In the buzzalicious world of Web services, software-as-services remake the way businesses function, automatically improving performance—and profits. In reality, Web services offers mostly promise. But that’s changing, as big companies start to deploy these services in production environments. General Motors is one company that’s test-driven Web services and is moving the technology to the open road.
IT executives at the world’s biggest carmaker think Web services can play a number of roles for the company, and they are using technology from multiple vendors in several areas of its operations.
The biggest aim is to get information more easily about factory performance, says Tony Scott, GM’s CTO. The company has some 30 plants worldwide and retools them on average every seven or eight years. That means plant IT ranges from state-of-the-art to Pleistocene. If the company wants to compare, say, defect ratios for cars made at various plants, it has to have specific applications written for each generation of plant, then pull them together, a costly process.
GM’s efforts are not unusual, but they do represent a forward-thinking industry. Automakers long have been aggressive adopters of standards-based communications technology, from EDI to Corba to XML, says Ronald Schmelzer, an analyst at Zapthink. Web services is no exception.
At GM, Scott says, Web services gives the company the ability to put a “wrapper” around all of its manufacturing applications—this enables links to disparate technology environments and gives a consistent way to view the applications’ performance. That view should help GM manage its performance more consistently.
Scott says the ability to manage code and the potential for reusing the code should both improve performance and lower GM’s costs. “Once I’ve developed a service for inventory monitoring or a quality application, I can reuse that Web service over and over and over again,” Scott says. In addition, he thinks Web services components will crop up in almost every part of GM’s operations, though the manufacturing wrapper is currently the most defined service.
GM has spent about 18 months developing and testing Web services, according to Scott. Technology from different vendors has been easy to integrate, a pleasant surprise that has helped GM roll out Web services faster than it expected. Scott would not comment on the vendors involved in the Web services project. EDS, Hewlett-Packard and IBM Global Services are three outsourcers doing the work, part of GM’s famous reliance on outsourcers.
For all that, Scott says businesses need to keep Web services in perspective. GM’s Web services project thus far does not stray beyond its own corporate walls to outside partners—yet. And standards are still forming in the manufacturing environment. While Scott talks about the Web services project that relates to auto plants—where many of the transactions covered by this project are asynchronous—he says the technology does not work well in real-time environments. At GM, which uses multiple outsourcers to develop its Web services, the company may not be able to reuse some types of code. “It’s not a panacea,” says Scott. “But we’re finding some practical uses in a couple of really important areas.”