An introduction to Web Services

No matter what you say I wont appreciate spiders

While spiders are useful housing companions for people who would like to see a reduction in insect numbers in their residence this isn’t the type of web services that I am referring to.

So is this a post about forcing genetic abnormalities on people to create a team of spider-men types to clean the windows of skyscrapers\help pick up litter with their extraordinary abilities?

Although those types of dangerous mutations may initially seem to be offer advantages I doubt inducing them would be a reasonable solution to the age old dirty skyscraper windows problem.

Web services offer a method of presenting functionality offered by a service to software\consumers in a platform agnostic manner using web based messaging protocols.

What exactly do you mean by “web”, should they not be called internet services?

No, internet based communications an undefined approach to inter system interoperability but generally these do not have to offer a shared standard way for these components to communicate. For example UDP video game client A may not have any facility to communicate with a meaningful manner with TCP based game server B.

I thought the web and the internet were the same thing, what’s so special about “web” technologies?

The internet is the channel that web communication takes place over and facilitates many different diverse and potentially (likely) in-operable communications mechanisms examples of these mechanisms include:

Web communications take place over a much more defined\rigid\compatible set of web derived specifications which basically include

  • Use of a standard internet protocol – e.g. TCP
  • Application level communication using a common protocol – e.g. HTTP\REST
  • Messages and responses formatted in a standard manner  – SOAP\JSON etc

Put simply there are many approaches to networked communication and using web based technology provides a lingua franca for offering and consuming services.

So that explains the web part, what do you mean by services?

A service in this context offers some facility that may be consumed by clients which may be entities like web browsers, mobile apps, server programs and desktop software.

One such service could be getting realtime data from a information source (e.g. stock prices from an exchange) or providing some data processing service  e.g using an heavy iron server than can factor primes more quickly than a home machine.

Essentially web services allow hosting of some modular function(s) in a self contained system and providing a mechanism for interaction, a lot of mobile apps rely on this sort of service.


Overview of web service interaction



As the above diagram shows a web service consumer interacting with a web service.

The server HTTP component listens for and responds requests sent by the HTTP client, these request are formatted in (typically) a mutual message format as generated/understood by the Message Parser/Packer which then generates/extracts parameters/responses and passes them to the consumer/function logic.

In simple terms the whole purpose of using web service technologies is to pass parameters to functions and receive responses over a network using http communications


A SOAP Example

Lets imagine that there is a web service offered at which communicates using the XML-based SOAP message format, this service at offers a function called GetStockPrice which takes one parameter StockName.

POST /Stock HTTP/1.1

Content-Type: application/soap+xml; charset=utf-8
Content-Length: 223

<?xml version=”1.0″?>
<soap:Body xmlns:m=””>

This message is sent via a HTTP 1.1 post to the /Stock path of with a content type of soap+xml in Unicode format.

The above message is colour coded to indicate the parts that are germane to  each stage of processing, this coding is keyed as following.

HTTP Message – The entire body sent and received by the Client/Server
Message Body – The XML + SOAP which is generated and processed by the Parser/Generator
Desired Information – Consumed and generated by the Service/Consumer logic

When this message is sent to an appropriate service is it processed and passed to a specified function (<m:GetStockPrice>) with the parameters specified by (<m:StockName>IBM</m:StockName> ).

The following is an example of such a function called GetStockPrice where the StockName variable would contain IBM.

public int GetStockPrice(String StockName){

return hashMap.Get(StockName);


This service would then reply with the following message assuming there was no error, remember to provide error feedback and handling

HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Content-Type: application/soap+xml; charset=utf-8
Content-Length: nnn
<?xml version=”1.0″?>
<soap:Body xmlns:m=””>


As you can see from this response the price for IBM stock is 34.5, this message is received  and then parsed by the client and the useful information is extracted from it and  used by the the consumer.

In summary web services allow a relatively firewall friendly communications mechanism as most L7 firewalls allow HTTP traffic using fairly platform agnostic approach to messaging (most platforms have support for HTTP).