While the name might understandably lead you to believe that Web services are restricted to the World Wide Web or the Internet, they actually function on any type of network, including your company's intranet or a wide-area network. Web services integrate heterogeneous software applications using XML and other standards. These services let different applications from different vendors communicate with one another-without any custom coding. By eliminating barriers such as hardware platforms, software languages, and operating systems that often make diverse programs incompatible, Web services make it easier to share information and offer a less expensive and easier way for companies to work with business partners. With Web service-based applications, you can achieve full integration by mixing and matching best-of-breed applications.
Software applications written in various programming languages and running on various platforms can use Web services to exchange data over computer networks in much the same way the interprocess communications happen in a single computer. Business assets can be shared, combined, used, and reused by a variety of computing resources within your organization or among business partners.
In a recent conversation, John Pulling, vice president and COO of Provia Software Inc., told me, "If someone wants to know the current inventory level of a given product in a given warehouse, you usually have to go into the enterprise resource planning system, or you have to log onto the warehouse management system and look it up.
A Web service lets you make a request from a spreadsheet or another desktop application that says, 'I just want to retrieve this particular data'. It makes an external request over the network, and the requested data is returned. It's a way of publishing information and making it available to other software packages. A Web service tells you how to get the data. It tells you what you need to provide for the data to be returned. It's a user-friendly way of extracting data."
Look around on the factory floor to find another example of what Web services can do for you. Here you have expensive equipment running a production line, and you can't afford to have it break down. Attaching or embedding vibration and temperature sensors in the machinery will let you know when preventive maintenance is called for. Web services make it possible for a manager in the central office to monitor sensor readings in factories in far-flung places, and to schedule equipment maintenance or replacement while still optimizing production.
Web services make it possible to integrate systems and share information with your colleagues and business partners-you use their applications; they use yours.
In a sense, Web services are like wireless sensors. Everybody gives them lip service, but production and availability are by no means ubiquitous. Like graphical user interfaces that once were an anomaly and are now common business practice, Web services will allow routine access to tremendously powerful functions-someday. Make sure your business takes advantage of this power sooner rather than later. When you're buying factory automation software, ask the vendors you're talking to if their software supports Web services. Once you've installed at least two pieces of software offering Web services support, your business can start enjoying the benefits of this power.