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US education consortia release "manifesto" on web services

HEKATE - The Higher Education Knowledge and Technology Exchange - have released a white paper entitled "Web Services Enabling Technology for Application Integration and Assembly". Beneath the somewhat clumsy title is a bold manifesto for using XML-based middleware services in the (higher) education sector. But can it live up to the hype?

Web Services have been the "next big thing" for a while now. You may have heard of them in relation to the SOAP messaging protocol or when reading about Microsoft's .Net platform. Basically, a web service is a means of allowing applications to talk to one another using XML messages sent via the standard web protocol of HTTP (just like the web page you are looking at now).

One of the advantages Web Services have over other messaging protocols is the large number of tools and products available to developers. It is possible now to develop services for applications written in most programming languages and on most platforms. (At the "back-end" of this website, for example, I make use of a service provided by Google.)

Taking a lead from a certain Mr Blair, Mark Resmer of eCollege (and HEKATE founding member) describes Web Services as the "third way" of software deployment that stands somewhere between installed-license products and Application Service Providers (ASPs).

Rob Curtin of SCT, producers of the Banner student administration system, comments in the paper that Web Services provide a "simpler, easier-defined and more globally inclusive model for bringing together information trading partners."

Unfortunately, Web Services by themselves are lacking certain key features that will get them "out of the box" in educational institutions. Negotiation of trading partner agreements, for example, requires adoption of the somewhat more complex ebXML specification. Security, data integrity and message orchestration are also issues only partially dealt with by the current crop of Web Service specifications but of key importance when linking up institutional systems.

Perhaps of more concern is the actual messages themselves; orchestrating system-to-system communication using Web Services requires the use of well-defined interfaces and information structures. The current set of IMS specifications cover the structures but not the interfaces; and even the information structures themselves are sometimes too loosely defined to be able to work correctly in a live messaging environment without substantial adaptation. HEKATE in their "manifesto" state that they intend to "collaborate with standards initiatives such as IMS and SCORM with the intent of harmonizing and creating consensus around standards for Web Services."

If these problems are addressed, then the combination of Web Services and IMS specifications could be a real winner for the education sector, improving the timeliness and depth of integration between systems. Bear in mind, though, that it's not the only show in town, and other approaches to middleware are out there.

The white paper in PDF format is available online at the HEKATE website. A response from Oracle is also available.

HEKATE is a relatively new consortium, primarily comprising US universities and software vendors; visit their website for more details.

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