The way in which enterprise application software interacts with other software also is changing. One area of transformation is "Web Services," a broad term for middleware that assists information exchange over the Internet. "We are in the second generation of taking advantage of Web technology to do business-to-business communication," says Bob Sutor, IBM's director of Websphere Foundation Software.
Like surfing the Web with a browser, standards-based Web Services let applications easily exchange information, shielding users from details of behind-the-scenes information transactions.
"Within your company you may have multiple factories, multiple warehouses. Some use older systems. Web Services better enable the business use of these older systems," Mr. Sutor says.
Web Services work atop existing systems, such as inventory and supply chain applications, to smooth over protocol differences.
When two companies merge, for instance, Web Services can link their disparate inventory systems. "If you've already paid for something, it's near and dear to your heart," he says, adding that Web Services "leverage the applications and data you already have installed."
The benefit of Web Services isn't necessarily limited to internal processes. An enterprise could allow companies in its supply chain to see real-time inventory, employees to look up their own payroll information, and other resource-saving transactions that can add up to bottom-line savings.
Once applications are communicating with one another via Web Services, a business can coordinate those communications.
Process Execution Language
Another area of growth is a standard called Business Process Execution Language (BPEL). BPEL is an XML-based language for standardizing processes: With it, an employer can create a workflow for interconnected applications.
When processing a purchase order, for example, BPEL can automatically run a credit check on one external system, check inventory on another system, and, if necessary, automatically connect to another vendor to order new inventory.
BPEL is a cross-platform standard supported by multiple vendors. It "assigns what people are doing in IT much more closely with what people are doing in business. There have been other attempts to standardize workflow – various proprietary systems from Microsoft and IBM. This, most people would agree, has the best chance of success," Mr. Sutor says.
Like surfing the Web with a browser, standards-based Web Services let applications easily exchange information, shielding users from details of behind-the-scenes
"If you're not already looking at Web Services and service-oriented architecture, prioritize where you should start. Look for one or two pilot projects," Mr. Sutor advises. If a company already has started to deploy those, he advises going to the BPEL system.
As more companies start to support BPEL in products, companies that "have begun experimenting with Web Services really should think about how those services can become more interdependent," Mr. Sutor says.
Still, while Web Services and BPEL hold promise, there is significant room for them to mature and improve. For example, criteria specific to a certain industry or geographic region can prevent BPEL workflows from being adopted on a horizontal basis.
Ultimately, says SAP's Mr. Wohl, "The concept that solutions can mature to the point where they can seamlessly integrate into each other is a promise that we all in the industry are working on."
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