Web Services: A Grand Integration Theory

A Grand Unification Theory, if it existed, would unify (i.e., explain in a modeling sense) all the forces known to physicists: electromagnetic, gravitational and the so-called weak and strong nuclear forces. The analogy to this physics theory in enterprise computing is something we may call "Grand Integration Theory" that would enable integration of all known enterprise applications within and across companies. Indeed, it seems that every few years, some company or companies proclaim that, using their software, we will "soon" be able to connect every enterprise application with almost every other enterprise application. For example, enterprise resource planning software would be able to "seamlessly" share data with supply chain planning software, or with customer relationship management software.

Benefits of Integration

Such universal integration is attractive for its twofold benefits. First, as complexity of applications grows, so does their need for data and the amount of information they generate, hence increasing the need for integration with other applications. An integration framework would greatly simplify the programming effort to meet this need. Second, if integration were to become truly easy, we would also be able to create new applications quickly by integrating existing mini-applications, just as we create object-oriented applications by putting together pieces of existing code in the form of objects.

Adding the Internet to universal integration creates a heady concoction. First, the Internet, with cheap and near-ubiquitous access within or across companies, provides a medium for sharing information across applications. Second, Internet protocols are universal or becoming increasingly so. Hence, integration across applications can be standardized and expected to perform reliably. Third, we could create "virtual" applications by using the Internet to share data among existing mini-applications or services hosted by vendors; we could pay by the month or by the transaction to use these services.

Web Services

The most recent centerpiece of grand integration is the notion of Web Services, and is backed by heavyweights including Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Microsoft and Sun. Everyone seems to be talking about Web Services. Articles on the subject have recently appeared in Harvard Business Review (Hagel and Brown, 2001) and in OR/MS Today (Ramakrishnan, 2001). Furthermore, an Infoworld survey conducted in July 2001 shows that 75 percent of surveyed IT professionals believe that Web Services are of moderate to critical priority, and that they expect their company to develop a Web Services strategy within 12 months.

But what are Web Services? Here is one definition: "Web Services are software components that dynamically interact with each other using Internet technology standards, making it possible to build bridges between systems that otherwise would require extensive development efforts. One of the fundamental tenets of Web Services is the ability to make business processes or functions available over the Web for consumption by others." (www.infravio.com) So even though Web Services themselves are software components, the intent is to offer services over the Internet that others can use. As an example, you could create an e-commerce site and plug in a credit-card authorization service offered by a vendor that you pay for each transaction, saving a lot of programming.

Indeed, if Web Services become available universally, you may be able to get services off the Internet by plugging into a grid of software solutions and applications. Likewise, you could even offer your own application on the grid for others to use. Companies would be able to pay for the applications (services) they use by the month or even by the transaction. Such a grid could be run by Microsoft to break the gridlock between those who think Microsoft is a rapacious monopoly and those who believe that Microsoft is a benign monopoly. The government could limit Microsoft's returns to 5 percent.

Just as a Grand Unification Theory may take physicists years to develop, grand integration with full-fledged deployment of Web Services will also take quite some time, if it is feasible. There is a tendency to solve part of the puzzle and declare that it would eventually lead to unification. As in physics, a part of the solution is still an improvement, but unlike physics, there may be a tendency among vendors to resell existing applications as being Web-Service compliant by simply using the magic word "XML." Despite great interest, the InfoWorld survey quoted earlier showed only 6 percent of respondents believe they truly understand Web Services; another 2001 year-end survey of IT executives showed that a quarter of respondents believe Web Services to be the most over-hyped technology of 2001. While Web Services hold promise in being part of the puzzle of grand integration, the basic question still remains, as in physics: is such a grand theory realizable?


- V.S. Rama Ramakrishnan (2001), "Web Services: OR's Newest Ally?" OR/MS Today, December, pp. 37-39.
- Hagel J. and Brown J. (2001), "Your next IT strategy," Harvard Business Review, October, pp. 105-113.

Dr. ManMohan S. Sodhi (MohanSodhi@aol.com) is vice president at Gandiva. He also teaches e-business and IT at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business through its executive education program.