Actional Jumpstarts Web Services Management

The company unveils new products to make sure Web services communicate properly and partners with Microsoft to make them more available to the public.

Web services software has been heavily hyped for two years, but realistically, how much good are the products unless there is software to manage them? The focus of the niche is to make sure that computers communicate with one another more smoothly, but what happens when a breakdown occurs in that communication? Generally, systems fail.

Enter firms like Actional Corporation to prevent that from happening. The Mountain View, Calif. firm is just one of several firms focusing their attention on the idea of Web services management. Products from the likes of Actional and rivals Talking Blocks, AmberPoint and Confluent Software are geared to fix the problems.

Monday Actional released its most important products yet, with the Actional Looking Glass Web services management server and console. James Phillips, senior vice president, marketing and product management at Actional, said the new software reduces the time and cost of managing complexity of dynamic Web service networks.

Actional Looking Glass consists of a centralized control console, paired with a management server, to help users control heavily-taxed Web service networks that may fail. Why the need for Web services management tools? Phillips said most Web services help IT adapt to changing business requirements and are therefore extremely layered and complicated. With numerous network connections relying upon one another, networks are often hammered and overrun by heavy traffic and an inordinate amount of commands pinging all over the place.

This means even subtle changes to the service environment, such as adding new applications, or a broken service, can slow Web services to a halt. That's where Looking Glass comes in. It lets users view statistics and alerts, and create and distribute rules across the Web service network.

Ronald Schmelzer and Jason Bloomberg, senior analysts with XML and Web services research firm ZapThink, believe companies like Actional with such products as Looking Glass are necessary for management, something they consider a legitimate barrier to Web services adoption -- second only to security.

"After all, companies won't deploy a Web Service that is central to their business unless they can get a grasp on how it is running, what side effects it is having on other systems, and how it is supporting critical business requirements. Thus, to do anything "real" with Web Services, you need management (combined with process, which is the third roadblock)," Schmelzer told

Schmelzer applauded Actional's service-oriented architecture vision, evidenced in Looking Glass.

"It is this latter feature that Actional is especially keying on with their Looking Glass product," Schemlzer said. "The product really does have some unique functionality. They realize that as companies increasingly implement Web Services to connect more systems together, they will soon have a complex tangle of inter-connected systems, resulting in tremendous challenges in unexpected dependencies, planned changes, and uncontrolled outages. The ripple effects of one service going down that hundreds of others depend on would quickly bring down even systems that are otherwise robust."

Meanwhile Bloomberg told the key differentiator for Looking Glass over the competition is that it excels in handling Web Service dependencies.

"Actional realizes that in a Service-Oriented Architecture, enterprises will have several Web Services that depend on each other. A management tool must then be able to deal with the problems with dependent Services that result when one Web Service has a problem," Bloomberg said. "The greatest challenge in addressing this problem is maintaining the loose coupling among Web Service producers and consumers in the face of Services that may not be available as expected. Actional's product strategy addresses this issue better than their competition -- although it's still too early to say how well their product (or anyone else's, for that matter) will actually perform in real-world enterprise situations."

Actional Monday also released the latest version of its Web services broker, SOAPstation 4.0, a component that insulates and manages the interactions between applications that provide Web services and the systems that consume them. The firm also unveiled Actional Active Agents, which gather runtime statistics and monitor and alert on service activity based on the policy defined and distributed by the Looking Glass server.

Apparently, Microsoft likes Actional's vision, too. The software giant inked a strategic technology, consulting, marketing and reseller partnership with Actional in which Microsoft will sell Actional's products with its .NET products. Financial details of the pact were not revealed.

"The ability to manage and secure applications is something that has been missing from enterprise deployment of Web services. Companies like Actional and Microsoft can create a complementary solution for handling this type of issue by combining their Web services offerings," said Daryl Plummer, group vice president and research general manager of Software Infrastructure at Gartner.

The Actional Looking Glass Web services management server and console will be released under controlled availability on March 31. SOAPstation 4.0 and Actional Active Agents will be available on March 31.

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