Cloud Computing and Cars: A Web Services Primer

By Bridget Townsend

Keeping up with shifting technology is an uphill battle when marketing in the automotive vertical. See how web services can help you focus on promotion, rather than your infrastructure.

Web services are not a new invention, but only recently have we seen them gaining acceptance in many industries, including automotive. If you consider the nature of a vehicle, combined with the exploding number of consumers heading online to research and shop for vehicles, this makes sense. Because a vehicle can have over 10,000 options and pricing configurations, ensuring that an automotive selling site has the most up-to-date and accurate information, and that it has the tools that consumers demand (such as allowing consumers to build their own cars by adding options, colors, etc., and then comparing them to other models) is a monumental job. Enter web services. 

What web services can do
Before we delve deeper into how web services can benefit a wide range of industries, let’s step back and explain more concretely what they are and what they do. Web services are interfaces that exchange information between an application and a remote data source. They allow software applications to access and use functionality and data created by another provider, or multiple providers. This is an abstract concept, so let’s make it tangible with an example of web services, courtesy of the website XML.com: a music CD. 
If you want to play a CD, you put it into a CD player and the player plays it for you. The CD player offers a CD playing service. You can replace one CD with another, or take your CDs to a friend’s house and play them on their player. No matter what music is on the CD or what player you use, you can listen to it because the systems talk to each other. This works the same way as web services do. Without web services, every CD would come with its own player and the two would not be separated. This sounds odd, but it’s the way many software systems have been built. In effect, building a software system has been like re-inventing the wheel every time, with all the development time and costs that includes. With that basic definition, let’s circle back to how industries are using web services, and why they would want to. Let’s take Google as an example. Google has popularized web service utilities for businesses and for the general public. Groups ranging from non-profit organizations to book clubs use their Google Groups and Google Docs to share information and stay in touch. Another example is cdyne, which applies web services to a specific domain or demographic. Their demographics web service delivers enhanced census data, which their clients use to target customers or neighborhoods for their own services and products.

Web services for automotive
In the automotive industry, this same concept is applied to a vertical market. Online vehicle shoppers want quick and easy access to the most up-to-date and detailed vehicle data. A vehicle manufacturer or portal site could re-invent the wheel by developing its own configuration and comparison tool to combine raw data with available options, but the creation is time-consuming and requires sophisticated programming skills and constant data updates. 
Using web services, they create a simple consumer-facing interface and flow data through it from a data provider. They don’t have to create an infrastructure or manage data updates; the provider takes care of that.  Every interface is customized for look and feel so every website retains individuality. Check out Vehix.com and Sam’s Club Auto Buying Program for examples. Both use web services to deliver vehicle data, but each interface is customized and unique. And neither company has to worry about updating the data or keeping the service running; the web service provider takes care of that.  They’ve increased their capability without having to invest in a new infrastructure, derail their development team or invest in new personnel. Why they work
To continue with the “why” of web services, reduced cost and development time are key. A basic example to illustrate this point: a Microsoft Word document. When you go to write a document, you would never dream of starting by developing your own word processor. Microsoft has already done that, and done it well.  They’ve provided the platform and they are responsible for managing it, updating it and releasing new versions. You only have to use it. 

Web services follow the same logic. An expert in the space has already developed the platform; customizing it is much cheaper and faster than developing it all over again. Consider the example of cloud computing, which allows developers to exploit functionality without having to implement a full-blown application. Because this practice is cheaper, and because the internet is increasingly more reliable, more companies are adopting this approach. Early adoption within a handful of Fortune 500 companies, including Proctor & Gamble and General Electric, sets the stage for cloud computing to go mainstream. This “cloud” allows companies to more efficiently and cost-effectively store, manage and share data without any hardware or software to download, install or maintain. Their customers can focus on their core competencies, not the infrastructure.

Another benefit of using an existing web service is access to the innovations of that implementation. As we all know, technology is never static; changes are happening every day and trying to keep up with new functionality can derail a development team from focusing on the core competencies that result in immediate revenue. 

As an example from the automotive industry, many companies need to be able to decode vehicle identification numbers (VINs), but they generate revenue by creating consumer-facing websites that help consumers find the their perfect vehicle. They don’t need to build a VIN decoder, they need to buy one. What they’re presenting to the consumer is key, not what is happening on the back-end. 

Conclusion
If you are developing websites for your clients, or are tasked with bringing all the providers together who are essential for functionality and deployment, you should consider taking a closer look at web services. By using an off-the-shelf solution and then building on that platform, you can save your clients time to market and significant funds and give them access to groundbreaking innovations. As a result, you have more money left in your budget for marketing and promotion, and your clients can get a head start on generating more revenue. 

Bridget Townsend is director of engineering, product and client services for Chrome Systems, Inc.

Source: http://www.imediaconnection.com/content/20362.asp

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