Two versions of a protocol is one too many

There is always a temptation, when facing a hard design decision in the process of creating an interface or a protocol, to produce two (or more) versions. It’s sometimes a good idea, as a way to explore where each one takes you so you can make a more informed choice. But we know how this invariably ends up. Documents get published that arguably should not. It’s even harder in a standard working group, where someone was asked (or at least encouraged) by the group to create each of the alternative specifications. Canning one is at best socially awkward (despite the appearances, not everyone in standards is a psychopath or a sadist) and often politically impossible.

And yet, it has to be done. Compare the alternatives, then pick one and commit. Don’t confuse being accommodating with being weak.

The typical example these days is of course SOAP versus REST: the temptation is to support both rather than make a choice. This applies to standards and to proprietary interfaces. When a standard does this, it hurts rather than promote interoperability. Vendors have a bit more of an excuse when they offer a choice (“the customer is always right”) but in reality it forces customers to play Russian roulette whether they want it or not. Because one of the alternatives will eventually be left behind (either discarded or maintained but not improved). If you balance the small immediate customer benefit of using the interface style they are most used to with the risk of redoing the integration down the road, the value proposition of offering several options crumbles.

[Pedantic disclaimer: I use the term "REST" in this post the way it is often (incorrectly) used, to mean pretty much anything that uses HTTP without a SOAP wrapper. The technical issues are a topic for other posts.]

CMDBf

CMDBf v1 is a DMTF standard. It is a SOAP-based protocol. For v2, it has been suggested that there should a REST version. I don’t know what the CMDBf group (in which I participate) will end up doing but I’ve made my position clear: I could go either way (remain with SOAP or dump it) but I do not want to have two versions of the protocol (one SOAP one REST). If we think we’re better off with a REST version, then let’s make v2 REST-only. Supporting both mechanisms in v2 would be stupid. They would address the same use cases and only serve to provide political ass-coverage. There is no functional need for both. The argument that we need to keep supporting SOAP for the benefit of those who implemented v1 doesn’t fly. As an implementer, nobody is saying that you need to turn off your v1 services the second you launch the v2 version.

DMTF Cloud

Between the specifications submitted directly to DMTF, the specifications developed by DMTF “partner” organizations and the existing DMTF protocols, the DMTF Cloud effort is presented with a mix of SOAP, RESTful and XML-RPC-over-HTTP options. In the process of deciding what to create or adopt I am sure that the temptation will be high to take the easy route of supporting several versions to placate everyone. But such a “consensus” would be achieved on the back of the implementers so I very much hope it won’t be the case.

When it is appropriate

There are cases where supporting alternatives options is worth the cost. But it typically happens when they serve very different use cases. Think of SAX versus DOM, which have clearly differentiated sweetspots. In the Cloud world, Amazon S3 gives us interesting examples of both justified and extraneous alternatives. The extraneous one is the choice between REST and SOAP for the S3 API. I often praise AWS for its innovation and pragmatism, but this is an example of something that only looks pragmatic. On the other hand, the AWS import/export mechanism is a useful alternative. It allows you to physically ship a device with a few terabytes of data to Amazon. This is technically an alternative to the S3 programmatic interface, but one with obviously differentiated use cases. I recommend you reserve the use of “alternative APIs” for such scenarios.

If it didn’t work for Tiger Woods, it won’t work for your Cloud API either. Learn to commit.

[CLARIFICATION: based on some of the early Twitter feedback on this entry, I want to clarify that it's alternative versions that I am against, not successive versions (i.e. an evolution of the interface over time). How to manage successive versions properly is a whole other debate.]

4 Comments

Filed under Amazon, API, Cloud Computing, CMDB, CMDBf, DMTF, Everything, IT Systems Mgmt, Protocols, REST, SOAP, Specs, Standards, Utility computing, Web services

4 Responses to Two versions of a protocol is one too many

  1. Tim

    Couldn’t agree more. Two related points:

    1. One of the reasons why SQL provides such poor interoperability, promoting vendor lock-in, is that the ISO SQL committee, whenever it faced a choice of options, picked both. Thus supporting your point. XML explicitly had the goal of not having any optional features.

    2. A small but significant conclusion from your argument is that protocols which support both XML and JSON are making a mistake.

  2. Something you might have overlooked is when one of the API’s introduces further abstractions (simplification for particular usage patterns) which does not preclude its implementation being layered on top of the alternative choice. There was a hint of this in the XML references but not called out directly. That said I am not in favor of people layering for the purpose of lock-in via superficial sugar candy (i.e. Spring framework) whilst hiding the underlying mechanism/technologies as well as the implications of mapping between layers – this seems to be the case for multitude of unifying cloud API’s which are incompatible themselves. A thorough cost benefit analysis should be performed in such cases but we both know that such choices are rarely based on hard evidence – too much think time required and insight needed to further implications.

  3. William,

    why not use the term “HTTP-based” instead of “REST”. There is already enough confusion out there!

    Jan

  4. Pingback: William Vambenepe — Comments on “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of REST APIs”