, this alignment will save taxpayers several billion dollars annually by reducing operational inefficiencies, redundant spending, and excessive paperwork.

In October 2001, the President's Management Council approved 24 high-payoff government-wide initiatives that integrate agency operations and IT investments. One of those initiatives is E-Travel, which is being run by the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA). E-Travel delivers an integrated, government-wide, Webbased travel management service. Federal government employees make approximately four million air and rail trips each year, and until recently each agency and bureau managed its own travel department. Cumulatively, these various departments used four travel charge card providers, six online self-service reservation systems, 25 authorization and voucher processing systems, 40 travel agencies, and a unique payment reimbursement system for almost every bureau.

By consolidating these travel systems into a single, centralized travel management system, the U.S. government expects to save $300 million annually, achieving a 649 percent return on investment. In addition, the consolidated system will deliver a 70 percent reduction in the time it takes to process vouchers and reimbursements.

GSA delivered the first phase of E-Travel in December 2002-an online self-service reservation system. The total end-to-end travel management system is scheduled to be complete by December 2003. The system will use a service-oriented architecture, based on XML and Web services, to ensure easy integration with existing agency systems and future adaptability. The E-Travel team refers to this architecture as "Velcro integration," indicating that modules can be easily replaced when necessary.

Managing Portal Initiatives

Web services can also be very useful as a means to manage and coordinate your portal initiatives. A portal is an integrated, Web-based view into a host of application systems. A portal contains a piece of application code (a portlet) for each backend application. A portlet contains the code that talks to the backend application as well as the code that displays the application in the portal.

Web services technology enhances portals in two ways. First, Web services deliver content to the portal as XML. It's then easy for a portal engine to take this XML content and display the information in a portal frame. It's also easy for the portal engine toreformat the XML content to support other client devices, such as wireless handsets or PDAs. Second, Web services technology defines a simple, consistent mechanism that portlets can use to access backend applications. This consistency allows you to create a framework to make it quicker and easier to add new content to your portal. Furthermore, the new OASIS WSRP specification will allow you to add new content to the portal dynamically. Figure 7-6 shows an overview of WSRP.

Another goal of the U.S. government's E-Gov program is to get a handle on government portals. As of February 2003, the U.S. government was managing more than 22,000 Web sites with more then 35 million Web pages. These Web sites have been developed, organized, and managed using the same stovepipe mentality as used in the backend agency applications. Such decentralization and duplication make it difficult for citizens and communities to do business with the government. For example, a community that is attempting to obtain economic development grants must do a tremendous amount of research to learn about federal grants. There's no single source of information. More than 250 agencies administer grants, and you would have to file more than 1,000 forms (most with duplicate information) to apply for all of them. Some of these forms are available online; others aren't. Currently all forms must be filed by postal mail.

Figure 7-6
Figure 7-6: WSRP lets you add new content to a portal dynamically. A content provider makes content available as a WSRP service, and the portal accesses the content using SOAP and delivers the result in the appropriate markup format.

The government is working to consolidate this myriad of Web sites into a much more manageable number of portals, each providing asingle point of entry to a particular line of business. Each portal will use Web services to access the backend applications that implement the business process. In many cases the government will consolidate backend applications to reduce redundant systems and to ensure a simpler experience for the portal users. For example, the forthcoming E-Grants portal will provide a single point of entry for anyone looking to obtain or administer federal grants. This site will help citizens learn about all available grants and allow them to apply for these grants online. The government expects to save $1 billion by simplifying grant administration as well as saving $20 million in postage.

All government portals will be coordinated through the FirstGov portal at http://www.firstgov.gov. From this one portal, citizens, businesses, and government agencies will have a single point of other government entry to all other government portals.

Collaboration and Information Sharing

Web services can make it easier for your employees to share information and collaborate. For example, the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center used Web services to implement a shared information retrieval system called ClinicStation. The center uses a unique collaborative approach to cancer treatment that makes it one of the most respected cancer centers in the United States. Rather than rely on a single physician to manage a patient's case, M.D. Anderson brings together a team of multidisciplinary specialists to collaborate on the best treatment for each individual.

Such collaboration requires a means to dynamically share patient information, such as the patient's chart, test results, x-rays, andother diagnostic images. Because the clinic spans multiple buildings, it's inefficient to try to assemble everyone in the same room to view physical images and discuss a course of treatment. Instead the clinical data is digitized so that it can be viewed electronically. One challenge, though, is that this clinical information is stored in 10 systems on a wide range of platforms. To bring all these systems together, ClinicStation uses Web services built with Microsoft .NET to provide access to all patient information from any browser throughout the center. Physicians can now collaborate over the phone while looking at patient records online.

M.D. Anderson developed this application in nine months using three in-house developers. The total hardware and software costs were less than $200,000. The center expects to save $6 million over the next three years, largely through increased clinical efficiency.

B2B Electronic Procurement

One of the most popular B2B applications is electronic procurement. Companies have been using Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) to automate purchasing applications for years. But EDI is expensive and often requires extensive customization. Web services technology can reduce the cost and time required to create these B2B connections.

Premier Farnell uses Web services technology to implement a B2B Web procurement system for its customers. Based in London, Premier Farnell is a small-order distributor of electronic components and industrial products to the design, maintenance, and engineering industries throughout Europe, North America, and Asia Pacific.

The Premier Farnell B2B trading solution, implemented using IONA Orbix E2A Web Services Integration Platform, supports customers using any electronic procurement system, including SAP, Oracle, Ariba, Commerce One, and custom systems. Even if each of these systems sends a slightly different purchase order format, the Web service can handle the situation. It automatically converts all incoming purchase orders into the format required by the Premier Farnell systems.

Trading Partner Network

Web services provide an excellent foundation for building a trading partner network. The Integrated Shipbuilding Environment Consortium (ISEC) is building a trading partner network for U.S. shipbuilders. ISEC is a project of the National Industrial Information Infrastructure Protocols Consortium (NIIIP), a group of information technology suppliers, industrial manufacturers, academic institutions, and standards organizations. NIIIP is defining an infrastructure based on Web services that can support the creation of a dynamic virtual enterprise: an ad hoc or long-term alliance of companies that work together on a project or opportunity. Although each member of the virtual enterprise operates its own internal business systems, the integration features of the virtual enterprise infrastructure make it seem as if all members belong to the same organization.

NIIIP's first project is focused on the U.S. shipbuilding industry. ISEC will use the NIIIP infrastructure to enable an integrated supply chain that will reduce costs and cycle time for commercial and Navy shipbuilders. Part of the ISEC project is the development of an open, shared parts catalog and a set of standard Web APIs for accessing it.

NIIIP will host a public UDDI registry for the ISEC community. The ISEC catalog service descriptions and Web APIs will be registered in this public registry. The U.S. shipbuilding suppliers will then be invited to implement catalogs that conform to the ISEC standards and to register their catalogs in the public registry. The shipyards will be able to query the public registry to obtain information about the various suppliers and obtain the binding information necessary to access the individual catalogs. Shipyards are also invited to replicate a subset of the public information in their own private UDDI registries and to customize the information for their specific needs. For example, a private shipyard UDDI registry might contain information about the specific subset of approved suppliers for that shipyard. A shipyard might also want to define a set of custom taxonomies to indicate contract history, negotiated discounts, or other information about supplier relationships.

Software-as-a-Service

You can also use Web services to provide a programmatic interface to a business service that you license using the software-as-a-service business model. For the most part, I'm leery of promoting the association of Web services and software-as-a-service. Web services are Web APIs. You don't sell APIs. Instead you sell the business function that customers access through the APIs. As I mentioned in Chapter 6, it's hard to be successful using an ASP-style business model. Looking at history, we can see the secrets to a successful ASP model:

  • The service must be based on strategic intellectual property, something that your customers can't easily do themselves.
  • The service must provide a disruptive value proposition-a new and unique advantage that's dependent on the service provider model, such as aggregate information gained through collaboration.[1]
  • The service provider must establish and maintain a reputation for neutrality and trustworthiness.
  • The service provider must devise a reasonable revenue model that is comfortable for the customer.
My general take on software-as-a-service is that the business model must be viable on its own without Web services. A Web API is simply a better way to provide programmatic access to the service. If you think you have a new, viable idea for an ASP-style service, then you should provide Web APIs for that service. As I mentioned earlier in this chapter, Salesforce.com has added Web APIs to its already successful ASP model, making it easier for clients to integrate their in-house systems with the hosted CRM solution. Now let's look at another example.

Yahoo is an excellent example of a company that has been successful using the ASP model. Yahoo is the world's leading aggregator of content. The vast majority of Yahoo's clients access this content for free through the Yahoo public portal. As with most public portals, Yahoo generates revenue through advertising. But Yahoo also licenses this content to other businesses as a service. If you are a Yahoo enterprise service customer, you can display Yahoo content in your corporate portal, and users can personalize their corporate portal just as public users can personalize their my.yahoo.com portal.

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