Chris’ main point is correct: the WSDL document in appendix II of the WS-Transfer specification is not compliant with the WS-I Basic Profile. But what does this mean and why should one care?
If you search for the word “wsdl” in WS-Transfer, you first find it in the table that declares namespace prefixes used in the specification. But the prefix is not used in the specification, so it could just as well be removed from that table.
We see it next mentioned in the “compliance” boilerplate where it is declared to be the least authoritative of all information in the specification.
The next occurrence is all the way down in section 8, as a reference to the WSDL 1.1 W3C note. The only place where that reference is used, is further below, in Appendix II.
In short, for all practical purposes there is no mention of WSDL in WS-Transfer except for this one appendix that contains a WSDL document. Since there is no MUST or REQUIRED statement that refers to it, it is at best a testing tool that one can use to validate WS-Transfer messages produced. There is no requirement at all that the implementation produces that WSDL (e.g. as a response to a WS-MeX request) or consumes it.
And if you look at the content of the WSDL, it is mostly XML gymnastics aimed at creating “empty” and “any” types to express almost nothing useful about the messages sent and received.
You don’t have to take my statement that the WS-Transfer WSDL is useless at face value. Here are two other proofs:
- Chris doesn’t just point out the WS-I BP violation in the WS-Transfer WSDL, he also proposes a way to fix it. He writes: “I actually think that a more appropriate approach to handling WS-Transfer’s ‘Get’ would be to specify the output message as you would any doc-literal operation and merely annotate the operation with the appropriate wsa:Action attribute values” (he also provides an example). And he is perfectly right. If you really want a WSDL for your WS-Transfer operations, create one that is specific to the resource type (server, toaster…) that you are dealing with. By definition that WSDL can’t be baked into the model-agnostic WS-Transfer specification. While Chris doesn’t say it, the natural conclusion of his remark is that there is not point for a WSDL in WS-Transfer (because any resource-agnostic WSDL is useless).
- The WS-Transfer XSD and WSDL have been modified, sometimes in backward-incompatible ways, without changing the target namespace. From the original version to the first W3C submission, some minor changes (message names, introduction of WS-Addressing). From the first W3C submission to the current submission, some potentially backward-incompatible changes (the GET input can now be non-empty, the CREATE response can now contain anything as a result of trying to support different versions of WS-Addressing). On top of that, all these XSD and WSDL documents embedded in various versions of the spec are “non-normative”. The normative versions are said to be the ones at xmlsoap.org (XSD, WSDL). Those have not changed, which means that both versions on the W3C web site contain an incorrect version of the XSD/WSDL in the spec. Shouldn’t that lack of XML hygiene be a big deal for a specification that is implemented (via WS-Management, which references the W3C submission) in resources with long product development cycles, such as servers from Dell, HP and others that have WS-Management support directly on the motherboard? It would, if the XSD and WSDL had any relevance for the implementers. The fact that there was no outcry is yet another proof that the WS-Transfer XSD and the WSDL are irrelevant.
So yes, Chris is right that the WS-Transfer WSDL (BTW all versions have the problem that Chris describes even though it could have been fixed in a backward-compatible way when the WSDL was altered) is not WS-I BP compliant. But since that WSDL is useless anyway, this shouldn’t keep anyone up at night. The WS-Transfer WSDL serves no purpose other than to annoy people who like things to be WS-I BP compliant.
But is it just the WS-Transfer WSDL that’s useless, or it is all of WS-Transfer?
I am not planning to go into WS-* vs. REST territory here. To those who are confused by the similarity between the names of WS-Transfer operations and HTTP methods and see WS-Transfer as a way to do “REST over SOAP” I’ll just point out that WS-Transfer is rarely used on its own but rather in conjunction with many other SOAP messages (like those defined by WS-Eventing and WS-Enumeration, plus countless custom operations). So much for uniform interfaces. WS-Transfer, at least as it is used today, is not about REST.
Rather, the reasons why I question the usefulness of WS-Transfer are more pragmatic than architectural. I can think of three potential justifications to carve out WS-Transfer as a separate specification, none of which is really convincing at this point in time.
The first reason is simply to avoid repeating the same text over and over again. If many specifications are going to describe the same SOAP message, just describe it once and refer to that description. Sounds good. But I know of three specifications that use WS-Transfer: WS-Management, WS-MeX and the Devices Profile for Web Services.
WS-MeX and the Devices Profile only use the GET operation. Which means that the only specification text that they can re-use from WS-Transfer is something like “send an empty get request and get something back”. WS-Transfer can’t say what that something is, only the domain-specific specifications can. As a result, you are spending as much time referencing WS-Transfer as would be spent defining a simple GET operation. For all practical purposes, you can implement WS-MeX and the Devices Profile without ever reading WS-Transfer.
The second potential reason is to provide a stand-alone piece of functionality that can be implemented once (e.g. as a library/module) and re-used for different purposes. Something that automatically kicks in when a WS-Transfer wsa:Action is detected. Think of a stand-alone encryption/decryption library for example, that looks for specific SOAP headers. Or WS-Eventing, for which a library can take over the task of managing the subscription lifecycle. Except WS-Transfer defines so little that it’s not clear what a stand-alone WS-Transfer implementation would do. Receive messages and do what with them? It is so tied to the back-end that there isn’t much you can do in a general fashion. Unless you are creating a library for a database product and you see WS-Transfer as a query interface for your database. But this only makes sense if you want to provide more fine-grained access to the XML content, which WS-Transfer does not do.
Which takes us to the third potential value of WS-Transfer, as a foundational specification on which to build extensions. Of the three this is the only one that I believed in at some point. WS-ResourceTransfer (WS-RT) was the main attempt at doing this. Any service that uses WS-Transfer could, via the magic of the SOAP processing model, offer a more precise/powerful access to the resources. But while this was possible in theory it hasn’t really panned out in practice for many reasons:
- Some people (hints: Armonk; Blue) pushed hard to put WS-RT instructions in the body rather than in headers, seriously compromising its ability to seamlessly compose with existing SOAP messages.
- WS-MeX and the Devices Profile typically deal with documents small enough that manipulating them as a whole is rarely a problem. This only leaves WS-Management which has its own “fragment transfer” mechanism so it doesn’t really need a stand-alone mechanism.
- XQuery is now developing support for an update capability.
What then is left, in the Spring of 2008, to justify the need for WS-Transfer as a separate layer, rather than considering it an integral part of WS-Management? Not much. WS-MeX, in an earlier version, used to define its own GET operation and it wouldn’t be any worse off if it had stayed that way (or returned to it). Ditto for the Device Profile. At this point, it’s mostly a matter of pragmatically cleaning up the mess without creating another one.
In retrospect (color me partially guilty), maybe one shouldn’t use the same architectural rules when attempting to design an interoperable standard stack for an industry than when refactoring a software project. Maybe one should resist the urge to refactor the “code” (or rather the PowerPoint stack) every time one detects the smallest conceptual redundancy. There is a cost in constant changes. There is a cost in specification cross-dependencies. WSDM experienced it firth hand with the different versions of WS-Addressing (another dependency that didn’t need to be). WS-Management is seeing it from the perspective of standardization.