Without prejudice to other definitions I would say that a web service is software system that allows for inter-operable machine-to-machine / application-to-application interaction over a network. This generic definitions would also help consider REST architectures to be a web service as they provide similar functionality albeit being an architectural style unlike the SOAP which is a fully defined protocol.
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A web service is something that a website chooses to offer to those who wish to read, update and/or delete data from your website. You might call it a "backdoor" to your data. Instead of presenting the data as part of a webpage it is provided in a pre-determined way where some of the more popular are XML and JSON. There are several ways to communicate with a webservice, some use SOAP, others have REST'ful web services, etc.
Web services are a key component in "mashups". Mashups are when information from many websites is automatically aggregated into a new and useful service. For example, there are sites that aggregate Google Maps with information about police reports to give you a graphical representation of crime in your area. Another type of mashup would be to take real stock data provided by another site and combine it with a fake trading application to create a stock-market "game".
A developer using a top-down model writes the WSDL document first and then uses a code generating tool to produce the class skeleton, to be completed as necessary. This model is generally considered more difficult but can produce cleaner designs and is generally more resistant to change. As long as the message formats between the sender and receiver do not change, changes in the sender and receiver themselves do not affect the Web service. The technique is also referred to as contract first since the WSDL (or contract between sender and receiver) is the starting point.[6]
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."

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The term Web services describes a standardized way of integrating Web-based applications using the XML, SOAP, WSDL and UDDI open standards over an Internet protocol backbone. XML is used to tag the data, SOAP is used to transfer the data, WSDL is used for describing the services available and UDDI is used for listing what services are available. Used primarily as a means for businesses to communicate with each other and with clients, Web services allow organizations to communicate data without intimate knowledge of each other's IT systems behind the firewall.
A web service is a collection of open protocols and standards used for exchanging data between applications or systems. Software applications written in various programming languages and running on various platforms can use web services to exchange data over computer networks like the Internet in a manner similar to inter-process communication on a single computer. This interoperability (e.g., between Java and Python, or Windows and Linux applications) is due to the use of open standards.

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^ Oya, Makoto (2008-09-02). "Autonomous Web Services Based on Dynamic Model Harmonization". In Oya, Makoto; Uda, Ryuya; Yasunobu, Chizuko (eds.). Towards Sustainable Society on Ubiquitous Networks: The 8th IFIP Conference on E-Business, E-Services, and E-Society (I3E 2008), September 24 – 26, 2008, Tokyo, Japan. IFIP Advances in Information and Communication Technology. 286. Springer Science & Business Media (published 2008). p. 139. ISBN 9780387856902. Retrieved 2015-08-19.
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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