I see the tide rising for semantic technologies. On the other hand, I wonder if they don’t need to fail in order to succeed.
Let’s use the Grid effort as an example. By “Grid effort” I mean the work that took place in and around OGF (or GGF as it was known before its merger w/ EGA). That community, mostly made of researchers and academics, was defining “utility computing” and creating related technology (e.g. OGSA, OGSI, GridFTP, JSDL, SAGA as specs, Globus and Platform as implementations) when Amazon was still a bookstore. There was an expectation that, as large-scale, flexible, distributed computing became a more pressing need for the industry at large, the Grid vision and technology would find their way into the broader market. That’s probably why IBM (and to a lesser extent HP) invested in the effort. Instead, what we are seeing is a new approach to utility computing (marketed as “cloud computing”), delivered by Amazon and others. It addresses utility computing with a different technology than Grid. With X86 virtualization as a catalyst, “cloud computing” delivers flexible, large-scale computing capabilities in a way that, to the users, looks a lot like their current environment. They still have servers with operating systems and applications on them. It’s not as elegant and optimized as service factories, service references (GSR), service handle (GSH), etc but it maps a lot better to administrators’ skills and tools (and to running the current code unchanged). Incremental changes with quick ROI beat paradigm shifts 9 times out of 10.
Is this indicative of what is going to happen with semantic technologies? Let’s break it down chronologically:
- Trailblazers (often faced with larger/harder problems than the rest of us) come up with a vision and a different way to think about what computers can do (e.g. the “computers -> compute grid” transition).
- They develop innovative technology, with a strong theoretical underpinning (OGSA-BES and those listed above).
- There are some successful deployments, but the adoption is mostly limited to a few niches. It is seen as too complex and too different from current practices for broad adoption.
- Outsiders use incremental technology to deliver 80% of the vision with 20% of the complexity. Hype and adoption ensue.
If we are lucky, the end result will look more like the nicely abstracted utility computing vision than the “did you patch your EC2 Xen images today” cloud computing landscape. But that’s a necessary step that Grid computing failed to leapfrog.
Semantic web technologies can easily be mapped to the first three bullets. Replace “computers -> computer grid” with “documents/data -> information” in the first one. Fill in RDF, RDFS, OWL (with all its flavors), SPARQL etc as counterparts to OGSA-BES and friends in the second. For the third, consider life sciences and defense as niche markets in which semantic technologies are seeing practical adoption. What form will bullet #4 take for semantic technology (e.g. who is going to be the EC2 of semantic technology)? Or is this where it diverges from Grid and instead gets adopted in its “original” form?