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Managing the unexpected

by Keith Rodgers
May 19th, 2003

Businesses using web services to link discrete applications should steel themselves to face unexpected services management issues.

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Managing web services requires tools and techniques that organizations have not yet acquired:
  • Management issues increase with the volume and complexity of services
  • Multiple system dependencies within composite applications will emerge as a major challenge
  • Existing systems management infrastructures are ill-equipped to handle web services
  • Customer-facing services raise extra issues
  • Smaller specialist suppliers often offer superior expertise

Glossary terms: services management, systems management, B2B, loose coupling, composite application, lookup tool

Most companies see web services management as a problem that impacts only the largest organizations — and to begin with, that's often a fair assumption. A typical web services initiative kicks off with one or two pilot schemes, often point-to-point tactical implementations that are tightly focused on specific business or technology needs. At this stage, the need for dedicated management infrastructure isn't an issue, since these initiatives have minimal impact outside their specific domain.

Inevitably, however, one pilot initiative will be followed by another, and then another — and very quickly, organizations find themselves running a half dozen different projects. Because web services are designed to touch and connect multiple computing environments, at some point these different initiatives will start to overlap, creating new, unplanned relationships. At the same time, individual web services become more complex in their own right as developers shift from basic "point-to-point" implementations to "many-to-many" connections. And ultimately, the complexity increases by another order of magnitude as services extend outside the enterprise to handle B2B transactions, requiring multiple, incompatible systems to talk to one another.

The net result is that many organizations will require a greater flexibility in their systems management infrastructure — a flexibility that their existing set-up may not be able to offer.

Operational priorities
Because it's still a relatively immature field of knowledge, most organizations approach web services management on the basis of their operational priorities, tackling new challenges as their experience grows and the environment matures. According to Patrick Vallaeys, vice president of marketing at US developer Infravio, security is usually an early concern, requiring companies to address issues such as authorization and encryption. Operational matters — such as monitoring, reporting, handling failovers, and billing issues — become increasingly significant as complexity grows, as do issues like workflow design and provisioning.

Although many runtime management requirements — such as monitoring service performance or load distribution management — are similar to customers' existing systems management procedures, several new management challenges begin to emerge as the environment becomes more complex. To begin with, the very nature of loose coupling makes issues such as transaction volume unpredictable — it's not easy to know how a service is going to be used, and whether it will be used ten times a day or ten times a minute.

In addition, as Vallaeys points out, the issue of "dependencies" is likely to emerge as a key challenge over the next year, particularly with composite applications. Because they consist of components of functionality drawn from different sources, any changes that are made to one component may have an unexpected knock-on effect elsewhere — and if you don't know exactly who's using your services, it's hard to assess what the impact of that change will be. "Right now," says Vallaeys, "it's very difficult, and there are no tools to understand these dependencies."

Specialist knowledge
According to Bill Robins, partner of The Stencil Group, a San Francisco-based consultancy, many customers have already concluded that these kinds of challenges are too tough to overcome with homegrown solutions. "A number of customers started to do it in-house," he says, "but pretty quickly it became a bit of a mess." Many of the users he talks to also worry that their existing systems management suppliers may struggle to cope with the unpredictable and interlinked nature of web services interactions. "It's a question of flexibility, the way they're architected, the volume of transactions,' he says. "It's an order of magnitude greater in the services environment than client/server."

As a result, although traditional systems management giants like Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Computer Associates are pouring resources into the sector — HP fleshed out its web services vision as part of its "Adaptive Enterprises" strategy announcement in early May — some customers are turning to smaller vendors like Infravio, Blue Titan, AmberPoint or Actional. These organizations offer specialist knowledge of the web services management environment — and in their eagerness to acquire early reference implementations, say analysts, many are willing to offer special terms to prospective customers.

Smaller specialists also provide some of the answers in the B2B environment, where web services management takes on an extra degree of complexity. Organizations like Grand Central provide networked services that effectively mediate between different organizations' systems, managing this complexity from both a technology and policy perspective. Here, according to John McDowall, CTO at Grand Central, the point where services management becomes an issue will vary between the supply and demand sides of B2B.

In the supply side, dominant organizations usually have the power to dictate the terms on which their partners interact with them. By imposing their own standards and procedures, these larger companies may be able to handle as many as twenty point-to-point connections before adopting services management, although three or four is generally a more practical break point. On the demand side, where the balance of power generally rests with the buyer, it's almost impossible to impose technology practices on customers — and yet the business implications of failing to deliver a consistently reliable service hardly bear thinking about. As a result, organizations with customer-facing web services will need to put in management capabilities much sooner.

Diligence process
Faced with these new challenges, customers are considering some relatively young vendors when they come to select a partner to meet their services management needs. This requires a broad diligence process that encompasses both technical ability and financial viability.

While the size of some services management startups may be a concern, that has to be balanced with the specialist expertise many bring to the table in what is still an immature market. From a technical perspective, it's particularly important to have confidence in vendors' technology vision. The strength of their relationship with platform vendors can often provide some level of third-party endorsement of their ability. It's perhaps also a measure of self-confidence in their own abilities that most are forging close links with larger vendors — among others, Actional has a relationship with HP, Blue Titan works closely with BEA, Infravio is a strategic partner of Sun, while AmberPoint boasts partnerships with the systems management software divisions of IBM, Computer Associates and Microsoft.

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