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Fit for web services management

by David Longworth
December 17th, 2003

According to Darwin's theory of evolution, it's the fittest that survive — which isn't always the same as being the biggest or the most visible.

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Some enterprises are finding that smaller, specialist web services management vendors offer a better match for their needs than the better-known names:
  • Each vendor adds its own extras to the core offering
  • Some manage from a systems perspective, others take a business angle
  • Many prefer network-based brokers to endpoint agents
  • Most specialize in certain vertical industries
  • Each encounters a different subset of the enterprise market

Glossary terms: services management, systems management, BAM, WS-Security, WS-I, lookup tool

Smaller web services vendors may not have the reach and ambition of big names like Hewlett-Packard or Computer Associates — which launched its WSDM product last week — nor even the slick marketing of better-funded peers such as Actional and AmberPoint. But each claims a unique approach that they believe will help them protect and grow their customer base.

Some lead with a specific technology, others emphasize a distinctive architectural approach. Some lead on business activity monitoring (BAM), while others make a virtue of excluding this function. Many are following the classic technology startup route of winning a "beachhead" in a niche market, by establishing business relationships with clients through offering specialist expertise tailored to a specific industry.

When telecoms operator O2 Ireland was looking for a management product to guarantee quality of service in its full mobile number portability (FMNP) project, there were several factors that made WestGlobal's mScape look like a good fit. Vertical market expertise was one factor: the Dublin-based vendor had been concentrating on the European mobile telecoms sector. Another factor was a solid focus on managing services from a business perspective, which was a key requirement for the application.

"We manage abstract services as opposed to the underlying technology," explains WestGlobal CEO Paul Acton. "It's not about starting and stopping services, or providing generic statistics about CPU load or network load and how that's affecting performance. We look at services regardless of the underlying technology and differentiate traffic according to business activities."

O2 wanted to know key business metrics about operators, churn rates and performance, none of which would be provided by a vendor that spurned business activity monitoring in favor of a purely infrastructure-level approach. It required a business-level view to identify when the number had been ported, when the forms had been completed and so on. "Being able to keep track of that at a meaningful level for the business is a challenge [for other vendors]," says Acton.

Crucial extras
There's so much scope for different approaches to web services management that smaller vendors can still come up with distinctive propositions — to the extent that at times it's difficult to see what they have in common. However, what they do all offer — either themselves or through partners, and with a greater or lesser emphasis — is a core ticklist of web services management functionality. This includes:

  • everyday management (versioning, configuration, interoperability brokering)
  • performance management (including monitoring and alerts, reporting, load balancing, SLA management and QoS optimization)
  • security (ranging from a complete XML firewall to support for SAML or digital keys)
  • revenue management (billing and contracts)

To this core, vendors add extra features, which in some cases are so crucial to a customer that they make all the difference. WestGlobal, for example, has management of CORBA services thrown in, which it claims CORBA tools vendors have never before offered at this level. For Californian startup Digital Evolution, the unique differentiator built into its DE Management Server is a "Digital Vault" approach to security, which it says ensures that potentially insecure clients of a service are brought up to the required level of security.

For clients that only have a user name and password capability, the Digital Vault enables the system to generate whatever level of security the service requires, right up to a signed SAML assertion, explains Ian Goldsmith, director of product marketing at the Santa Monica-based company. This means customers can deploy services without having to insist on clients installing new security software in order to consume the service. "It allows the user to participate in strong network security when they would not normally be able to," he says. "It's all part of abstracting the client consumer from the service endpoint."

Security is a field rich with potential for differentiation. Despite widespread support for emerging standards such as WS-Security, customers will still need management products that support a variety of security technologies, says Kerry Champion, founder and president of Westbridge Technology, based in Mountain View, California. "We ask people what percentage of their software components that are going to be talking XML are written in new code in a relatively modern environment, and they say 15-20 percent," he says. The remaining 80-85 percent will need management products to intermediate: "We want to keep things loosely coupled — we don't want to keep on going back to ask people rewrite components. But consumers are going to be expecting to use WS-Security or digital signatures."

Separate philosophies
Interoperability with other management products and existing management environments such as HP OpenView or CA Unicenter is a given, of course. Without exception, vendors sign up to and strongly support the WS-I organization's guidelines on interoperability. But the extent to which their products integrate with established management products depends on their backgrounds and current alliances. As in other respects, as Champion says, "Each competitor brings its own philosophy and center of gravity to how it provides web services management."

Several vendors, in common with WestGlobal, make much of the distinction between business-driven services management and traditional systems management. For example Infravio, based in Cupertino, California, plays upon its founders' expertise in building SOA-based B2B and content management systems. "We do come from a different perspective," says CEO Jeff Tonkel. This has led the company to introduce the notion of "Web Services Delivery Contracts" in the latest version of its management product.

Other differences become apparent in how vendors architect their products. The traditional approach to web services management has been to place a proxy or agent at every service endpoint, but a significant number of vendors reject this model in favor of a network-based broker approach.

Blue Titan, for example, has a fabric approach, which uses software-based SOAP routers — similar to IP routers — to deal with service requests. "The genius in all this is how to set, enforce and administer policies," explains Sam Boonin, VP of marketing for the San Francisco-based company. "If a service provider comes onto the fabric, how do you distribute its policies to all the endpoints with zero intrusion?"

This is an important consideration when scaling to enterprise levels, says Hemang Desai, head of business development at Bangalore-based Itellix, whose Wisiba product includes a high-performance proxy server to counter latency concerns. "The advantage of the [proxy] approach is [it covers all] the endpoints, but the flipside is that users are concerned about latency," he says. "For every web service there's an additional network hop and degree of progressing. With our approach, there are no new bottlenecks."

Respective capabilities
For customers selecting a management vendor, weighing the merits of different architectural approaches may be less decisive than the respective capabilities and expertise of the shortlisted candidates. But track record, this early in the game, is not much of an indicator. With its product still in beta, Itellix is yet to come to market. Some vendors have just a handful of customers. Only a few are further advanced; Blue Titan reports five or six significant deployments in the last six months, while Digital Evolution already claims more than ten customers in full-scale production environments.

Strong vertical leanings are a clear advantage. Witness WestGlobal's telecoms roots, now extended to financial services, a market that the founders of Itellix also know well. For Service Integrity, based in Mewton, Massachussets, vertical expertise is a key differentiator. Its XML Dialect Factory provides the ability to deal with different industry XML standards — such as those provided by ACORD in insurance, and CDISC ODM in pharmaceuticals.

The type of implementation vendors have geared up for is another factor. While all the vendors quoted in this article are enterprise players, ease of installation and use is key for some, while for others, scalability is everything. Joe Maloney, SVP of marketing at Service Integrity, recalls showing a customer an impromptu demo that had its product up and running and auto-discovering web services in under 30 minutes: "For one of our customers in the financial services arena, it was very important to have high performance but low impact. They had logging in their current environment but didn't want to have the system impacted by web services management. We could work into their data flows so they could do the analysis and get their arms around it very easily."

In contrast, Boonin says that feedback from Blue Titan's customers suggests that the key challenge is moving to an environment where, instead of using web services to link up a handful of back-end and front-end systems, an enterprise may be running 150 services or more, accessing 50 or 60 back-end systems across lines of business and geographical locations.

Different environments
"We are solving problems of scale in large distributed environments," says Boonin. "We are talking to enterprise IT groups looking to roll out an enterprise service-oriented architecture." For Blue Titan's customers, focusing on projects would get in the way of SOA plans: "Very often project success is an inhibitor to architecture achievements. We would not be successful if we went into projects, because that's not where we fit."

As such, Blue Titan's technology and price point is simply not suited to discrete projects. Boonin says the company's recent Network Director 2.5 release is specifically designed to meet customer requirement for better scalability and performance. "Customers don't ask for more features and functions," he says, "they ask us to solve their problems of scale and environment."

And yet Infravio, also targetting enterprise-scale implementations, is encountering a very different type of web services environment than the highly distributed services infrastructure that Boonin describes. Infravio's biggest implementation currently has 25 services, and 10 to 12 is the average, says Tonkel. The disparity is explained by the scale of traffic within each individual service: "The services that are there are very high volume services, and people want them controlled very tightly. What we see is very few services, very high volume and the customer wanting them to be very tightly controlled."

Customers evaluating potential web services management suppliers need to be alert to such discrepancies in the aptitudes and expectations of the companies they speak to. In an evolving market, each vendor will have encountered a different mix of customer requirements, and will have adapted their skills and technologies accordingly. It's still too early to say with any certainty which combination is going to become dominant. In the meantime, the best fit for any given requirement is as likely to come from a smaller specialist as it is from one of the more established vendors.

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Blue Titan, SOA Software (formerly Digital Evolution), Infravio, Itellix Software Solutions, Service Integrity, Westbridge Technology, WestGlobal

Parent company of O2 Ireland


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