Proteus Web Service Engine Changes Shape to Grant Wishes

August 28, 2003

A Microsoft-funded initiative at USC has developed a powerful new suite of Web service tools for science and commerce.

The new system, called Proteus, is not a search engine but a services engine.

Created by University of Southern California computer scientists with funding from Microsoft, Proteus will be a highly versatile "Web services" utility that will locate resources for users and then orchestrate their automated use.

"We think Proteus will do for professional and institutional users — scientists and IT business specialists — what sophisticated Web products like Google do for individuals," says Shahram Ghandeharizadeh, an associate professor in the USC School of Engineering department of computer science who is co- leader of the large team that has been developing the application for more than a year. He says a prototype version will be ready in November.

Proteus will be a Window-resident utility that will accept instructions in the widely-used SQL programming language. It will employ what Ghandeharizadeh calls "side doors" to Web sites, Web service access points that Microsoft and other large IT concerns have built into software in anticipation of Web service utilities like Proteus.

"Web services" is an emerging concept in information technologies, in which Web resources are queried at secondhand by special applications (Web services are sometimes called application-to-application communication), rather than the now-familiar direct human-to-Web site interaction.

Proteus Professors: Craig Knoblock, left, and Shahram Ghandeharizadeh.

"Rather than having the individual human user interact with a Web site's software in real time," co-leader Craig Knoblock explains, "a user query creates special, dedicated software that will go out, negotiate with Web resource provider's software, and get what the user needs."

An individual who wants to find an aerial photo of a building at a given address, for example, now must in separate steps find an appropriate Web site, hand- enter a query into that site's interface, and use the information found to go to other sites, eventually pulling out the needed information.

A powerful tool that could flexibly automate processes like this — locate and then automatically pull web information from many sources into custom-desired configurations — would be useful for many scientific and high-level commercial applications. And Proteus is designed to be that tool, say its developers.

Proteus is not aimed at consumers, according to Knoblock, a senior project leader at USC's Information Sciences Institute. Rather, users will primarily be scientists or business computer professionals who need wholesale, automatic access to information in bulk.

(It is named, a recent paper describing the system notes, after the Greek sea god who could change shape into any form — and grant any wish).

According to Ghandeharizadeh, any Proteus-like Web services system must have a number of components, giving it the ability to:

  • Find existing web services using an effective search engine.
  • Process SQL commands to automatically author a plan using the existing web services.
  • Tailor new web service "shells" to collaborate with existing web services to process a query.
  • Use and include algorithms that evaluate alternative plans for tailoring shells and gluing web services together to perform a task, identifying the most reliable and efficient one.
  • Execute a plan reliably in a fluid Internet environment, so that neither server location changes nor transient data unavailability cause the plan to either crash or remain indefinitely suspended.

A paper entitled "Proteus: A System for Dynamically Composing and Intelligently Executing Web Services," presented at the first international conference on Web services, held in Las Vegas, NV in June describes progress the Proteus project has made in implementing all of these abilities. (See accompanying link to view paper in pdf form)

Besides Ghandeharizadeh and Knoblock, the Proteus team includes three other Ph.D.-level USC research faculty — Jose-Luis Ambite-Molina, Christos Papadopoulos, and Cyrus Shahabi — along with six graduate students.


Team Proteus: left to right: Runfang Zhou, Snehal Thakkar, Ching-Chien Chan, Min Cai, Jose-Luis Ambite-Molina, Craig Knoblock, Shahram Ghandeharizadeh, Dongchul Choi, Esam Alwagait, Christos Papadopoulos, Cyrus Shahabi.

photos by Irene Fertik