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Web services, the SMB's invisible friend

Smaller businesses may not realize they're using Web services, but some are -- or likely will be.

At least at the outset, small and midsized businesses' use of Web services is expected to be something very rare in the technology world: all gain and very little pain.

In fact, most SMBs may not realize -- or even care -- that they're using Web services at all. By many accounts, the technology has already started sneaking into some smaller companies as a behind-the-scenes way of grabbing information to connect with customers, suppliers and the world at large.

This is very different from the anticipated use of Web services in larger enterprises. Some of those companies are building entire Web services infrastructures, greatly complicated and at no small expense, to help integrate their internal applications and reuse development code. The idea is to put a new Web face on older computer systems to unlock data and share information throughout the corporation and eventually perhaps with partners and suppliers.

Smaller companies, though, have another focus.

"Most medium-sized businesses have a smaller set of products," so they don't really need to use Web services for application integration, said Ron Schmeltzer, senior analyst at consulting firm ZapThink LLC in Waltham, Mass. "Instead, their emphasis is on connecting with government, partners" and others, he said.

To date, one of the largest SMB users of Web services has been smaller retailers selling their goods on eBay and Amazon.com. Both of these giants have made their Web services interfaces public. In other words, they have made available the specific code that allows third parties to connect into their respective computer systems. In turn, software vendors use these Web services interfaces and then sell their applications to small retailers.

One of these application vendors is Monsoon LLC, in Portland, Ore., which provides software that allows small retailers to sell their goods on Amazon. Web services help the Monsoon software perform real-time price and inventory checks, keep tabs on what sold and do things like automatically set prices in line with similar merchandise.

Despite how heavily software from Monsoon and its ilk may rely upon Web services, SMBs rarely if ever really delve under the proverbial technology hood, according to Clark Hale, Monsoon's vice president.

For more information:

A Web services primer

If it's true that everything old is new again, then Web services is an old concept indeed.

"[Our] customers don't see Web services overtly; they just see that our software brings the information to them," Hale explained. "Ninety percent of the time they say, 'cool, it works,' and they're done." (See sidebar for a primer on what Web services are and how they work.)

Indeed, most of the smaller retailers that connect into the Amazon.com ecosystem through Web services come in via a third party. "The majority of the merchants we talk to don't use complex application programming interfaces or even XML," said Sam Wheeler, a senior manager at Amazon's Marketplace Services. "In a five-person shop, one [employee] is typically not an XML expert."

Amazon provides a bevy of online tools to help smaller retailers connect to its system on their own. But it also has a list of experts and consultants that, for a fee, help merchants get their own Web site online or connect an existing site to the Amazon, eBay and other mega-stores.

Experts expect that SMBs in financial services and health care -- say, doctors who need to check on a patient's X-ray that reside at a different facility -- will also rely on Web services at some point. "Anytime you need to move complex data from one source to another and, in real time, that's a good candidate for Web services," said Monsoon's Hale.

But just like their brethren in retail, SMBs in other industries will likely ride the coattails of application providers and not build the Web services infrastructure from scratch. After all, on top of the infrastructure concerns, companies would need to keep tabs on a wide array of emerging Web services standards.

"It boils down to a cost/benefit ratio of what it costs to create Web services," said Dave Femia, principal of Managed Vision Associates Inc., an IT consultancy in Groton, Mass. "And the mental leap to get there is huge -- it's a standard a week."

Until there's a driving business need requiring SMBs to do develop Web services internally, some SMBs will just appreciate Web services without having to create them -- even if they don't know they're using them.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

Learn more about Microsoft's investment in Web services

Read an excerpt from an "Executive's Guide to Web Services, A Day in the life of a CIO"

Dig Deeper on Small-business infrastructure and operations

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