Microsoft: Web Services is About Business Agility

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NEW YORK -- With Web services beginning to gain acceptance in the business world, Microsoft came to InternetWorld Fall 2002 Tuesday to refine its message: beyond just integration, Web services are about providing "business agility."

Success in business is often a matter of flexibility, of being able to respond to shifting market demands rapidly and capitalize on opportunities. But while IT is often seen as a solution to the need for flexibility, the cost of updating IT infrastructure to pounce on changing trends can be prohibitive.

"Historically, IT has been run as a cost center," Charles Fitzgerald, general manager of Platform Strategies at Microsoft, told the assembled crowd Tuesday morning. But the possibilities engendered by XML Web services can change that, Fitzgerald said, by allowing organizations to rethink IT priorities.

Enabling business agility is a matter of connecting with customers and partners, empowering employees, streamlining business processes and optimizing IT economics, Fitzgerald said. XML Web services touch upon each of those areas by providing an Internet native mechanism that allows different systems to communicate with each other.

Fitzgerald was armed with a handful of examples, including Pitney Bowes, which has used Web services to integrate package pricing across shippers, or Scotiabank, which does business with many automobile dealers and used Web services to provide those dealers access to legacy systems. Other examples include Vail Resorts, which used the technology to integrate six different CRM systems, and The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, which integrated its patient information systems with a $200,000 investment that is estimated to save it $30 million over eight years.

"We really think the marketplace has validated Web services both from a technology perspective and a business perspective," Fitzgerald said.

But Fitzgerald noted that the revolution may be waiting in Web services ability to deal with business processes.

"Businesses tend to think in terms of the business process," he said. However, historically, businesses have been forced to change their businesses processes in order to conform to the needs of their technology. With Web services, Fitzgerald said, the opportunity now exists to create technology that serves business processes.

Part of the answer to doing that rests with Business Process Execution Language for Web Services (BPEL4WS), developed jointly by Microsoft, IBM and BEA Systems and released in July.

"It allows you to describe business processes independent of the underlying system," Fitzgerald said.

BPEL4WS defines a model and a grammar for describing the behavior of a business process based on interactions between the process and its partners.

Beyond that, Fitzgerald said Web services is also about giving organizations the ability to "unlock information and get it out to the people that make decisions."

As an example of how Microsoft itself is using its .NET Web services strategy to do just that, and provide organizations with "business agility," Fitzgerald pointed to Microsoft Office XP, which he described as a "socket for plugging into Web services."

Office XP features analysis and collaboration tools that turn users into consumers of Web services. For instance, Excel features a new "My Data" menu which allows users to pull spreadsheet data through Web services. On the other end, developers can create defined roles to various sets of users, allowing them to tailor the way end users access information to the needs of the specific roles.

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