EU-funded researchers have developed much-needed tools and an 'ecosystem approach' to harness the internet's evolution towards the 'semantic web' concept. This involves a move away from web pages to the semi-automated use of business and software services spanning a diverse range of applications, from football to real-estate.
The project results, including a web-based management platform and a range of development tools, are feeding into various new industry applications.
With tens of billions of devices networked together, a figure that is growing daily, the world is seeing a fundamental shift in the way that data is produced, stored, used and shared. As a result, we are witnessing a new era where data is being linked in an open and altogether more usable way. And we are seeing a blurring of the boundaries between content providers and consumers, as social networking sites, blogs and other platforms proliferate on the internet, leading to a new generation of so-called 'prosumers'.
To many observers, this 'web of data' is what the internet was destined to become, an alternative to the current 'web of pages' which may or may not be meaningful or useful to the average user. So, the scene is set for the future internet to evolve into an internet of things - sensors, devices, everyday objects - and an internet of functional and simple online services which make new uses of linked data.
'The web of data, initially an academic endeavour, is gradually capturing the attention of companies and institutions,' state Carlos Pedrinaci and John Domingue of The Open University's Knowledge Media Institute in a recent paper entitled 'Web services are dead. Long live internet services'. This seminal paper was a contribution to an EU-funded project 'Service oriented architectures for all' (SOA4All), which set out to give service-oriented technologies a boost to meet the demands of the future internet.
Service-oriented architecture (SOA) is a set of design principles for developing better, more flexible and more interoperable services for widespread use and reuse in different computing and web environments. The just completed three-year SOA4All project has produced web-based tools designed for both technical and non-technical users, allowing them to interact with services in different ways. Industrial partners have already demonstrated the benefits of SOA4All technology and the project has produced components that will promote greater take-up of SOA as a whole.
SOA4All thus provides the basis for a powerful impact among the internet research and developer communities and, according to its coordinator Elies Prunés Soler of ATOS Research & Innovation: 'SOA4All's work can also have a significant impact on the competitiveness of the European software and services industry in the future internet,' he says.
This success is largely due to SOA4All's integrated approach to the challenge of unlocking the power of public data and publicly available services within an 'open ecosystem', explains Mr Prunés Soler: 'The open ecosystem is based on the idea of "a web of billions of services" in an open environment, where an unlimited number of services can be offered, found, consumed and created, and where the interaction of different services and actors is enabled by SOA4All technology.'
Compare this, for example, to 'service ecosystems', which can already be found around some companies. These are confined in scope to an enterprise or group of enterprises, optimising application and service lifecycles internally in cases where they need to be available in a closed environment.
SOA4All offers added value in the open ecosystem approach via its service delivery platform and, in particular, the 'Studio'. The Studio is a web-based framework that supports end-users throughout the entire life-cycle of services. As a web-based tool, the Studio's functionalities can be accessed via a browser, and it is designed for both technical and non-technical users, allowing them to interact with services in different ways. For instance, it allows end-users to find the services they need, to compose them in a mashup-like manner, to use them, and to monitor and analyse them in a single, unified view.
The project coordinator asserts: 'SOA4All's idea is that "prosumers" can find and consume services of different providers through a single platform.'
Industrial partners, such as SAP, BT and the Dutch SME TIE have already demonstrated the benefits of SOA4All technology in the public sector, telecommunications and e-commerce. But SOA4All has done much more than that. Among SOA4All's results, or 'assets', are 22 individual components and eight combinations of components that will promote greater take-up of SOA as a whole. For example:
- SWEET, a web application to annotate the semantic description of Web APIs and RESTful services (based on HTML) to make them machine-readable and therefore available to be found and used automatically by other Web services.
- SOWER does the same for the WSDL-based Web services that provide business services online. WSDL is a format for describing such Web services using XML, defining the operations, inputs and outputs involved.
Both tools offer an easy way to generate semantic descriptions of Web APIs and services using a simplified form of WSMO, the W3C's ontology for Web services. The project has therefore been able to unify the world of HTML-based and WSDL-based services by defining a 'Minimal service model' which describes services in terms of RDF* triples according to the W3C standard.
Other state-of-the-art tools comprising the Studio include:
- iServe: A service repository for annotations and their publication which follows Linked Data principles;
- Feedback management frameworkto handle user feedback on services;
- SOA4All Composer which graphically combines semantic web services via data flow and control flow. The backend is a powerful engine that supports service composition and helps overcome the gap among business users, process experts and IT experts;
- SPICES automates the consumption of semantically enriched services, both WSDL and RESTful, by making use of annotations;
- Studio Dashboard and UI Widgets allow for the interactive drawing and modelling of API and widgets to support development work using other Studio modules;
- Analysis Platform to extract knowledge from service and process execution, as well as user feedback, at different levels of abstraction;
- Recommender system which provides suggestions based on users' behaviour.
It also includes further innovations to the backend to support the discovery and ranking of services and a distributed semantic space infrastructure.
Many business opportunities have also emerged from the project and its results, according to Mr Prunés Soler. Knowledge management specialists Ontotext, for instance, successfully applied SOA4All's results in its development of a real-time semantic publishing platform behind the BBC's 2010 World Cup website. And Seekda, which develops apps for e-commerce, is exploiting a service crawler (finder) tool developed within SOA4All.
Internet services company Hanival is developing an application which draws on SOA4All's e-commerce framework, services, annotations, processes and ontologies which help define and describe a field of knowledge. Meanwhile, French research institute INRIA used project results in the latest GCM/ProActive implementation by OW2, the 'OpenWeb' Consortium which promotes open-source components for the likes of distributed web applications and grid computing.
'ATOS is launching an internal proof of concept related to SOA Business Process Management technology. Its purpose is to validate the use of SOA4All technology as a cheaper alternative for our client solutions in some particular cases and to what extend it reduces the need of technical staff when business processes are modified,' concludes Mr Prunés Soler.
The SOA4All platform, along with its constellation of web-based tools, certainly seems to have the potential to make developing services on the Future Internet easier and more cost effective.
SOA4All received EUR 9.47 million (of project total budget EUR 13.49 million) in funding under the EU's Seventh Framework Programme for research (FP7), sub-programme 'Service and software architectures, infrastructures and engineering'.
* 'Resource description framework' (RDF) is a family of World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) specifications first designed as a metadata model. It is based on the idea of making statements about resources (i.e. web resources) in the form of subject-predicate-object expressions, or triples. For example, in the statement 'The sky has the color blue', the triple breaks down into subject (sky), predicate (has the colour) and object (blue).