February 12, 2002 4:00 AM PST

Critics clamor for Web services standards

As the computer industry increasingly focuses on Web services, the Web's premier standards body is weathering vociferous criticism from members and analysts alike that it is dropping the ball on this hot trend.

see special report: Web services: The new buzz Discontent on the Web services front is hitting the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) at a crucial time in the group's history--and during a potentially momentous period for the Web itself. Software makers and traditional businesses are trying to determine what shape Web services will take and whether they will live up to the hype they have generated.

"A 12-month turnaround doesn't cut it in this technical landscape," said Brian Eisenberg, senior product manager for e-business software maker Netegrity's portal services business unit. "Vendors want to get this stuff into their products. Inaction on the W3C's part leaves vendors to implement solutions that are based on specs that aren't standardized, which in the Web services game poses a threat to true interoperability and openness. And that's what Web services are all about."

In a sign of the growing impatience that software companies have regarding Web services, Microsoft, IBM, BEA Systems and Intel last week launched the Web Services Interoperability Organization (WS-I), a consortium aimed at boosting Web services.

Although WS-I members and the W3C publicly insist that the two groups will work hand in hand, sources close to the participants said relations between the W3C and the tech giants, including Microsoft and IBM, have been growing tense in recent months.

The W3C's critics have lit on a handful of the group's recent decisions and initiatives, including its handling of a recent patent controversy, the formation of a separate group to tackle strategy making and problem solving, and a controversial push to develop a type of artificial intelligence called the Semantic Web.

Impatience among member groups is nothing new for the W3C or standards organizations in general, which typically lag behind manufacturers in recommending technologies. But in this case, critics are raising concerns that the W3C is not fully committed to Web services or convinced of their intrinsic merit.

The W3C's most vocal critics say the group is neglecting Web services in favor of a pie-in-the-sky vision to endow computers with logical powers. Many see this Semantic Web effort, led by W3C director and Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, as far beyond the consortium's potential in the foreseeable future.

"The W3C is barking up the wrong tree with the Semantic Web," said Uttam Narsu, analyst with Giga Information Group. "It's too big a task. It smacks of (artificial intelligence). It's a visionary thing, and it's several years out.

"What's frustrating is that there are things that businesses need next year. If you're focusing on the five-year horizon and not doing what's necessary next year, are you doing the right thing?" Narsu added.

Lending credence to these concerns are the remarks of one member of the W3C's new and influential technical architecture group, who downplayed the relative importance of Web services, calling them over-hyped.

"The hype merchants are out of control on this one," said Tim Bray, a member of the nine-member Technical Architectural Group for steering W3C strategy. "I think that 'Web services' in general is at least as experimental and unproven as the Semantic Web."

A fractured Web of services?
The stakes for standards efforts are high amid preliminary evidence that Web services technologies are already beginning to splinter.

IBM and Sun Microsystems are launching their Web services--IBM WebSphere and Sun One--based on Sun's Java 2 Enterprise Edition platform. That's a comparatively open set of technologies developed under the purview of the Java Community Process.

The IBM and Sun services--as well as Microsoft's Web services initiative, called .Net--will be based to some degree on the open standard XML (Extensible Markup Language), a metalanguage for designing industry- and task-specific markup languages, and for making documents on and off the Web more machine-readable.

Despite such mutual use, it remains to be seen how compatible the systems will be. And while both Microsoft and IBM have joined the WS-I, Sun is conspicuously absent.

In addition, the heavyweights have already introduced competing protocols for some aspects of the Web services architecture, for example Microsoft's Xlang and IBM's Web Services Flow Language for work-flow management. IBM said that calling that discrepancy a full-fledged rift is premature, and that the company released its protocol more for industry input than as a set-in-stone specification.

Meanwhile, the W3C has responded to its critics with a long list of its recommendations and proposals that most agree will be part of any standardized Web services architecture. In addition, an alphabet soup of Web services-specific standards have been proposed and are under development not only by the W3C but by independent groups including Oasis, UDDI.org and the Business Process Management Initiative.

Key among the W3C's activities relevant to Web services--but not specifically designed for them--is XML.

XML progeny form another W3C-sanctioned group of technologies seen as crucial to Web services. These include XML Signature, a standard for digital signatures that the W3C calls "very close" to being finalized as a recommendation; XML Encryption, a set of standards for encrypting and decrypting XML documents and data; XML Key Management, for getting key information from a Web service; and XML Query, which helps link database systems and XML-based languages.

Another crucial piece of the Web services architecture that received its imprimatur from the W3C is SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol), an XML-based protocol-in-progress that lets businesses connect their computing systems over the Internet. SOAP has recently succeeded in gathering industry momentum despite early concerns about its provenance at Microsoft.

"I would agree with the analysis that, particularly in laying out architecture, there is a lot of work that needs to be done," said W3C spokeswoman Janet Daly. "But to look at the work that the W3C has already done, and to say 'it's just XML' or 'it's just SOAP'--that's misleading, and to call it an understatement is an understatement."

Those two protocols cover "not only the syntax of XML, but a wide range of applications for privacy, digital signatures, transformations, queries, and creating flexible vocabularies that may be sent and shared between applications," she added. "And that sounds like the foundation for Web services to many of our members."

One piece of the Web services standards puzzle under the W3C's purview, whose pace has earned the group ire, is WSDL (Web Services Description Language). The specification was published as a W3C note in January 2001. One year later, the consortium has yet to form a WSDL working group, fanning the flames of discontent among Web services advocates.

"There are three core specs around Web services: SOAP, WSDL and UDDI," which lets businesses register in a Web directory, said Giga's Narsu. "WSDL was submitted in January of last year. It's gone nowhere in a whole year. And that, more than anything, has to clue you in to the fact that the W3C is becoming increasingly irrelevant with respect to Web services standards."

Others have been vocal about the specification. Two working group members raised the profile of the issue with a widely read editorial last month on news and discussion site XML.com, calling for expedited action on WSDL.

Bray of the W3C's Technical Architectural Group brushed off suggestions that the group is moving too slowly.

"I've heard it said that WSDL 1.1 is both half-cooked and unnecessarily bloated," he said. "If the big guys who are beating these drums want to ship this stuff as specified, they can do this--it's a free economy--but if they want the W3C imprimatur, there has to be some process and thought and time."

Big companies fuel the fire
For now, criticism of the W3C appears to be concentrated among software sellers and other large companies making bets on Web services. Software developers--even those working directly on Web services--view those complaints with suspicion.

"I'm not convinced that developers are too bothered," said Edd Dumbill, editor of XML.com, who has worked as a software developer on Web services. "I think developers are being poorly served by the fact that the big companies have dominated the work of the W3C over the last year. The W3C does more or less what its members tell it to. So I don't have a huge amount of sympathy for the complaints of large companies."

Sources say Microsoft, IBM and other software giants are among those voicing frustration at the W3C's pace on Web services. Those companies, however, are circumspect or silent on the matter in public.

Members of the WS-I flatly denied the group was formed in response to the W3C's slowness in creating Web services standards.

According to Bob Sutor, IBM's director of e-business standards, the importance of Web services compatibility was first introduced by IBM and Microsoft during a W3C workshop last April, in which 70 companies brainstormed about the future of the field and its requirements.

The WS-I says its priority is to educate businesses on how to build compatible Web services. But Sutor reiterated that it also wants to offer guidelines for creating specifications needed in areas such as security and reliability. It has nothing to do with the speed of the W3C or other standards groups, he said.

"WS-I is complementary to the W3C. It is not a standards organization," Sutor said. "It is tasked with the notion of how do you mix and watch different standards in different organizations in practical ways?"

 

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