WS-Security: IBM First at the Plate

Analysis of News Events
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For more than two years now, IBM has been touting Web services as the key to application development for the traditional iSeries mid-market customer. But, without enterprise-level security, no one would believe it. Now, maybe all that customer hesitation is about to change.

Last week, on September 18, 2002, IBM in Somers, New York, announced the industry's first implementation of the WS-Security specification that IBM co-authored with Microsoft last April. The WS-Security specification will be supported in IBM's WebSphere Application Server (WAS) Version 5 in the fourth quarter of this year. In addition, the spec will also be supported in IBM Tivoli Access Manager early next year.

The WS-Security specification is the first comprehensive, open-standards-based specification that pushes the requirements of enterprise-level security into the Web services environment. By implementing it in WebSphere, IBM is the first--and only--vendor with a secure multi-platform Web services environment.

Up until the WS-Security specification was written last April, there was no widely accepted standard for XML to provide true confidentiality and integrity in Web services applications using the Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP).

The potential success of the WS-Security specification is no trivial matter for companies who want to use Web services for secure transactions, and the importance of establishing a standard has prompted IBM and Microsoft to place the WS-Security specification before the Organization for the Advancement of Structure Information Standards (OASIS). OASIS is currently considering WS-Security, along with other proposed security scenarios.

The Significance of WS-Security

XML, Web services, and protocols such as SOAP create unique security problems for organizations building Internet-level applications. The structure of Web services allows for an inherent aggregation of modules written in XML and/or Java--each existing on different servers and potentially offered by different vendor organizations--to dynamically interact within a user's browser to deliver a complete, seamless, and integrated application. XML provides the common language interface, and protocols such as SOAP permit these modules to intercommunicate, passing parameters, data, and other information back and forth. This modular approach to application development offers one of the most cost-effective means by which organizations can stretch their programming dollars: It enables efficient reuse of code at the lowest possible cost and lets companies purchase or "rent" easy-to-use cross-server modules without major investment in new middleware technologies. Using Web services, developers can quickly mix and match Web services modules without having to "break the seal" on each module to peer inside to understand what's going.

However, until a Web services security standard is widely adopted, companies are naturally reluctant to start using the Web services model beyond their own firewalls. Why? Without a means of verifying that a transaction is secure, sensitive data--financial records, stock quotes, or personal information--shared between the modules could be easily intercepted and redirected to nefarious purposes by hackers. Thus, today, organizations that use Web services for secure transactions must rely upon their own intranet network security. This security consists of firewalls, IP tunneling, or other proprietary security schemes. This raises the cost and the complexity of using Web services, and it defeats the underlying purpose of Web services: to provide a flexible easy-to-implement programming methodology.

The WS-Security specification created last April offers one remedy to this dilemma. By creating a standards-based means of interchanging secure information--using transaction security techniques pioneered by VeriSign, Inc. and others--the implementation of the WS-Security specification in a WAS will enable organizations to extend their Web services applications beyond their firewalls in a secure manner. As a result, for the first time since the germination of Web services, there is the true opportunity for companies to use Web services in a complete e-business environment.

WS-Security Partnership: Sun's Dog in the Manger

IBM's race to implement WS-Security in its WAS V5 and Tivoli Access Manager over the last five months is not without cause: Microsoft's own TrustBridge scheme to allow companies using .NET to share user identities is due out next year, and its Passport security technology is already in place, though it's getting very mixed reviews by users and privacy advocates. Meanwhile Sun Microsystems' Open Net Environment (Sun ONE) is currently under development. And Sun is clearly not happy with the way WS-Security was authored through the Web Services Interoperability (WS-I) organization.

Sun has been lobbying within the industry for months that it should have a more significant "founders role" in devising the interoperability in the Web services environment. As the proprietary owner and self-proclaimed "steward" of Java technology, Sun understands that a truly secure Web services environment will ultimately be the key to how organizations determine which particular brand of WAS to embrace. Sun's CEO Scott McNealy publicly expressed his dissatisfaction last April about WS-I's excluding Sun from participating with more control and direction. "Most of the Web services are being written on Java anyhow," was McNealy's comment. Clearly, Sun is feeling marginalized by IBM and Microsoft's initiative. "I don't think anyone's been fooled by the political shenanigans going on," McNealy said last April.

But IBM and Microsoft's strategy has been to move forward as quickly as possible and to keep Sun at arm's length. Why? Because so much is at stake!

By keeping Sun's role in a relatively weak position in the development of Web services interoperability, there is less of an opportunity for Sun to significantly change the playing field of any standard at its own discretion. And this fear of Sun's tinkering is justified! After all, Sun and Microsoft are still at odds since Sun sued Microsoft in 1997 (the companies settled in January 2001), and IBM still bridles when it remembers how Sun suddenly modified its implementation of Java for J2EE. Furthermore, in 1999, Sun reneged on its commitment to establish Java as an industry standard when it pulled its application for Java from the European Computer Manufacturers Association's (ECMA) consideration--something that IBM had been championing at the time.

IBM's announcement for WS-Security--implemented quickly and efficiently in WAS V5 and Tivoli Access Manager--will force the entire issue to come to a head. Microsoft's TrustBridge technology for .NET will also adhere to the WS-Security standard, and IBM has a large investment in Microsoft server technology in its xSeries servers. Though TrustBridge is currently being dismissed by IBM as "much more superficial," it's clear that IBM's authorship with Microsoft of the WS-Security spec will guarantee some level of secure interoperability. By comparison, IBM has no similar hardware platform investment in Sun Microsystems, so the incompatibility of Sun's implementation of any other Web services security scenario will actually make its servers less competitive.

Beyond the Politics--A Revolution in e-Business Application Development?

Politics aside, however, the implementation of the WS-Security specification is a gigantic leap for IBM. For the first time, developers will have the opportunity to build truly secure Web services applications that use open standards on multiple operating system platforms. This single event could trigger a blossoming of Web services applications that truly brings easy-to-build Web e-business into fruition.

Thomas M. Stockwell is the Editor in Chief of MC Press, LLC. He has written extensively about program development, project management, IT management, and IT consulting and has been a frequent contributor to many midrange periodicals. He has authored numerous white papers for iSeries solutions providers. His most recent consulting assignments have been as a Senior Industry Analyst working with IBM on the iSeries, on the mid-market, and specifically on WebSphere brand positioning. He welcomes your comments about this or other articles and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..