By Paul McCloskey
Web services represent the Internet mapped onto real, dynamic business processes. They are the Internet come of age.
If you draw a blank when presented with the term, “Web Services,” you are probably not a technology bellwether on campus. On the other hand, if you think Web services are old hat, your office is likely to be pretty high up in the ivory tower—or maybe just over in electrical engineering.
What’s going on here? What are Web services? And how can a technology be considered cutting-edge and “nothing new,” at the same time?
Web services are objects, data, or applications that can be connected, integrated, or re-used regardless of where or how they are used on the Web. They can be dropped into a host application or platform without extensive coding or programming. A simple example might be a Boulder, Colo., real estate company having a mortgage calculator on their Web page that is hosted by a New York bank. Or something as complex as providing customer access to a corporate ERP.
Web services represent the Internet mapped onto real, dynamic business processes. They are the Internet come of age.
A professor wishing to aggregate data from colleagues at three different universities most likely would have to initiate an e-mail campaign to acquire the data and then reformat it so it could be studied by all three. In the world of Web services, each professor would publish his data as a Web service— to be “consumed” and read by each colleague.
What’s old hat is Web services have been around since the first standards for interoperability were written. These standards—HTTP for transport; XML for syntax; WSDL, the Web Service Description Language, for services interfaces; and Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) for reusable objects—are now coalescing in ways that support real business integration across desktops, campuses, or governments.
“Basically Web services is distributed computing; it’s the same vision people have had since 1980,” says Hal Abelson, a professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT. “What’s happening now is that because it’s built on top of the Web infrastructure—things like HTML and HTTP—those are widespread enough that the momentum for really doing distributed computing is there. So the overall vision is nothing new; it’s just becoming real.”
One of the obvious business uses for Web services is IT outsourcing, where Web services are making it easier to send utility processing—data crunching, back-up, or payroll processing—to third-party service providers. Web services are speeding the transformation of the back office as a shared resource.
“The idea is that by using these standard protocols your [content] becomes more modular,” says Abelson, “and as a CIO of a large organization, you can swap pieces in and out. If you’ve done your modularity right, you don’t say, ‘I have 10 servers located here and there and I’m going to use three of them for back-up.’ Instead, you think, ‘I have a backup service,’ And in the long run if you plan your infrastructure that way, it gives you increased flexibility to evolve.”
Web Services on Campus
While Web services are in their infancy at most universities, some important progress is now being made. The iCampus program, for example, is a joint venture between MIT and Microsoft to use Web services in several pilot projects to provide academic and administrative services to a big group of campus users. The projects incorporate Microsoft’s .NET technology as a Web services framework.
In one of the projects, iLab, MIT is using .NET Web services to create a Web-based microelectronics lab—an actual lab, not a simulation. Abelson is quick to point out—that students are using to do their required lab work in an engineering course remotely.
The application is a transistor characterization experiment during which students execute voltaic signal transmissions from their dorm rooms to transistors in the lab and observe the results. The students control all the inputs from the server. The project has proven hugely productive, requiring only five minutes of actual experiment time versus the hour it takes when a walk back and forth from the lab is added; a much higher rate of actual equipment usage has also been noted.
MIT is now readying about six or seven additional remote labs using the .NET Web services framework to enable experiments using accelerometers, strain gauges, heat exchange, and polymer crystallization.
MIT is looking closely at the potential economic savings from resource sharing enabled by Web services. While at a cost of $50,000, it could not afford to maintain the transistor measurement equipment even for a large undergraduate course. The school sees the experiment as a model for how multiple universities, or a consortium, might host lab servers for common core science courses and spread the expense.
Ultimately, MIT envisions setting up centralized management and control services to provide the authorization, resource allocation, and event notification services necessary to launch online laboratories in a way that could be scaled across multiple universities.
“If I have a transistor characterization experiment, I’m not going to scale that inside the university,” says Abelson. “You scale that with individual courses that are happening all over the world using the same experiment.”
Administrative Web Services
Another MIT Web services project involves the same principle—re-using a common application across a multi-user base—but this time involves an administrative application. Each year, MIT, like most schools, administers a writing test to its incoming freshmen.
Several years ago, the school made the exam available to students via the Internet. The test involves notifying students by e-mail during the summer that an essay question based on assigned readings will be sent to students on a certain date. Students have a set amount of time to do the readings, write the essay, and return it to the university.
Although administering the test is fairly simple, it requires some management infrastructure to do authentication and notification. While MIT and Microsoft initiated the system, it is now operated by a consortium of six universities. The organization, which is now trying to sustain itself as a non-profit, has been approached by additional universities to administer other test and common administrative services.
Web services has also had a role to play in MIT’s Open Courseware Initiative to make course content available for free over the Internet. Today, the system is run on a Web services platform that ties Linux servers together with Microsoft’s Content Management Systems.
When MIT decided it was going to make its course content available over the Web for free, Microsoft took note, understanding the project might also be a candidate for Web services. Ultimately, Microsoft Content Management Server was tied into the courseware delivery system, the final result including both Linux and Microsoft servers operating jointly on a Web services platform.
“These actually became diamonds in the rough,” said Randy Hinrich, group manager for research at Microsoft. “We started them early, in an experimentation phase. Now they have matured to become our premier solutions at MIT, and all of them wrapped around this concept of Web services for learning.”
Setting Up Web Services
If you are not a member of the engineering or computer science faculty, but want to tap into the Web services, how can you set up your Web site to consume or publish Web services? Corel is one company now marketing Smart Graphics Studio, a tool a tool for setting up Web services.
“Higher education is a very challenging IT environment because you have a wide group of faculty and staff with a lot of data, and Web sites here and there,” says Ian LeGrow, vice president of Corel Smart Graphics. “Tying it together is a huge challenge. By using Web services there is potentially a backbone to standardize that.”
Corel’s Smart Graphics Studio enables Web developer to create Web services applications from a graphical environment. Web developers can mark information as dynamic, identify data flow processes, and choose how to represent data. “Basically, we do for dynamic interactive applications what Dreamweaver and FrontPage did for HTML, says Rob Williamson, product manager for Smart Graphics Studio. “You don’t’ have to write all that code to make it work; you just drag and drop.” (See sidebar: WYSIWYG for Web Services.)
Web services represents a point in the evolution of the Web where what was promised in the dot com era can finally start to happen. Indeed, while dot coms more or less got the vision right (i.e., everything moves to the Web) they did not have an underlying service-based architecture in place to make the ideas actually happen.
“Web services did not take off like it might have had the economy not gone through this slump,” said Abelson. “Everyone expected that industry would be making the investments and switching over to Web services architectures about two years ago. And that’s still only just starting. You need a couple of years of that, and more examples like remote laboratories and essay and writing administrations. Those will come.”
With the advent of Web service technologies, open, dynamic business processes—transactional processing driven by end-users—now can start to happen. Right now, the focus is on integrating data and simple applications on demand. What now seems like the demonstration phase of Web services will move into the background, and an environment that is inherently collaborative and integrative will emerge.
“On one hand you want to be able to create a set of standards that deliver content,” says Hinrich. “On the other hand you want to start developing collaboration, communication, and interaction—things like shared annotations and shared workspaces.”
“Ten years from now your personal communicator will include broadband capability and a rich color display, and you’ll expect to be able to interact directly with your data,” says Corel’s Ian LeGrow. “This is just the beginning of what will become the next wave of Internet technologies that allow people to interact with the world around them.”
Ultimately, Web services will enable what might be called the X Campus, a place where users can collaborate interoperable systems and data. A step closer to a vision as old as the Web itself.
WYSIWYG for Web Services
Corel’s Smart Graphics Studio is a tool designed to make building Web services interfaces a simple proposition for the Web developer.
“The tool codifies this process behind a WYSIWYG-type interface so that someone can very easily connect to a Web service, get the data they want, and then make a meaningful interface for the consumer,” says Ian LeGrow, vice president for Corel Smart Graphics.
The consumer of course has no idea what a Web service is—they just want the data. “We’ve simplified that process so you don’t have to have a Ph.D. in computer science in order to use Web services, which was the problem before,” says LeGrow. “What was missing was a tool to simplify the consumption of Web services, aggregation of them; and then the display of Web services to end-users.”
With out a way to do this, even simple collaborating can now be difficult on the Web. “Today, it’s difficult to make a simple pie chart from disparate sources of data,” says LeGrow. “If you’re using Excel and all the data is on your desktop, Excel makes it easy,” he says. “But let’s say you want to aggregate data from three different locations. It’s no longer so easy—you are sending spreadsheets around. Whereas by simply publishing your data as a Web service and putting a common front end on it, you can consume that data and interact with it easily.”
One of the enabling standards that will help drive adoption of Web services is Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG), an open standard for describing XML-based vector graphics that is integrated into Smart Graphics Studio. Using SVG it’s possible to associate various data with a graphical object. Then it becomes possible to “data-drive” the objects using Web services, so they can graphically represent changes occurring in data over time.
Researchers, for example, might create a pictorial representation of a turbine they were monitoring from a distance by putting Web services interfaces on the machinery. Or, a Web services temperature gauge might dynamically report the temperature via a thermometer graphic.
“We make it easy to reuse pieces,” says Rob Williamson, product manager for Smart Graphics Studio.”From a development point of view we can design a workload so that instead of being an over-the-fence process where the designer says, ‘I want it to look like this,’ and then throws it over the fence to the developer, it’s easy enough that often the designer can handle the basics of building the application themselves.”
Paul McCloskey is contributing editor of Syllabus.
This article originally appeared in the 2/1/2004 Issue of Syllabus