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Training for a web services future

by David Longworth
February 10th, 2003

When Peter Schmitt, a long-time consultant and project manager with SAP's enterprise applications, first came across web services, a light bulb flicked on in his head.

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Developer skills programs are emerging for web services. They tackle not only basic programming but also higher-level architecture and business issues:
  • Many vendors have launched free programs
  • Demand is strong
  • A service-oriented mindset is seen as a crucial success factor
  • Courses target business analysts, too
  • Programs combine education with evangelism

Glossary terms: Java, RPC, API, orchestration, loose coupling, lookup tool

"It's like Fedex over the Internet," he enthuses. "It's an opportunity to take some of the functionality in companies' business processes and put it outside the enterprise. We're definitely in the beginning of a big wave coming over the industry. This is the way of the future."

Schmitt has subsequently turned his small, systems-integration company IMX Data on a dime, and developed a secure messaging environment for enterprise systems based on the Grand Central web services network. He sees applications for it in areas such as purchase order acknowledgement and exchanging materials reference numbers.

But not all developers or business architects have the foresight of Schmitt. "There's not a good understanding by developers," he says of his peers. "Something is emerging and the boundaries are not clearly defined, so people are just poking around and trying it out.

"And as for business-oriented management, they have no idea. They see it as the last of the miserable e-commerce bubble. It's a new frontier and they're not sure where it's going."

Supply and demand
In the past year, there has been a welter of developer programs launched to combat this ignorance. They offer training (sometimes with qualifications), advice, very active bulletin boards, real code examples, technical overviews and even live web services to play around with. And all for free.

Developers have responded with enthusiasm. Systinet's Developer Corner, which has set itself the rather ambitious task of becoming the leading web services community, now has 24,000 registered users and reckons to be growing at 500 a week. This success, like others, is based on solid information and examples: "Last week we had over 650 downloads of our whitepapers and case studies, more than 2,500 downloads a month," says head of marketing Ian Bruce. "There's a huge demand for information and examples of how web services can be deployed, how to create a web services infrastructure, and even how to develop a service-oriented architecture."

In the short term, vendors focus on converting programmers at the grass roots to XML and web services, but the long-term picture is much grander than that. John McDowell, CTO of Grand Central, whose developer program has been running for around a year, says: "There's an evolutionary and a revolutionary aspect to web services. The evolutionary part is straightforward. People understand the Web and HTTP and there are XML toolkits for the different platforms and languages. We're not asking people to get on a huge learning curve. They don't have to upgrade their software and hardware, they can just take what they have already."

Developers can use vendors' programmes to convert existing skills — in Java, COM, CORBA or even PERL — to web services in as little as one to two weeks. Developers, it seems, have never had it so easy — but now other skills beyond basic programming are being called into play.

Deceptive ease
Having a superficial understanding of web services will no doubt enable you to write, post and even consume services, but vendors recognize it will not be enough to make the most of the much greater potential the technology brings. All their efforts will have been in vain if developers fail to understand the wider implications of adopting web services — especially if business users follow in their footsteps.

"Web services started off with the techies," says Hugh Grant, CTO of Cape Clear, which developed one of the first client toolkits, "but it's becoming less technical. In two years or so it will be completely graphical, although you'll still need the high-end programmers for things like quality of service, fault-tolerance and so on."

A graphical interface will put the technology within reach of non-technical business users. The danger for vendors and their customers is that the ease of use may catapult businesses into adoption without an appropriate architectural strategy.

"The evolutionary part works at the grass roots," says McDowell. "But the revolutionary is a top-down, much longer process. It's the opportunity to transform the business, and where people are heading to architecturally is revolutionary because it's a long way beyond what anyone's doing today."

Some believe moving on to tackle the higher-level issues will be a critical success factor: "It needs to broaden out to business analysts because, in the future, they'll be the majority," says Grant, a co-founder of Cape Clear. "It's a huge market, and web services has to tap into those people for it to make a different. If it doesn't deliver to those people, then it won't have done anything more than something like Java."

Simplistic view
Hence the need for vendors to start working on developer attitudes today. "Most people come to us with a very simplistic view of web services," says John Lilley, VP of client services at Grand Central. "They see it as synchronous, RPC-style transactions, so we have to encourage them to delve into asynchronous, business-class services."

Edwin Khodabakchian, CEO of Collaxa, reckons only 5-7 per cent of developers know how to program asynchronous capability, which is necessary to accommodate the process flexibility and long-running transactions of web services. However, they can learn — Collaxa brings developers in for a day every month to get the hang of the BPEL asynchronous programming spec — and getting hold of the necessary skills is easy, as Java and XML skills proliferate.

"We see developers that are successful [coming] from Java and XML backgrounds," says Khodabakchian. The company's speciality is orchestration, which it defines as taking existing systems and applications and combining them into new business flows. "At the end of the day, it is just XML in motion. The only plumbing that [they have to learn] is the XML and Java to write the logic. This is much simpler than any other integration product, where you would be limited to a handful of very expensive skills."

Learning networks
The most successful and popular approach vendors are taking is to provide demos and case studies of what is possible. And, unanimously, vendors are keen to build "learning networks" not just about their own toolsets and technologies, but about the potential of web services and the loosely coupled architecture. "It's not just about learning a new API," says Grant. "It's about more than just teaching people how to write a web service. What we concentrate on is existing architectures and exposing applications.

"We see sceptics saying there's no complex or compelling web service application, that they're all very simple. But that's because they use the same architecture and there's a whole raft of benefits in that if you delve into it."

Meanwhile the evangelism continues. One of Systinet's most popular downloads is designed to confound the sceptics. It is a recently published case study based on Deutsche Telekom's T-Mobile application of the vendor's WASP product. "It has over 50 web services supporting a network of over 200 content providers, all supplying value-added content to 5 million handset users," Bruce explains.

"This is a large-scale application, outside the firewall, where security is critical. It answers many of the concerns users have about web services applications. We plan to publish more case studies like this."

More on this topic


Vendor training
Cape Clear's web services developer community CapeScience, Collaxa BPEL Developer Center, Grand Central's Developer Central, Systinet Developers' Corner


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