Web Services: Equal to the Hype?

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Some valuable functions loom for accounting pros.

Sometimes it’s hard to keep up with the acronyms. At this point, you may think that SOAP is something you wash with, that n-tier comes after m-tier and before o-tier, and that the XML was a sports league that didn’t survive.

Okay, so XML (Extensible Markup Language) is fairly well known. But what XML and other Web Services hold for the future is a different matter. Web Services underlie the Microsoft .Net initiative, and the advertising campaign that originally was named “One Degree of Separation” more recently focuses on “Serving the Agile Corporation.” It’s the same series of ads that IBM spoofs as offering pixie dust.

Partner Insights

And for many resellers, Web Services remains an issue for the future, not something that affects them and their customers on an everyday basis.

“On the business side of things, it doesn’t mean much. Our technical guys are talking about it,” says Ed Solomon, one of the co-owners of Net@Work, a New York City-based Accpac and Best Software reseller. “It’s something we are watching and getting ready for.”

But Web Services are coming. Although most of us may not need to know what a SOAP call is, anymore than we need to know what kind of metal is used in a shower head, we do want to know that if we turn the handle the water comes on, and that applications that work together over the Web do something useful.

“The hardest thing about Web Services is trying to communicate the business value,” agrees Allen Emerick, vice president of Web and support services for Xcentric, an Atlanta-based company that provides outsourced technology services to CPAs. But from a user’s perspective, Emerick says, “applications are really the key. You have applications that know how to talk to each other in a form that people understand.”

Microsoft Web Services are based on Extensible Markup Language, the standard for data exchange over the Web. They allow applications to share data regardless of what kind of software or computer users have. A Sun server can talk to a Windows PC. An accounting application can talk to Microsoft Office, which has XML support, or to a third-party application. Web Services will also be able to deliver data to multiple devices, although Emerick says it is hard to know what people would want much of the data delivered to their cellular phones or PDAs at this point.

How to Speak Web Services

As with every new computer technology, Web Services carry with them a wide range of new terms and acronyms, often defined by experts in words barely comprehensible to lay people.
The simplified definition of SOAP version 1.2, developed by The World Wide Web Consortium, generally known as W3C, is given as follows: “SOAP is a lightweight protocol intended for exchanging structured information in a decentralized, distributed environment. SOAP uses XML technologies to define an extensible messaging framework, which provides a message construct that can be exchanged over a variety of underlying protocols. The framework has been designed to be independent of any particular programming model and other implementation specific semantics.”
Microsoft provides some of the easiest to understand definitions at http://www.microsoft.com/net/basics/xmlservices.asp, a page entitled “What are XML Web Services.”
These standards remain under development by a variety of working groups operating under the W3C, such as the XML Web Services Working Group.
Here’s a simplified set of definitions for common Web Services terms:
SOAP. (Simple Object Access Protocol) SOAP is protocol that specifies how XML data is exchanged over distributed networks, such as the Web. It provides rules for how systems handle messages. The acronym has completely replaced the words since the official definition now avoids talking about objects. It’s basically a language that helps computers connected by the Web talk to each other. In traditional tech language, SOAP enables the performance of remote procedure calls over the Web.
UDDI. (Universal Description, Discovery & Integration of Web Services) UDDI lets clients find other Web services. It’s sort of a Web Services telephone directory.
WSDL. (Web Service Definition Language) WSDL is an XML-based language for describing network services.
XBRL. (Extensible Business Reporting Language) Developed by the AICPA, XBRL is supported by a consortium of companies promoting it as the language that will enable data from financial reports to be easily imported into spreadsheets.
XML. (Extensible Markup Language) XML is basic language for data exchange on the Internet.
W3C. (World Wide Web Consortium, www.w3c.org) This body represents companies that participate in various working committees in defining the standards that comprise Web Services. For example, the four authors of WSDL 1.1 are from IBM Research and Microsoft.

He also believes that such code will make it possible for smaller developers to survive. Previously, only companies that can support increasingly expensive R&D efforts have been able to survive, a situation that has driven much of the consolidation. The benefit of integration available on the Web will be that developing applications that can talk to software from other vendors becomes much easier.

Together, Web Services provide Application Programming Interfaces for applications operating over the Web. APIs, used in all applications whether running on the Web or not, are the “hooks” that enable different applications, such as different parts of an accounting system and third-party add-ons, to work together. It’s supposed to make application integration a virtually one-click affair.

For the Accountants

Accounting and tax professionals have a lot of day-to-day operations that proponents say could be vastly simplified through the use of Web Services-based applications.

Web Services could take the headaches out of updating payroll and sales and use tax tables, say officials from Microsoft Business Solutions. There would be no need to hire a service, even a Web-based one, to update these tables, because the firm’s computers would simply be scheduled to communicate with servers that would automatically provide the correct information to the firm.

Similarly, Web Services will someday enable Microsoft CRM to automatically make credit checks, notes Holly Holt, a senior product manager for the company’s CRM line.

If the customer has a $10,000 credit limit, not only will the CRM package note the limit, “you get a rating back and the sales person didn’t have to make a call,” says Holt. Web Services will provide similar updating functionality for companies that deal internationally and must cope with different currencies and a wide variety of ways of applying value-added taxes.

In fact, in Italy, where taxes change daily, such a system could significantly simplify the effort needed to track them.

The Microsoft effort shows through a series of new MBS products. The Business Portal, being launched this summer, will provide such features as customer and HR self-services through the use of the Microsoft Business Framework, which uses Web Services through .Net. The new Microsoft Business Network also will use XML document exchange to integrate applications over the Web.

Mitch Ruud, an MBS product manager, notes that Business Framework enables third-party developers to build applications based on Web Services, and the company is bullishly expecting thousands of applications to be developed.

Other practical applications likely to emerge include the ability to dynamically update price lists and have them available to the sales force via Microsoft CRM, and also to the back-office accounting application.

The systems involved in the transaction must “agree on XML defaults,” says Braaten. What happens if a customer receives a bill for $500 and takes a $50 discount? “Do you bill them for the $50? Or does someone realize this is a good customer, and let them have the discount?” he queries. The company must have some way of making such decisions, not just let the system reject the change.

Making It Stick

For end users, updating applications that have been customized has been a major headache. Often, customizations are lost when an end user upgrades accounting software. Use of Web Services techniques could change this.

It may be possible to enhance software and have the third-party enhancements stick, says John Manry, chief technology officer for Best Software, based in Reston, Va. “XML tends to be relatively forgiving to changes over time. The application doesn’t break as the result of an XML change on the other side of the transaction,” says Manry.

Web Services will also probably produce results that users of its wide variety of software will appreciate. Best believes Web Services will allow it to integrate its own line of products. Not only will Best products talk to each other more easily, Best should be able to get enhancements and new applications to market more quickly. For instance, FAS, the fixed asset line, could have a smooth integration with accounting products. The Abra HR line could talk more easily to the MAS line and the MIP non-profit accounting software line.

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