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Simon Phipps

With a focus on open source and digital rights, Simon is a director of the UK's Open Rights Group and president of the Open Source Initiative. He is also managing director of UK consulting firm Meshed Insights Ltd.

The End Of The Road For Web Services

A decade of corporate politics by the big software companies is finally over as WS-I shuts up shop and gets folded in to OASIS.

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They haven't put their press release on a web page anywhere as far as I can tell but WS-I ("Web Services Interoperability Organization") has finally run out of runway and will now be absorbed by OASIS according to their PDF release. It's nor surprise, they told us back in July that it was going to happen. As far as I can tell, that's the end of the WS-* family of specifications - there will be no more, and they are destined purely for "maintenance" at OASIS with the submission of remaining profiles to ISO taking place.

In case your computer industry history is lacking, WS-I is the industry consortium that got together a decade ago to create specifications for Web Services protocols (note the capitals, so as not to confuse with actual internet services that use HTTP and REST for loosely-coupled data access). Formed in the name of "preventing lock-in" mainly as a competitive action by IBM and Microsoft in the midst of unseemly political knife-play with Sun, they went on to create massively complex layered specifications for conducting transactions across the Internet. Sadly, that was the last thing the Internet really needed.

Flawed

Web services as a strategy was fundamentally flawed in my view because it was so un-web. It took an idea that hardly worked on an Intranet - remote manipulation of tightly-specified objects - and tried to make it work on the Internet. It led to software applications that by default were complex, brittle and heavy. Although I know many brilliant software engineers who worked unexpected miracles with Web Services, implementation by the common corporate programmer was stodgy in every case I heard about. In the end Web Services became an intranet tool for most uses, rendering the "W" incorrect even if WS* will be with enterprise developers for years to come as a kind of architectural COBOL.

Whatever other origins it had, the whole movement was, as far as my own experience recalls, transmitted around the industry by a senior analyst from a large analyst firm visiting all the key players and asking them about their "web services strategy".  As a consequence they all assumed Web Services were a key strategy for their competitors and put huge effort into devising a strategy of their own, with the result that a mediating industry movement was created - with dodgy membership rules at the outset - as each corporation attempted to take the leading role.

The visit the analyst made to Sun was memorable and resulted in the abortive Sun One software product strategy which in my view was the fumbled ball that killed the company. I'll leave it to Anne Thomas Manes to tell the full story some time as she was heavily involved in trying to talk Sun off the course they eventually, fatefully took - yes, she worked for Sun back in 2000 and argued nobly against the tide.

Replaced By REST

Once all the smoke had been cleared from the mirrors by the hand-waving and hot air, it became obvious to most thinking technologists that attempting to implement CORBA on the internet was even worse than implementing it on a private network. Despite cries of protest even now at that description that's essentially what WS-I was all about.

Before too long the lightweight, stateless, web-inspired approach documented by Roy Fielding in his doctoral thesis and named REST at his suggestion became the norm for internet use, and once we had JSON too, the outcome was inevitable. All the work of WS-I was clearly doomed to lead a webless existence as part of the complexity big vendors encourage their corporate customers to use internally, ironically leading them to be locked-in to the tools the vendors supply to mitigate the complexity. 

It took many, many years for that doom to be made reality. In the course of a decade of corporate politics in smoke-filled rooms, many fine and talented corporate standards engineers have spent countless hours perfecting a set of specifications that are expertly crafted and logically complete. Fine work, and many lessons learned, but sadly irrelevant to most of us. Goodbye, WS-I. I know and respect many of your participants, but I won't mourn your passing.



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