01 April 2002
ALL ABOARD! Web services on trendy track . . .
By Jim Strothman
Internet-based XML, SOAP protocols begin tackling manufacturers' problems
With all major high-tech vendors aboard, the Web services technology train has begun pulling away from "Hype-and-Smoke-Only Station" and is on track for solving real-even enterprisewide-business problems.
The truly cross-industry standards effort is beginning to pay off for a few pioneering manufacturers that have begun to implement intranet/Internet-based Web services technologies on factory floors and in supply chains. Some plan to ultimately extend it to their enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems.
Experts define Web services many different ways. One of the most all-encompassing comes from high-tech market research and consulting firm Delphi Group, which defines a Web service as this:
"A business object containing content, application code, process logic, or any combination of these, represented in XML, that can be distributed over any TCP/IP network using agreed-upon standards for integration with other services and applications, self-description, and registry and discovery within public or private directories."
An easier, albeit less complete way to envision Web services is to think of a phone network with built-in electronic white and yellow pages. Using extensible markup language (XML) code, individuals (objects) and business organizations can make known to everyone their city and street address. Businesses can provide additional details about their goods and services.
Using Web services technology, a human-or machine (usually a machine)-seeking a particular item or service can go onto the shared (intranet/Internet) network and quickly "find" the XML code that identifies the goods and services it needs: a security server, for example.
Making it possible are data communications protocol standards that have been agreed to by all high-tech hardware and software providers-and their customer users. Two common Internet protocols, hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP) and transmission control protocol/Internet protocol (TCP/IP), have been de facto standards for many years.
Equally if not more important for Web services, however, are two others: XML and simple open access protocol (SOAP). XML is a protocol that rides on top of HTTP and TCP/IP, and SOAP is the layer just above XML. Together, along with two more layers above SOAP-the universal description, discovery and invocation (UDDI) specification and Web services description language (WSDL)-the protocols make up what's called the Universal Service Interoperability Stack.
While XML does the nitty-gritty work of seeking and identifying objects, SOAP opens doors so different programming languages, such as Windows and the Java 2 platform, enterprise edition (J2EE), can talk to one another-what techies call "interoperability."
One start-up company at the cutting edge of helping manufacturers implement Web services within their organizations is Redwood City, Calif.-based Infravio, which introduced in February its Infravio Web Service Platform, a collection of software tools designed to ease installing Web services throughout an organization.
"There's been a lot of hype and smoke. Just in the last two months, we've seen Web services technology being applied to real business problems," said Jim Bole, Infravio vice president of engineering.
Infravio recently played a key role implementing Web services on the plant floor of a large semiconductor equipment manufacturer. The Web services provider is also working with a PC manufacturer that hopes to provide the guts of custom-built PCs ordered by shoppers at retail partner consumer electronics stores.
In both cases, Infravio declined to name the customers. However, Bole provided some technical details about both pioneering Web service applications.
From reactive to proactive
The semiconductor equipment maker faced a major configuration management challenge, Bole said. Its typical manufacturing process involves 50-100 hardware tools and sometimes as many as 200, with each tool highly configurable. All of the instruments generate a substantial amount of data, including alerts and alarms when consumables need replacement.
Previously, "the data had been used reactively, not proactively, meaning information had been used after the fact," Bole explained. The manufacturer determined that if it could use the data proactively, it could make changes downstream that would have an effect on yield.
In semiconductor manufacturing processes, a small percentage change in yield can be the difference between a nice profit or a heavy financial loss.
Data streaming from the instruments "was not quite XML, but we figured how to get it into an XML form," Bole said. "We suggested turning each of the tools into a Web service itself. Tools can be fairly self-describing because of what kind of data they have."
During just nine days, he said, Infravio took the data, structured it using a standard World Wide Web Consortium Web services schema, and showed the semiconductor equipment maker how to implement it.
Infravio then helped the customer build a "dashboard," or graphical user interface, on a computer monitor to show what was going on.
Plans wireless monitoring
Using the SOAP interface, maintenance workers plan to wirelessly monitor plant floor equipment status using personal digital assistants or other handheld devices.
Eventually, Bole said, the semiconductor equipment maker hopes to tie into its ERP system to enable automated shipments and deliveries.
Java, specifically J2EE, has gained a major foothold integrating plant floor equipment, while the Microsoft NT platform is widely used at higher business decision-making levels. Java, Java Bean objects, and Microsoft operating systems, including the emerging Microsoft .NET architecture, are all interoperable with Web services. Enterprise level software kingpin SAP and e-business applications giant Siebel Systems are both developing Web services interfaces to their products.
In another manufacturing application, Infravio is working with a PC maker and its retail store partners. Using Web services technologies, the idea is to make it possible for the stores' customers to custom order possibly store-branded computers made by the PC maker.
The stores, in effect, would use a manufacturing model similar to that which Dell made famous, which enables its direct customers to configure orders online, then rapidly assemble and deliver the customized systems.
On fast track
"Web services, as a technology life cycle, is moving faster than any technology I've seen, as far as adoption," said Larry Hawes, senior advisor at Delphi Group, a global advisory firm that focuses on the intersection of business and technology.
Hawes, who last fall spearheaded a cross-industry Delphi survey on Web services, found 35% of all responding companies reported having Web services strategy in place, with another 26% expecting to have one formulated within six months. However, 80% said Web services are important or imperative to their business strategy.
"They're finding they don't need to deploy all four standards [XML, SOAP, UDDI, and WSDL] at once. Most are content with doing application code in XML and building SOAP interfaces to certain applications. UDDI and WSDL will come later," he said. UDDI is a proposed public directory of Web services. WSDL, a means to describe a Web service, is the Johnny-come-lately of the standards but will become critical when interorganization trade increases.
Delphi's survey found two-thirds of respondents, such as Infravio's semiconductor equipment maker customer, plan to initially deploy Web services internally, integrating applications.
Surprisingly, respondents did not rank security as a major concern. The largest obstacle, they said, was programming inexperience. "Most companies have good software developers, but to architect an application that uses services is not a widespread skill," Hawes said. Another high-ranked obstacle was proving return on investment.
Hawes said 23% of Delphi's survey respondents expect to spend less than $100,000 on Web services projects in the next three years, while 18% expect to spend between $100,000 and $250,000. "One must assume these groups envision starting with small Web services initiatives," he said.
Also, "businesses are attuned to hoarding and protecting information, especially when dealing with other organizations. That needs to change. Web services are all about the collaborative sharing of resources," Hawes said.
Nevertheless, the majority of Delphi's cross-industry respondents (55%) said they believe "Web services will become the foundation for most organizations' online activities," the study reported. Only 12% said Web services would not become the pervasive operational model for Internet-based businesses. About one-third of respondents felt it was too early to tell. WBJ