Information Engineering

Web-based architectures — why should you care? There is a not-so-quiet revolution blazing its way across the IT world. It is a concept called web services, and it involves constructing applications that are designed to operate on the internet. This transformation shouldn't be confused with enhancing or enabling existing applications so users can access them via a web browser.

07/15/2002


Web-based architectures — why should you care?

There is a not-so-quiet revolution blazing its way across the IT world. It is a concept called web services, and it involves constructing applications that are designed to operate on the internet. This transformation shouldn't be confused with enhancing or enabling existing applications so users can access them via a web browser. It is about a new generation of software that is developed to use the internet as a deployment, operating, and integration platform.

Web services and web-based architectures are generating a lot of attention in the IT world. Some of this interest is starting to work its way into the EAM/CMMS arena. Several top-tier EAM vendors have released new versions of their products that incorporate a web-based architecture. Their marketing literature targets IT as well as maintenance with detailed discussion about web and application servers, extensible markup language (XML), and distributed components. Vendors that have yet to make the leap talk about upcoming releases written in Java or incorporating Microsoft's .NET technology.

Clearly, there is something behind web-based architectures that merits all this attention in the IT community. But what does it mean to the maintenance practitioner? Information technology constantly generates new paradigms. While some of these directly affect the way end-users work, others impact IT development and infrastructure in a manner that end-users do not see. As they evolve, web services and web-based architectures will fall into the former category.

This evolution will take some time before its presence becomes a common fixture on the EAM/CMMS landscape. But it is already affecting the EAM/CMMS acquisition and integration plans of some companies. Maintenance departments in these companies are going to feel corporate IT pressure to incorporate this new technology into their EAM/CMMS plans. So, it is not too early to do a little self-education on the topic.

Web-based application architectures are about distributed computing. This is hardly a new concept. Distributed computing has been around since the advent of the minicomputer. Using proprietary networks, it allowed specially developed applications to run multiple code and database instances on multiple machines according to workload demand. But the internet and a new generation of tools have greatly extended this concept.

Using the internet as the communication backbone, web-based application architectures employ a multiple server or "n-tier" structure. System components are developed to run on specialized servers. For example, business logic components may run on an application server, web presentation services on a web server, and data access services on a database server. The "n" refers to the different types of specialized servers used.

This architecture offers numerous advantages to developers as well as the IT departments supporting the application. Since components are logically separated or partitioned according to the type of service provided, it is easier to encapsulate a particular piece of program logic so that its interactions with the rest of the application are loosely coupled. Ideally, the component only needs to know what it has to send and receive from other application components. It does not need to account for how other components work.

In theory, this makes a web-based "n-tier" application easier to develop and modify than earlier generations of software. For example, a business logic component can be developed and changed with only a limited knowledge of how the data are presented to the end-user. A program component such as "open work order request" does not need detailed code to display and retrieve end-user information or navigate through the database. Other components can do this work.

This makes for less programming code and easier modifications.

For IT departments, a web-based "n-tier" application provides deployment opportunities that can be more easily scaled to meet a change in workload than older architectures. The types of servers used by a web-based "n-tier" application vary, but each application usually requires a web, application, and database server. If capacity for additional casual users is needed, an IT department might need to only add or upgrade a web server to meet the new demand. IT departments can also locate servers wherever it makes sense from maintenance, support, and security perspectives.

While they are important, scalability and maintainability are not the main reasons why the IT world is so interested in web-based architectures. Interoperability is the real focal point. Companies and developers are interested in web-based architectures because they provide the promise of making application integration easier and cheaper. This promise is relevant for both intra and inter-enterprise systems. The web can be used to interface internal applications such as ERP and EAM systems, as well as integrating internal applications with external trading partners.

The key behind this potential is web services. The simplest way to describe web services is that they are applications that use a set of standards for exchanging information and instructions. This sounds neither new nor revolutionary. Application integration tools and techniques have been around for years. But most of these integration methods are suited to point-to-point integration. This type of integration requires methods to extract data from system A, transport the data to system B, and then transform the data into an appropriate format so that it can be used by system B.

Web services use extensible markup language (XML) to encode data and instructions for other applications. They use a standard protocol, simple object access protocol (SOAP), to transmit these XML messages. They use a standard language, web services description language (WSDL), to tell other applications how to interpret and use these messages. They publish their services and subscribe to other applications' services through a common directory service called universal description, discovery, and integration (UDDI).

By employing these standards, web services can send and receive without a third party getting involved in point-to-point integration. The problem with application integration has not been a lack of technology and techniques.

It has been that it is a costly, labor-intensive proposition. Web services offer a way to reduce this cost and labor. With the number of internal applications growing and the need to communicate with external partners increasing, it is no wonder why IT is so interested in web services and web-based architectures.

So what does all this mean to the maintenance professional? EAM/CMMS are applications that need to communicate with the outside world. They need to talk to ERP, procurement, and plant floor systems. They talk to a wide variety of devices — smart phones, intelligent equipment and appliances, and mobile computers. They need to talk to external supply and service provider applications.

While this need exists, there are very few organizations that even begin to scratch the surface of EAM/CMMS integration. This is because the cost exceeds the benefits, and the overall demand for integration services exceeds the support capacity of IT departments. Web services promise a potential solution to break this impasse.

But the potential for web-based architectures and web services still lies in the future for most maintenance end-uses. While top-tier EAM/CMMS vendors are starting to embrace this technology, it still requires both sides of a potential integration to develop a solution. ERP vendors, plant floor packages, external supplier applications, and equipment control systems must be able to subscribe to EAM/CMMS web services, and publish their own in return. This may be more viable than developing custom interfaces, but it is still going to take time.

Web services and web-based application architectures will eventually benefit maintenance by making EAM/CMMS integration more accessible and common. In a world where the number of applications and trading partners continue to increase, where enterprise boundaries constantly shift with acquisitions and divestitures, and machinery becomes more intelligent, it is a pretty important concept.


Author Information

Tom Singer is an information technology consultant who specializes in designing, developing, and implementing systems solutions that meet client operational needs. He has worked both as a developer and integrator of CMMS solutions. He is principal of Tompkins Associates, a total operation consulting firm headquartered in Raleigh, NC. He can be contacted by phone at 630-472-1524 or by e-mail at tsinger@tompkinsinc.com .




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