Adding Value with Customized Services

Solutions for the challenges of both present and future – the Future Forum IT organized by the newspaper Handelsblatt delivered technological answers to the questions currently being asked by industry. During the conference, high-profile IT experts gave their vision of the future in terms of rapidly changing business models, frequently fluctuating business partners, and increasing competition. Professor Lutz Heuser, Head of SAP Research, outlined the prospects for Business Webs. These are adaptive and dynamic value networks formed through collaboration and will replace static supply chains by bringing together different partners to achieve particular goals. “With the Business Web, we are taking the community idea from Web 2.0 and applying it to the business world. Partners collaborate to achieve a common goal. The composition of the Business Web changes for each new task,” said Heuser.
To take advantage of the flexibility of Business Webs, companies will need quick and easy access to all the services required to create added value. Heuser calls the basis for this the “Internet of Services”. He said: “The range of services should meet demand and be easy to find on the Internet. Providers will have to ensure interoperability for external services, since only precise orchestration of Web services in real time creates added value for the consumers of these services.”
Heuser proposed retail site analysis as an example of a composite service: “3D maps, information on the competition from chambers of commerce, demographic data from municipal authorities, sales forecasts, and real estate offers are accessed from different Web services, combined automatically, and made available to the user to support decision-making.” Up to now, only large companies have been able to afford the search and coordination costs of these kinds of analyses. The automatically integrated service will make these viable for small firms too.
The architecture of the IT landscape will also have to meet the requirements of the “Internet of Services”. Heuser described a service-oriented architecture that makes services available online beyond company boundaries as a global service delivery platform. This will be augmented with search and comparison functions for external services, thereby enabling customers to access composite services.

Semantically-enriched search function

Professor Wolfgang Wahlster from the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence in Saarbrücken looked at the role that semantic technologies might play in the Internet of Services. “In the Semantic Web, content is stored with standardized meta-information in such a way that computers can understand the meaning of this content and draw consequences,” said Wahlster.
Semantic enrichment of content should enable a software system to identify the relationship between various services in response to a query. The services are then automatically combined in such a way that the output data for a particular service constitutes the input data for the next. “Using semantics in Web services in this way means that the result produced corresponds directly with each flexibly formulated query by the user, for example, for the current cinema listings in a particular town,” said Wahlster. This kind of personalized Web service removes the need for lengthy search processes in the case of complex queries, which is an added benefit for the user. Consequently, Wahlster believes that the business model for semantic services will involve usage fees: “Of course, for this to work, the services will have to be reliable and interoperable.”

Made-to-measure infrastructure

It is not only information that can be tailored to specific requirements by combining value-added services. Professor Frank Leymann from the Institute of Architecture of Application Systems at the University of Stuttgart described how an IT infrastructure containing hardware and software can also be put together using a Web service. “In this service, called ‘computing on demand’, a service bus is used to put together a suitable infrastructure for a specified period made up of distributed resources in response to a request for processor capacity, storage capacity and particular applications. This opens up new possibilities for companies in terms of flexible outsourcing,” said Leymann.
He regards the option of “dynamic provisioning” as central to the concept: “In this, the infrastructure uses a system of automatic internal feedback to ensure that the user is only charged for the volume actually used rather than the theoretical peak load.” Meanwhile, computing on demand only requires providers to supply the resources that are actually used – thus reducing their costs.

Environmental protection on the Internet

The impact made by Web-based services on subsectors of the IT industry was also highlighted at the Future Forum. Natalya Kaspersky, CEO of Russian anti-virus software manufacturer Kaspersky Labs, considered the topic of security: “Basically, using services on the Internet increases security risks. A Web service can be kidnapped simply by hacking the particular server. Management in each company has to decide whether it is prepared to sacrifice a degree of IT security in order to increase flexibility,” she explained. According to Kaspersky, providers of Internet services should regard security – such as protection against password theft – as forming part of the scope of their services.
Richard Barrington from Sun Microsystems spelt out the positive influence Web services can have on a company’s environmental impact. According to Barrington, who also advises the UK government on “green IT”, data centralization is a key aspect: “We want to convince users that there’s no need to rely so heavily on their hard disk when they can access their complete data via a network. It’s not even necessary for a company to store computing power and applications on its individual PCs when these are provided as shared services on the Web.” This dematerialization of hardware and software not only cuts down on the resources that go into manufacturing computers, says Barrington. It also lowers energy consumption because utilization of the processors in the central data centers is spread evenly across different users and time zones. “Individual PCs therefore no longer have to cool down for idle time,” adds Barrington.

Dialog on equal terms

Looking ahead to the IT trends in the next few years, Brian E. Kardon, Chief Strategy and Marketing Officer at Forrester Research, believes that the “Extended Internet” – which integrates real-life objects using technologies such as RFID or Wi-Fi – will be hugely significant: “The number of physical objects integrated via this ,Internet of Things’ will increase from around a billion today to 14 billion by 2010. The manufacture of specialized sensors, software and products for monitoring and localizing goods will open up completely new business models.” Kardon cited the example of a car insurer in the United Kingdom which uses an in-car chip to retrieve information online about the driving style of the insured persons and the parking spaces they use in different areas of town – and offers a flexible quote that takes these factors into account.
In addition to the integration of objects into companies’ back-end systems on the “Internet of Things”, Kardon cited social computing as the basis for a new, omnipresent information technology: “Following the introduction of Web 2.0, with its community concept, IT is inevitably becoming part of users’ everyday life. Users are exchanging information among themselves instead of relying on recommendations by companies or institutions. The new power that this gives to individuals will shape the future. Companies will have to prepare for dialog on equal terms. Those that talk facts with users will be able to use them for firsthand market research – but they will no longer be able to control opinions.”

Johannes Frevert
Johannes Frevert