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Web Services Management Solutions

Web Services Management Solutions

Many companies are in the initial planning and pilot stages with Web services initiatives and may not think they need to consider management solutions right now. They need to think again.

Understanding the features and benefits of Web services-management technologies available today will have a significant impact on how Web services are developed and how companies can use Web services tomorrow. The news may be much better than most think, especially if concerns about security, reliability, connection provisioning, and monitoring are making executives shy about taking the Web services plunge.

Before I talk about different types of management platforms, it may help to take a look at the problems management platforms address. Web services-management solutions exist because Web services are cross-platform and potentially cross-organization in nature. While the stack of Web services standards provides the basis for cross-platform and cross-organization interoperation, companies still need an infrastructure to manage the "distributed system" created by the enterprise.

Further, today's Web services standards are immature, so they have to be augmented with other technologies to ensure security and reliability. Because they're so new, the standards are sure to evolve. Management platforms act as a "shock absorber," buffering companies from the impact of future changes in standards while enabling Web services for business benefit now.

What Web Services Management Platforms Provide
Management platforms can be separated into two categories based on the focus of their management-feature set. One category focuses on managing the Web services themselves, addressing such requirements as version management, performance monitoring, and composite Web services workflow. These solutions abstract Web services from the execution platforms and provide a layer of control that spans multiple underlying technologies. The second category focuses on the actual "connections" between Web-services providers and requesters. This connection abstraction includes not only the Web service and its transport binding, but also the relevant infrastructure details of the provider and requester endpoints.

Just as any given Web service has its own unique characteristics, each of the multiple connections associated with it has its own characteristics. Potentially, each connection can have different combinations of authentication, encryption, reliability and other protocols as well as service-level definitions plus environmental variables such as firewall and proxy configurations associated with provider and requester endpoints.

These management platforms are often referred to as Web services-networking solutions. These solutions address three critical functions in the implementation and management cycle: connection provisioning, optimized SOAP communications, and monitoring network services.

Connection provisioning is the critical step in a Web-services implementation cycle where technology meets processes and people and often represents the biggest bottleneck of Web services projects. Provisioning requires a level of coordination and agreement between provider and requester regarding the technical details associated with each connection. Yes, two developers can provision a connection over the phone; however, if a Web service involves more than a handful of requesters, that manual process will never work.

A Web services-networking solution automates provider/requester interactions with a self-service browser-based application, then codifies their agreement and synchronizes their infrastructures to speed implementation of the connection and simplify maintenance.

At runtime, the network acts as an intelligent interceptor of SOAP messages and handles and implements the complex, interrelated aspects of transport protocol, including authentication, signing, encryption, reliability, compression, streaming, and state management, based on the specific connection parameters previously declared during the connection provisioning process. A Web services networking solution provides an "edge cache" where PKI information and the declarative parameters of each Web-services connection are stored, so runtime performance isn't hampered by calls to third-party verification servers.

Finally, the Web services-networking solution provides monitoring and network services. It selectively gathers log data, traps error conditions, and allows customers to view all network connections from a single dashboard. Because the Web services-networking solution monitors both ends of the connection, it's able to correlate a Web-services transaction across platforms and even across enterprises to give providers and requesters a holistic view of statistics from the entire network.

Once companies realize the necessity of a management infrastructure, a common question is, "Can't I just build my own?" Some of the functionality provided by a Web services-networking solution can be developed internally, but building it can potentially quadruple the costs of a Web services project and, perhaps just as important, significantly slow time to market. Given that, most companies opt to utilize a third-party solution.

Characteristics and Considerations
A number of vendors offer Web services-management solutions as either a subscription-based service or as licensed software. Some subscription-based service providers deliver transparent infrastructure, while others act as intermediaries to whom companies outsource their B2B integration tasks. In many cases, companies will require a combination of services- and network-management technologies. Selecting solutions that best meet the needs and objectives of the project depends on many factors, including how the Web services project is deployed and who the users are.

Pick the Low-Hanging Fruit
These days, it's hard to find an IT trade publication that isn't devoting a significant portion of its editorial space to Web services, and many are publishing articles addressing where Web services fit in the overall IT scheme. For a breakthrough project, companies should look to areas where Web services can deliver significant ROI with only a minor investment, making the decision easy - in sales and marketing vernacular, low-hanging fruit (LHF).

Upon examining those companies that have identified such projects, we see some common threads emerging:

  • No replacement: These projects rarely involve replacing existing solutions such as EDI or EAI. Rather, they focus on integration challenges that existing solutions could never solve due to technical or cost-related issues.
  • Big company drives: As was the case with EDI, these Web services projects are often driven by a large company to a community (either internal or external) of parties that have a vested interest in acting on the "invitation" of the big company. Few, if any, of the projects that deliver immediate benefit are based on the "build it, publish it to UDDI, and wait for someone to find it" model.
  • Expose existing applications to trusted parties: Rather than new applications built from scratch with Web services, LHF projects are often based on wrapping existing applications to expose them as Web services. These Web services projects are almost always limited to trusted parties, usually exposed internally first and then rolled out to business partners with whom there is a preexisting relationship.
  • High scale, low touch point: High-scale/low touch-point projects are particularly suited for Web services because they involve a large number of users with relatively few and unsophisticated interfaces. For example, an in-surance company uses Web services to provide coverage verification - a simple transaction - to 10,000 healthcare providers, a high number of users.

    Historically, organizations have often had to limit electronic workflows to their largest business partners because it wasn't cost effective to include all parties. Now, by implementing these high-scale/low-touch-point Web services projects, they have the opportunity to involve everyone.

    In all cases, a Web services-management infrastructure is necessary. Just imagine the chore of manually provisioning connections in a high-scale/low touch-point project involving hundreds or even thousands of users with various IT environments and expertise. The resources required for that function alone would overwhelm even the most sophisticated IT groups.

    Web services-management platforms give companies the ability to accelerate the connection process, and that speeds the realization of business benefits. Furthermore, they enable enterprises to control and coordinate their Web services when they are in production - these are critical functions because when Web services are in production, they involve multiple infrastructures and organizations. For any company seeking business benefits through the use of Web services, management platforms represent critical infrastructure that should be considered early planning stages.

  • More Stories By Dave Spicer

    A background steeped in telecommunications, networking, enterprise applications, and e-business solutions led Dave Spicer to the creation of Flamenco Networks, where he serves as CEO and CTO. Flamenco Networks is a provider of Web services networking solutions.

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