The Internet standards-based approach to software distribution-called Web Services-promises to greatly simplify IT integration of legacy applications. Described as a "Leggo" approach for assembling different "services" from back-office systems-such as rating a policy and submitting a claim-Web services are based on open standards, including XML (extensible markup language), SOAP (simple object access protocol), WSDL (Web services description language) and UDDI (universal description, discovery and integration). As a result, customized integration is greatly reduced.But a battle is brewing between Web services platform vendors vying for market share-in particular, between IBM Corp.'s WebSphere-which is based on the Java 2 Platform, Enterprise Edition (J2EE) platform-and Microsoft Corp.'s .NET. The classic capitalistic struggle between these two camps may make Web services more complicated than promised.

"Most component models (of application integration) require everybody to subscribe to the same 'religion,'" says Dale Vecchio, research director, application development, at Gartner Inc., Stamford, Conn. "And theoretically, Web services don't."

The theory is "whether you're using Microsoft .NET or J2EE, Web services will allow you to connect them without concern," Vecchio says. "But it's not clear yet that Microsoft Web services and IBM Web services will actually work together, which seems contrary to the whole point."

To their credit, White Plains, N.Y.-based IBM Corp. and Microsoft Corp., Redmond, Wash., are collaborating on developing Web services standards. The two firms in February formed an organization called the Web Services Interoperability Organization (WS-I)- with more than 55 other firms. The mission of WS-I is to develop Web services standards.

At press time, however, Santa Clara, Calif.-based Sun Microsystems Inc., developer of the Java programming language, had not yet joined the group, which has no plans to certify vendors or products for compliance to its standards. And despite IBM's and Microsoft's cooperation in the WS-I, the two firms are vehemently fighting for market share for their platforms.

As a result, carriers are faced with the dilemma of choosing which platform they're going to use-Microsoft's .NET or J2EE. And no one knows how "open" the developing Web services standards will be, or if vendors will adhere to them.

Industry observers say large carriers (those with annual premiums over $1 billion) typically rely on mainframe legacy applications, and logically will gravitate toward IBM's WebSphere, which supports large-scale, cross-platform deployment. Small carriers (those with annual premiums under $100 million) will likely choose the less expensive .NET platform.

"A key argument in favor of Java for large carriers is that you can run it on a client, you can run it on the middle tier, you can run it on the mainframe, Vecchio says. "Only IBM is telling that story."

But Microsoft argues that carriers care about interoperability, not portability. "There's a lot less demand for (portability) than there is for interoperability," says Kevin Kelly, managing director, financial services for Microsoft. "I don't necessarily want to cut and paste my application across three different boxes-I just want to make sure my NT box talks easily to the mainframe."

In addition, Kelly argues, in the .NET framework, developers can write applications in many different languages, including COBOL, C#, and C++, whereas in the J2EE environment, applications must be written in Java only.

The reality is: most organizations are going to have to deal with both .NET and J2EE, says Gartner's Vecchio. But high-end organizations have to make a strategic choice between the two, he says. "I'm not suggesting they get rid of all their Microsoft stuff, but they have to decide if they're going to build and integrate their applications around .NET or around J2EE-because they involve different tools, different modifications, they're different, different, different," he says.

While small insurers will likely select .NET, the most difficult decisions will take place in mid-tier, says Vecchio. "It's the guys in the middle who will have the toughest battle. They're not sophisticated enough to go one way or the other. And managing both is a costly proposition."

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