Web services use something known as SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) for sending the XML data between applications. The data is sent over normal HTTP. The data which is sent from the web service to the application is called a SOAP message. The SOAP message is nothing but an XML document. Since the document is written in XML, the client application calling the web service can be written in any programming language.
What is common for all web services is that they are the machine-readable equivelant to the webpages the site otherwise offers. This means that others who wish to use the data can send a request to get certain data back that is easy to parse and use. Some sites may require you to provide a username/password in the request, for sensitive data, while other sites allow anyone to extract whatever data they might need.
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In practice, a Web service commonly provides an object-oriented Web-based interface to a database server, utilized for example by another Web server, or by a mobile app, that provides a user interface to the end-user. Many organizations that provide data in formatted HTML pages will also provide that data on their server as XML or JSON, often through a Web service to allow syndication, for example, Wikipedia's Export. Another application offered to the end-user may be a mashup, where a Web server consumes several Web services at different machines and compiles the content into one user interface.
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A web service is any piece of software that makes itself available over the internet and uses a standardized XML messaging system. XML is used to encode all communications to a web service. For example, a client invokes a web service by sending an XML message, then waits for a corresponding XML response. As all communication is in XML, web services are not tied to any one operating system or programming language—Java can talk with Perl; Windows applications can talk with Unix applications.
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W3C Web Services may use SOAP over HTTP protocol, allowing less costly (more efficient) interactions over the Internet than via proprietary solutions like EDI/B2B. Besides SOAP over HTTP, Web services can also be implemented on other reliable transport mechanisms like FTP. In a 2002 document, the Web Services Architecture Working Group defined a Web services architecture, requiring a standardized implementation of a "Web service."