Catalog Shopper: Eastman Chemical Co.
Web services won't necessarily roll out without a little pain. As Eastman Chemical Co. found, it's essential to test thoroughly before putting a system into production. "This is definitely technology that we're rolling out carefully, and measuring," says Carroll Pleasant, an analyst in Eastman Chemical's emerging digital technologies group, a research and development arm of the Kingsport, Tenn.-based chemical giant.
Eastman maintains a Web-based catalog containing thousands of detailed entries about the chemical products it sells, and its distributors use the catalog regularly. "Through one mechanism or another, [distributors] have managed to take our product catalog data and put it into their systems" on the Web, says Pleasant. Distributors gathered this information in a variety of ways, including file transfers, rekeying data and even using software to automatically pull catalog listings from Eastman's Web pages. But these largely manual processes meant that the information on distributors' sites was usually out of date.
"Fairly early on, I recognized the value of what was going on here, that we were talking about being able to effectively extend these applications out to our trading partners," says Pleasant. "When we were looking for something to pilot Web services with, [the catalog] immediately occurred to us as a great place to get started. If we could make it electronically available with a single source, everybody can share the same data and technical information about our products."
Like Putnam Lovell, Eastman is a fan of outsourcing. Rather than building its own Web services internally, Eastman used XML to link the catalog data on a Windows 2000 server to an outsourced "hub-and-spoke" service. Requests from customers accessing Eastman's custom pages on outsourcer Grand Central's server would be automatically forwarded to Eastman. Then Eastman's Web service would send back the requested data, and the customer's Web site would be automatically populated with Eastman's up-to-date catalog information.
At least, that was the plan. But Pleasant says the company's testing turned up several glitches, including interoperability problems with different implementations of SOAP, the Simple Object Access Protocol for invoking Web services applications, and the difficulties of using the Web Services Description Language that defines how Web services are used. Had Eastman not tested the process by which a wide range of customers would access the Web service, it would have fielded an offering that could have failed some customers the minute the service went live.
Eastman is facing internal issues as well. Pleasant believes Eastman's business units will require extensive help to understand how the much quicker turnaround of Web services will demand a radically different approach from traditional software initiatives, requiring the business side to identify focused, near-term business opportunities for Web services that can be put in place rapidly. "You really have to work hard to educate people about this," he says, "because it's a real change in what's possible with systems."
Pleasant is philosophical about the challenges they've encountered. "I mean, this is an emerging technology," says Pleasant. "If it worked out of the box, then it wouldn't be emerging, would it?"