Unfinished symphony

You’ve probably never heard of CCL Industries, but you likely benefit from its expertise. Its custom manufacturing division is one of the world’s largest contract manufacturers of consumer products. Its “”product”” is getting other companies’ products onto store shelves quickly and


To do it, CCL must continuously communicate with its customers and suppliers. That used to mean having terminals connected to the other companies’ legacy systems, all different. That meant duplicate data entry for CCL staff – once to put information into the third party system, and once to put it into CCL’s.

“”It was very laborious and error-prone,”” recalls Akil Bhandari, CCL’s vice-president of IT and CIO. “”At one time we had eight customer systems in our plant.”” Small wonder that staff often waited until the end of the day to do their entries. So much for real-time situation monitoring.

Not only was monitoring a challenge, simple functions such as issuing purchase orders for supplies were unnecessarily complex. POs, for example, had to be generated, printed, faxed to the supplier, then followed up by phone.

Thanks to Web services and a portal, that interaction now happens automatically.

“”Basically we took an incremental approach with a few suppliers,”” Bhandari explains. CCL started with basic information transactions exported from its J.D. Edwards ERP system and downloaded to a Web services portal. Using standard utilities, the system e-mailed a link to the designated individual at the supplier; this person clicked on the link to the document on the portal and approved it online.

In phase two of the project, the interaction became more ambitious, using XML Web services to allow the two companies’ ERP systems to communicate directly. No duplicate entry, less chance for errors. “”Now, no purchase orders or purchase order changes are lost,”” says Al Hintz, CCL’s director of information systems, “”and when you’re in our kind of business, that means significant savings.””

Changed vision

This is but one example of today’s implementations of Web services, which differ significantly from the original vision for the technology. In its early days vendors touted that authors would “”expose”” their Web services modules on the Internet, others needing the functionality would “”consume”” them, and they would make beautiful music together.

It hasn’t worked out that way. The tunes are largely solos so far.

Most companies are using the technology to integrate applications within their own environments, not to share them externally. “”It’s about pushing a square peg into a round hole,”” complains Dion Wiggins, Gartner Inc.’s vice-president and research director. “”Sixty per cent of Web services are used for intra-enterprise applications. It’s still about integration, not interoperability.””

Nonetheless, the market is growing. Last year, worldwide spending on Web services software was $US1.1 billion, according to IDC. It is expected to climb to $4.9 billion by late 2005 and $11 billion by 2008.

Customers are eager for a way to make applications work together. According to a Jupiter Research survey of IT decision makers, 65 per cent of respondants said interoperability was their first priority when choosing a development platform for building in-house applications. Security came second at 48 per cent.

Making melodies

Almost half of the decision makers said they were most frustrated trying to get applications to work together, 38 per cent complained about getting databases to integrate, and a third grumbled that they could not get adequate security protection in mixed environments.

And the technologies that turned this dissonance into sweet melodies?

Web services standards such as simple object access protocol or SOAP and Web services description language (WSDL) were cited by 55 per cent of respondents, while 37 per cent named XML.

Despite Wiggins’ dismissal of integration, it’s still a big deal to many corporations. “”Looking back a couple of years, companies looked for one big package to meet all their needs,”” noted John Collinson, solution architect at technology integrator Avanade Canada. “”Now they’re looking for best-of-breed packages that integrate with others. I have worked with customers where products were rejected because they couldn’t be integrated.””

Avanade, a joint venture between Microsoft and consulting giant Accenture, is, predictably, a strong supporter of Web services, but, Collinson cautions, they have to be used in the right environment. “”They’re best used in the context of disparate systems,”” he said.

Best for boundaries

“”When Web services really come out is in areas where you have network boundaries or organizational boundaries or disparate technology boundaries. They make it possible to share data in a clear and consistent manner.””

Montreal’s Dakis Decision Systems provides tools to help consumers in retail outlets find the best product for their needs, and its Web services implementations share data with a vengeance. Dakis’ artificial intelligence system allows a store employee or customers themselves to answer a series of simple questions about the customer’s needs. Using that information, the software assesses the pros and cons of different products available in the store, and provides an independent, third-party assessment of what products best fit their needs. Staff can access all this information with a wireless PDA, while customers can use an in-store console.

According to Christian La-Forte, Dakis’ director of research and development, the product will even link to the retailer’s inventory system so the would-be customer knows whether or not their choice is in stock. The system uses Web services to expose its proprietary engines for consumption within the client company, though, says LaForte, they could also be exposed externally.

“”That’s why we chose Web services,”” he said. “”Web services are raising the bar on how you can transfer data in a standardized way. It points to a whole new era of the Internet. You are no longer restricted to information from one company.””

PEI contribution

Genticity’s Customer1 plays a similar tune. A comprehensive customer interaction management suite, Customer1 relies on Web services to help it pull data from multiple sources by integrating with applications running on other platforms.

Paul Bertin, CEO of the Charlottetown, PEI-based company, observes, however, that not every application is suitable for Web services. “”For core services, such as e-mail – no,”” he said. Instead, he sees the technology fitting into very specific applications, where there’s a need to integrate with a large group of people, in applications such as CRM, call center management, supply chain and logistics.

“”Web services is a wonderful mechanism that allows people to deliver software over the Internet,”” says Dmitri Tcherevik, vice-president and director of Web services at Computer Associates.

“”A lot of companies are using them internally, but once they’re integrated internally they’re exposing them to customers or partners.””

But this is not, he insists, the death knell for vendors of packaged software. Instead, he sees opportunities for resellers to add value by offering add-ons of their own.

“”There’s a whole new area that can be developed,”” he says. “”Resellers can leverage Web services in a number of ways. They can add value by offering support or updates to third-party so

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Lynn Greiner
Lynn Greiner
Lynn Greiner has been interpreting tech for businesses for over 20 years and has worked in the industry as well as writing about it, giving her a unique perspective into the issues companies face. She has both IT credentials and a business degree

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