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Loosely Coupled weblog

Friday, September 27, 2002

Hosting comes naturally to web services
A recurring theme this week has been the notion of hosted web services. BT announced a family of hosted offerings yesterday, and IBM was talking about Project Allegro, a development platform that is designed to help businesses offer commercial web services on a pay-as-you-go basis.

Another story highlighted a stealth project at Navision, the European business software vendor recently acquired by Microsoft. According to a report by eWeek, Navision VIP is a repository for web-based components and services: "Navision is debating how best to deliver VIP — offer it as a hosted environment (like Microsoft's own bCentral small-business services site) and/or allow companies to run the VIP environment inside their own firewalls."

The pairing of web services and hosting in all these stories is no coincidence. Web services, as their name quite clearly implies, live on the Web. Once you convert software to a web services architecture (and I do mean convert, rather than simply wrap it in web services clothing) then it becomes location neutral. You can choose to host it yourself if you really want that responsibility, or you can share the burden with others if you want to take advantage of the powerful infrastructure resources that are out there on the Web. It makes no difference to the software.

There was a time when the concept of hosted software was synonymous with application service providers (ASPs). We hear less of them nowadays, but although they seem to have disappeared, they're still quietly making their presence felt, as I wrote in my ASPnews column this week. All of the announcements I cited above have ASP pedigrees — it is BT's former ASP hosting unit that has designed its new web services strategy, and both Project Allegro and Navision VIP originated as projects designed to support ASPs.

A timely pair of articles by Jeremy Allaire this week also touched on the ASP legacy to web services:

"What do hosted applications have to do with web services ...? EVERYTHING! It's precisely the ability to deliver an application over the network, and integrate that across all relevant cooperating nodes and applications, that makes web services a vision worth fighting for."

The quote comes from Holistic Web Services, an article in which Jeremy correctly identifies the industry's middleware giants as the guilty parties in focussing too much attention on web services as a tool for API-level integration, and not enough on the user experience. He finishes up by highlighting "the missing piece in fully realizing the software as service vision — a 'utility-based', distributed execution environment that ISVs and service providers can plug-into."

That in turn leads into the topic of the second article, The Problem of Scale, which also makes some telling points. I particularly liked his observation that "Akamai has built a operating platform that exists inside the Internet." Coincidentally, the last time I wrote about location neutral, network resident computing was in response to the launch of the MX product range by Macromedia, where Jeremy is chief technology officer. I fully agree with his view that "computing resources should be increasingly virtualized to both the application and the operator of those systems."

I've written before about the convergence of grid computing, web services and P2P, which I earlier described as When the Internet Becomes the Computer .... Fulfilling these ideas depends on the creation of a shared web services infrastructure, just as Jeremy described. But although it's going to take a long time, it's surprising how much of it has already got in place without anyone noticing. Take-up of web services can only accelerate the effort, simply because it's their natural element. While many analysts are sceptical about hosted, commercial web services, I think that strong affinity means they'll be appearing faster and in greater numbers than many expect.
posted by Phil Wainewright 2:17 PM (GMT) | comments | link

Thursday, September 26, 2002

BT teams up with Flamenco
BT unveiled a strategy today to act as a "trusted broker" in helping enterprises implement web services infrastructure. Citing examples from its own internal deployments, Pierre Danon, CEO of BT Retail, said that web services was the key to finally unlocking information held in legacy applications and making it available to customers over the Web.

"We really believe web services are the key enabler," said Danon at a briefing for press and analysts in London this morning. "I'm not a technology buff, but I understand very well what it does to my P&L." He outlined several recent projects that BT had implemented in two or three months, which previously had been "totally out of reach" because of the time and cost required to complete them using conventional integration technologies.

Now BT aims to help enterprises achieve similar results within their own operations. The company announced a suite of three offerings that will be available from January:

  • A managed infrastructure layer based on technology from web services networking startup Flamenco Networks.

  • A hosted "deployment kit" that will allow enterprises to set up and test web services solutions separately from their existing infrastructure, starting from £20,000 per month ($30,000). This will be vendor-neutral, based on either a .Net or J2EE platform.

  • A suite of hosted web services application building-blocks, such as an SMS gateway, white pages directories, a customer profiling tool and a financial transactions tool.

The services are being offered as part of BT Ignite's application management and hosting services, and although initially the company will concentrate on implementing solutions directly for customers, it also plans to work with systems integrators, where it will take more of a background, infrastructure-only role.

The most notable aspect of today's announcements is the emphasis on web services infrastructure as a hosted offering. It seems that BT has recognized that the role of telecoms providers in the web services era is not to compete as an application provider, but instead to offer a reliable and secure infrastructure over which customers can operate their own applications.

This is the opportunity I was arguing for in February when I wrote the white paper Web Services Infrastructure: "The opportunity for telecoms carriers is in assuring the utility-grade strength of the web services infrastructure ... It is up to carriers to become the standard bearers for web services, using their position and influence to ensure the success of the multi-provider infrastructure as a platform for business in the 21st century."

Today's announcements show that BT clearly gets it, with a clarity that is as unexpected as it is welcome. The next task is to take the message out to customers. Having chosen to promote not only web services, but at the same time the concept of running the technology over a hosted infrastructure, BT has taken on a dual challenge. For some customers, making both in a single stride may prove to be too much of a cognitive leap. But BT is absolutely right to put infrastructure hosting at center stage of its offering, and gives it the chance to establish a substantial first-mover advantage at an early stage of an important emerging market.
posted by Phil Wainewright 8:10 AM (GMT) | comments | link

Wednesday, September 25, 2002

HP plays a two-handed strategy
Last week, HP aligned itself with BEA's application server platform. This week it has thrown its weight behind Microsoft .NET. All part of a carefully planned strategy, or more a case of one hand not knowing what the other is up to? There seems to be a good chance it's the latter rather than the former, bearing in mind that, until recently, HP was two separate companies.

Before the merger with HP, Compaq's services division had always been very close with Microsoft, and the $50m joint investment Steve Ballmer announced in Vienna, Austria this week is wholly going into training and certifiying professional services consultants and sales teams. Meanwhile, last week's deal to bundle BEA's application server software with all HP server systems was clearly one that originated from the HP-UX product management teams. It's very likely these two deals were done completely independently of each other.

Yet the combined effect of these two separate initiatives ends up working out quite well — by putting HP's biggest competitor, IBM, on the defensive. The main purpose of the merger, after all, was to scale up to a point where HP could challenge and even overtake IBM as the computer industry's top vendor. In that context, winning the support of key allies like Microsoft and BEA starts to look like a smart strategy, one that in this instance seems to have benefited from HP's famously delegated management culture.
posted by Phil Wainewright 1:05 PM (GMT) | comments | link
How will Google sell News?
After Google officially announced its Google News service on Monday, I added a link to the Loosely Coupled news page that clicks through to it for the latest stories on "web services". I'm already impressed with its ability to find the top breaking stories, which is definitely better than the performance of the feed I was using previously.

Of course, the one thing that would be really neat would be if it aggregated all the items relating to a specific story, in the same way that it does for the pre-packaged main pages on Business, Sci/Tech, Sport, etc. Doubtless that's something it will do for enterprise customers willing to pay, because the at-a-glance and alert value is enormous, especially when teamed up with some form of mechanism (RSS for example) to distribute a summary digest into people's working or mobile environment.

Unfortunately, the sums that can be charged for providing that service to large private clients means that Google probably won't be investing in making that capability available as a paid-for web service that anyone can sign up for at a reasonable fee. That's too bad, considering that there would be ways of monetizing the traffic back to Google that it generated, which might help support a commercially viable service even at a relatively modest price. Either way, the introduction of Google News looks like bad news for and similar services.
posted by Phil Wainewright 2:27 AM (GMT) | comments | link

Monday, September 23, 2002

ERP as infrastructure
JD Edwards is to sell its business applications suite prebundled with a full set of IBM middleware, the company announced last week. Taken at face value, this is an application vendor pre-tuning its products so that they sit best on top of its chosen ally's infrastructure products. But a more accurate interpretation is that JD Edwards has decided to embed its application products inside IBM's middleware, creating a single, unified application infrastructure that customers can configure as required to meet their business process automation needs.

This is another step towards the necessary separation of application logic from business logic in the enterprise software stack, which Jean-Jacques Dubray recently discussed, and which implies the absorption of core application logic into the infrastructure layer. Another of his assertions was that developers will be forced to choose between one of a trio of infrastructure stacks — either Microsoft, IBM or a third, which he thought might be Oracle (though BEA/HP are a rival contender after their decision to team up last week). JD Edwards has become the first independent major enterprise software vendor to have made that choice.
posted by Phil Wainewright 4:03 AM (GMT) | comments | link

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