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William Vambenepe works are architect in the Application and Middleware management group at Oracle. He blogs at http://stage.vambenepe.com/ William has posted 55 posts at DZone. View Full User Profile

WS Resource Access at W3C: the good, the bad and the ugly

07.12.2008
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As far as I know, the W3C is still reviewing the proposal that was made to them to create a new working group to standardize WS-Transfer, WS-ResourceTransfer, WS-Enumeration and WS-MetadataExchange. The suggested name, “Web Services Resource Access Working Group” or WS-RAWG is likely, if it sticks, to end up being shortened to WS-RAW. Which is a bit more cruel than needed. I’d say it’s simply half-baked.

There are many aspects to the specifications and features covered by the proposal. Some goodness, some badness and some ugliness. This post analyzes the good, points at the bad and hints at the ugly. Like your average family-oriented summer movie.

The good

The specifications proposed for W3C standardization describe a way to provide some generally useful features for SOAP messages. Some SOAP messages can get very long. In some cases, I know ahead of time what portion of the long messages promised by the contract (e.g. WSDL) I want. Wouldn’t it be nice, as an optimization, to let the message sender know about this so they can, if they are able to, filter down the message to just the part I want? Alternatively, maybe I do want the full response but I can’t consume it as one big message so I would like to get it in chunks.

You’ll notice that the paragraph above says nothing about “resources”. We are just talking about messaging features for SOAP messages. There are precedents for this. WS-Security can be used to encrypt a message. Any message. WS-ReliableMessaging can be used to ensure delivery of a message. Any message. These “quality of service” specifications are mostly orthogonal to the message content.

WS-RT and WS-Enumeration provide a solution to the “message filtering” and “message chunking”, respectively. But they only address them in the context of a GET-like operation. They can’t be layered on top of any SOAP message. How useful would WS-Security and WS-ReliableMessaging be if they had such a restriction?

If W3C takes on part of the work listed in the proposal, I hope they’ll do so in a way that expends the utility of these features to all SOAP messages.

And just like WS-Security and WS-ReliableMessaging, these features should be provided in a way that leverages the SOAP processing model. Such that I can judiciously use the soap:mustUnderstand header to not break existing services. If I’d like the message to be paired down but I can handle the complete message if need be, I’ll set this attribute to false. If I can’t handle the full message, I’ll set the attribute to true and I’ll get an error if the other party doesn’t understand this extension. At which point I can pick an alternative way to get the task accomplished. Sounds pretty basic but it’s amazing how often this important feature of SOAP (which heralds from and extends XML’s must-ignore semantics) is neglected and obstructed by designers of SOAP messages.

And then there is WS-MetadataExchange. While I am not a huge fan of this specification, I agree with the need for a simple, reliable way to retrieve different types of metadata for an endpoint.

So that’s the (potential) good. A flexible and generally useful way to pair-down long SOAP messages, to chunk them and to retrieve metadata for SOAP endpoints.

The bad

The bad is the whole “resource access” spin. It is not actually intrinsically bad. There are scenarios where such a pattern actually fits. But the way that pattern is being addressed by WS-RT and friends is overly generalized and overly XML-centric. By the latter I mean that it takes XML from an agreed-upon on-the-wire interchange format to an implicit metamodel (e.g. it assumes not just that you agree to exchange XML-formated data but that your model and your business logic are organized and implemented around an XML representation of the domain, which is a much more constraining requirement). I could go on and on about this, especially the use of XPath in the PUT operation. In fact I did go on and on with it, but I spun that off as a separate entry.

In the context of the W3C proposal at hand, this is bad because it burdens the generally useful features (see the “good” section above) with an unneeded and limiting formalism. Not to mention the fact that W3C kind of already has its resource access mechanism, but I’ll leave that aspect of the question to Mark and various bloggers (see a short list of relevant posts at the end of this entry).

The resource access part might be worth doing (one more time), but probably not in the same group as things like metadata discovery, message filtering and message chunking, which are not specific to “resource access” situations. And if someone is going to do this again, rather than repeating the not too useful approaches of the past, it may be good to consider alternatives.

The ugly

That’s the politics around this whole deal. There is, as you would expect, a lot more to it than meets the eye. The underlying drivers for all this have little to do with REST/WS or other architecture considerations. They have a lot to do with control. But that’s a topic for another post (maybe) when more of it can be publicly discussed.

A lot of what I describe in this post was already explained in the WS-ManagementHammer post from a couple of months ago. But that was before the W3C proposal and before WS-MetadataExchange was dragged into the deal. So I thought it might be useful to put the analysis in the context of that proposal. And BTW, this is a personal opinion, not an Oracle position (which is true in general for everything on this blog but is worth repeating specifically for this post).

References
Published at DZone with permission of its author, William Vambenepe. (source)

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