By Wylie Wong

A project to build a giant Web services directory touted by the likes of Microsoft and IBM has yet to catch on, as companies stumble over technology hurdles and come to grips with market hype.

Born during the business-to-business e-commerce craze, the directory project was touted as a “Yellow Pages” for e-commerce applications and services. The basis of the directory is a Web services specification called Universal Description, Discovery, and Integration (UDDI), which identifies and catalogs Web services so they can be easily found online.

The specification is finding a home, albeit slowly, in big companies as a way to build directories for internal Web services projects—allowing the companies to better catalog and communicate services across departments. Yet the bigger dream to build the UDDI-based public Web services directory, known as the UDDI Business Registry, is just that for now—a dream, experts say.

“The idea of a public registry was ahead of its time because you have to have other parts, like service-quality guarantees and trust,” Gartner analyst Daryl Plummer said. “People are using it now, but it’s just experimentation. We are a good four to five years away.”

Microsoft, IBM, and Ariba proposed the directory plan more than two years ago. The idea was to build an online database using UDDI that would help companies find Web-based software services that could be used as part of their own business systems.

In theory, companies registered on the directory could use it as a sort of Yahoo for business services. For example, an e-commerce site could use the directory to search for a business that handles credit card transaction services. If a match was found, all the elements of the transaction—even the price and payment—could be handled electronically. Pushing all the communications onto the Web would streamline the process and speed business considerably, proponents have said.

Microsoft, IBM, SAP, and Hewlett-Packard—some of the same companies that helped devise the UDDI specification—have built Web sites for registering Web services in the public UDDI directory database. Japan’s NTT Communications has a similar Web site in the works.

These companies hope to drive acceptance of Web services, which in turn will sell more software and hardware, the theory goes.

All major software makers are retooling their software or devising development tools that allow businesses to deliver Web services. Web services promise to make linking internal computer systems, as well as systems residing in multiple companies, far easier than current methods.

Microsoft and IBM executives denied that the UDDI Business Registry project is a failure.

Jenna Miller, group product manager for Microsoft’s Windows Server marketing, said the public UDDI registry is a valuable proof-of-concept.

“We wanted to prove the concept, and what better way to prove it—with an open, standardized, public registry that does that?” Miller said. “Part of the effort is to prove it was viable, and we’ve succeeded in doing that.”

Bob Sutor, IBM’s director of e-business standards strategy, said his company helped to create the public UDDI registry now because he believes it will take off in years to come. Future technology that will make it easier to rate the reliability of services will fuel acceptance, Sutor said.

“It is a bit of a ‘chicken and egg’ situation: You need the public registry to get the rating services, but you need the rating services to make the public registry really take off,” he said.

Building a service, brick by brick
UDDI is one of four technologies that form the basis of most Web services development. The others are Extensible Markup Language (XML), the Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP), and Web Services Description Language (WSDL). To understand how these protocols work together, consider an ordinary phone call. In Web services parlance, XML represents the conversation, SOAP describes the rules for how to call someone, and UDDI is the phone book. WSDL, finally, describes what the phone call is about and how one can participate.

The evolution of UDDI mirrors the Web services market in general. Companies such as Microsoft expected the evolution of Web services to happen on the open Internet, while the real developments have been happening within corporate IT departments. The same seems to be the case with UDDI—and now software makers are reworking their pitches to reflect this change in tune.

Some in the industry think the project is far ahead of market realities, at least for now.

“You don’t need a phone book if you only have one person to call,” said John Magee, a senior vice president in marketing at database maker Oracle. Like other software makers, Oracle plans to incorporate UDDI into its server software for use within companies.

It could take four to five years before the public UDDI registry fully lives up to its promise, analysts say. One of the main issues preventing a public directory is trust. Despite the ease of finding companies on the directory, very few businesses would be willing to take a chance on an unknown Web service provider. So far, there’s no rating system for services on the directory; such a service would help companies choose partners and would ensure better service quality, analysts have said.

Another problem is security. Few companies would be willing to expose sensitive internal information over the Internet. New security specifications are in the works but are still in the early stages.

Keeping goods inside the walls
While the public UDDI registry awaits a more mature Web services market, private UDDI-based directories are starting to gain respect.

Private directories provide a central list of Web services a company uses to connect to its customers, suppliers, or partners. A locally hosted UDDI directory can also serve as a central database of Web services, so programmers can reuse code or adapt existing services for new uses.

“Private UDDI is a pragmatic application of the same technical ideas (behind public directories) to a more realistic end,” said Illuminata analyst James Governor.

Research firm Gartner predicts that private UDDI use will grow by more than 30 percent next year, as companies on the cutting edge of Web services start using UDDI. In contrast, Gartner doesn’t predict an increase in the use of public UDDI directories until 2004—at the earliest.

Slowly, companies are starting to look at UDDI for directory services, said Bernhard Borges, head of the Advanced Technology Group at computer services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers Consulting. Borges said Web services development has initially focused on integrating applications and corporate intranets, which means most of the work resides behind corporate firewalls.

“The rollout of Web services will be intranet, extranet, and finally the Internet,” he said.

Recognizing that trend, Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, Oracle, IBM, and others are building private UDDI directory capabilities into their software products.

Microsoft plans to make UDDI a standard part of Windows .NET Server, the next version of its server operating system, expected to debut later this year. In the next six months, the market can expect more products from other companies that incorporate UDDI.

Technology buyers are catching on. American Electric Power plans to explore building a private UDDI directory to keep track of the company’s Web services for its 200 IT professionals. Having a directory helps software developers keep track of services they’ve created and prevents any overlap or miscommunication among developers working in different departments or different states.

“No one knows about the Web services out there in the corporation. There is no searchable directory,” said Chris Adams, the Tulsa, OK, power company’s IT architect for customer interface applications. “We want to streamline what we’re doing, rather than have everyone develop the same source code.”

Many companies connecting to their partners via the Web for the first time are simply making phone calls or providing information in a password-protected Web site on how their partners can connect to a Web service, said Anne Thomas Manes, chief technology officer for Systinet, which builds private UDDI depositories.

French cosmetics company L’Oreal is doing just that but plans to use a private UDDI registry in the future. The company recently integrated its Web site with a partner, German retailer Douglas. Through Web services, Douglas can tap the L’Oreal Web site—and grab product information and pictures—so it can sell the cosmetic company’s Lancome products. The company will soon work on projects in the United States, Europe, and Asia.

L’Oreal’s experience mirrors many Web services efforts now under way, said IBM’s Sutor. “We’re at the point that most people will look at (UDDI) and see it as a solid technology. The private…usage is well into the early-adopter phase.”

L’Oreal plans to use a private UDDI registry as soon as later this summer, said Jerome Perelevade, L’Oreal’s head technology officer.

“We’ll begin to think about UDDI when we have more clients and when we want to (automate) even more the whole process,” Perelevade said. “We will surely use UDDI when we deal with functionalities that need (less of) a direct relation between us and our partners. UDDI is a great solution.”