Everyone takes for granted these days that all Web services interfaces are the same. I hate to break the bad news to you, but they aren't. This has not been a terrible problem when companies were using Web service interfaces for their internal use but it can cause real problems when they are trying to use these services between companies.
Software and hardware vendors and system integrators have heard loud and clear from their customers that something needs to be done. Therefore, I was pleased to see that a new organization has been formed called The Web Services Test Forum (WSTF). It is intended to provide a practical approach to fixing the problem. The list of companies and participating (as well as those who are not) is quite interesting. The companies supporting this effort include IBM, Oracle, Active Endpoints, Axway, CISCO, eviware, Fujitsu, Hitachi, Red Hat, Software AG, Teamlog, and TIBCO Software Inc. The first end-user companies to jump on board are the car companies (Ford Motor Co. and The Automotive Industry Association (AIAG). Why the automobile industry? It's simple—they have been leading in the development of interoperability standards for the last decade because of the need to automate their supply chain. Noted by their absence are companies like HP, SAP, Microsoft and a host of others too long to list here.
While there has been considerable work over the years on Web services standards, there hasn't been a standardized and open mechanism to test the results. Therefore, the WSTF is intended to provide an open testing environment focused on improving the quality of Web services.The goal for the Forum is to accelerate interoperability for Web services standards, simplify integration and improve interoperability for customers in heterogeneous environments.
I like this approach both because it focuses on a key problem for customers and it provides a pragmatic way to find solutions to issues of interoperability. So, here are my five reasons why I think this Forum will be important:
1. The WSTF gives the standards creation process a dynamic business focus. Members of the WSTF are expected to provide real-life business cases from their work environments. The context of the business problem will remain central to the testing process created to assess the interoperability of specific technologies.The results of the interoperability research on each business case will be described in a scenario that includes multiple parts: a description of the business case, the architecture used to describe how specific technologies and standards are used in the case, a set of test cases, and the artifacts (such as WSDL, XML schemas) needed to implement the test cases.Participating end-use customers can submit case scenarios to ensure that their highest priority needs are well understood by the Forum. These customer-based scenarios will be used to validate interoperability in a multi-vendor testing environment. By keeping customer problems at the center of all testing environments,vendors and customers should get the results they need faster.
2. The Forum will put a practical spin on the critically important, but often lengthy, architectural approach to standards creation. The WSTF will test real-life problems in an open multi-vendor testing environment. Software vendors will jump start the collaboration process by including standards in the testing environment before they have become fully vetted, analyzed and formally approved. This early collaboration will help to identify interoperability issues as soon as possible. There are seemingly endless different combinations of various end points and Web services interfaces that need to be tested for interoperability. It makes good business sense for vendors to first test those combinations that are most important to their customers, but it can be hard to make the right choices without a lot of customer involvement. The customer/vendor collaboration in the WSTF is intended to help vendors create a create a testing environment that is less theoretical and more focused on practical business considerations.
3. Best practices useful to members and non-members of the WSTF will develop from real-life test cases submitted by end-use customers. Ford and the Automotive Industry Association (AIAG) are the only end-use customers included in the original group of Forum members. More are expected to join. Understanding the requirements of the auto industry should provide a great starting point for the WSTF. The industry as a whole was early in its adoption of Web Services technology—using these technologies to facilitate the massive e-commerce interchange of parts and supplies that takes place throughout the disconnected auto industry supply chain. Companies in the auto industry need to connect complex business processes both internally and with a large network of partners. The test cases that members like Ford and AIAG will submit are likely to require considerable interoperability between many unique vendor technologies. Improving the quality of messaging within the context of the automotive market will help establish best practices that are widely applicable to other industries.
4. The open nature and focus on scenarios will help end-use customers and vendors to save money and resources in the testing process. Each vendor will host its own testing environment and expose access to its endpoints. This will result in a lower cost way to test products. Having access to testing environments on an ongoing basis will reduce the need for each vendor or customer to set up their own multi-vendor test environments.
5. The structure of the WSTF will enable end-use customers to increase the impact they have on how software vendors approach interoperability. The mission of the WSTF is to change the way interoperability testing is done by creating an environment that encourages collaboration between vendors and customers early in the testing process. There are no dues or other barriers that might exclude customers. The WSTF has stressed that no one vendor will be in charge so that the focus will be on how to interoperate with lots of different vendors. The concept is to create one open place where the vendors can test. The feedback from customers will be fast since vendors and customers will be working together. If the process works as intended this customer/vendor feedback loop will lead to better standards and ultimately more rapid product improvements from vendors.
As I think you can tell, I think the WSTF is off to a good start. One question I still have is how the relationship between the Web Services Interoperability Organization (WS-I) and the WSTF will work. The expectation is that the two organizations will be complementary, but their goals for improving the quality of Web services standards are fairly similar. The WSTF has the potential to make some real improvements in the way Web services interoperability testing is handled. However, if this is to work, more users of Service Oriented Architectures (SOA) need to jump on the band wagon and push this effort. History has shown that standards organizations like these only work when customers and users understand that their businesses will benefit from a standardized approach to both Web services and the testing of those services.