Who needs XPath fragment-level PUT?

WS-Management and WS-ResourceTransfer (WS-RT) both provide a mechanism to modify the XML representation of the state of a resource in a fine-grained way. The mechanisms differ a bit: WS-Management defines a SOAP header and distinguishes PUT from DELETE at the WS-Transfer operation level, while WS-RT uses the SOAP body and tunnels “modes” (remove, modify, insert) on top of the PUT WS-Transfer operation. But in their complete form both use XPath to point to any arbitrary nodeset and update it.

WS-ResourceProperties (WS-RP) takes a simpler approach. While it too supports XPath-driven retrieval of the content, it doesn’t attempt to provide an XPath-like level of flexibility when it comes to updating the content. All it offers is SET, INSERT, UPDATE and DELETE operations at the level of a property (a top-level child of the XML representation) and nothing more granular.

In this respect at least, WS-RP makes a better choice than its competitor and its aspiring successor.

First, XPath-driven updates sound easy but in fact are hard to specify. Not surprisingly, the current specifications do a pretty incomplete job at it. They often seem to assume that the XPath used to target the value to change returns only one node, but nothing guarantees this. If it picks up more than one node, do you replace all these nodes by the new values as a block (the new values get inserted once, presumably at the location of the first selected node) or do you replace each selected node by all the new values (in which case they get duplicated as needed)? Also, the specifications say nothing about what constitutes compatibility between the targeted nodes and the replacement nodes. One might assume that a “don’t be stupid” approach is all that’s needed. But there is no obvious line between “stupid” and “useful”. Does a request to replace a text node by an attribute node make sense? Not in a strongly-typed world, but a more forgiving implementation might just insert the text value of the attribute in the place of the text node to get to a valid result. What about replacing an element by a text node? Some may reject it for incompatible types but, unless the schema prevents mixed content, it may well result in a perfectly valid document. All in all, specifying a reliable way to edit XML is a pretty hairy task. Much harder than reading XML. It requires very careful considerations that have very little do with on-the-wire protocol considerations. Which is why doing this as part of a SOAP specification is a strange choice. The XQuery group is much more qualified for this. There must be a reason why that group decided to punt on this until they had taken care of the easier “read” case.

Second, it’s usually not all that useful anyway. Which is why the lack of precision in WS-Management’s specification of the fragment PUT haven’t really been a problem so far: people haven’t fully implemented that feature. A lot of the implementations are backed by a CIMOM, an MBean or some other OO store. In these stores, the exposed granularity is typically at the attribute level. The interactions used by programmers and consoles are also at that level. The XPath-driven update is then only used as a mechanism to update many properties at once (rather than going deep into individual properties) but that’s using a machine gun to kill a fly. The WS-RP approach supports these use cases without calling on XPath.

Third, XPath-driven PUT is really hard to implement unless your back-end store happens to be an XML database. You may end up having to write your own XPath parser and interpreter, an exercise during which you will face some impedance mismatches. Your back-end store may not have notions of property order for example, or attribute versus element. How do you handle these XPath instructions? And what kind of interoperability results from implementers having to make these decisions on their own? Implementing XPath selection on a GET is a lot simpler. All it assumes is that there is an XML serialization of the result, on which you can run the XPath expression before shipping it out. That XML serialization is a given in the SOAP world already. But doing an XPath-driven PUT injects XML considerations in your store itself, not just in the communication path.

Those are the practical reasons. In short, it makes the specifications at best complex and at worst non-interoperable, for a feature that is rarely needed. That should be enough already, but there are some architectural reasons to stay away too.

WS-Transfer is sometimes sold for REST over SOAP. And fragment-level WS-Transfer (what WS-Management and WS-RT do) is then REST on steroids. Sorry, not true. REST on crack if anything.

I am not a REST expert, but I know enough to understand that “everything has a URI” really means “anything meaningful has a URI”. It’s the difference between a crystal structure and a pile of mud. REST lets you interact directly with any node in the crystal, but there is a limited number of entities that are considered worthwhile of being a node. There is design involved (sorry, you can’t suddenly fire your architects, as attractive as that sounds). You can’t point to the space between two nodes in the crystal. XPath-on-top-of-WS-Transfer, on the other hand, lets you plunge your spoon anywhere in the pile of mud and scoop out whatever happens to be there.

Let’s take a look at WS-Federation (here is the latest draft), the only specification in a standard body that I know of that is currently using WS-RT. Whether it’s a wise choice or not for them, from a governance perspective, is a separate topic that I won’t cover here (answer: no. oops).

From a technical perspective, it is interesting to see how they went about using WS-RT PUT. They use it to update pseudonyms. But even though there is an XML representation for the pseudonyms, they don’t want to allow users to update any arbitrary part of that XML. So they create a specific dialect (the fed:FilterPseudonyms defined in section 6.1) that lets you, based on semantics that are meaningful in the specific domain covered by the specification, point to pseudonyms.

I believe most potential users of WS-RT PUT are in the same case as WS-Federation and are better served by a domain-specific way to identify entities of interest. At least the WS-Federation authors realized it rather than saying “great, WS-RT XPath fragment PUT gives us all this flexibility for free” and settling their implementers with the impossible task of producing interoperable implementations. Of course this begs the question of why WS-Federation uses WS-RT in the first place. A charitable interpretation is to pin this on overzealous re-use of all things WS-*. A more cynical interpretation sees this as a contrived precedent manufactured in an attempt “prove” that WS-RT provides features of general use rather than specific to the management domain.

Having described at length why XPath-driven updates aren’t as useful as they may seem, I can still think of two cases where a such a generic mechanism to modify an XML document could be useful. One is if the resource actually is a document (as opposed to having its state represented by a document). For example, a wiki page. But I haven’t exactly noticed wiki creators and users clamoring for wiki-over-SOAP, have you? The other situation is if you have a true model-driven system that is supported by a comprehensive system description and validation framework. The kind of thing that SML is trying to deliver. By using Schematron (rather than just XSD which is very limited in its expressivity beyond mere syntactical validation) to provide model validation. This would, in theory, allow the requester to validate the updated model before sending the change request. The change would still be validated on the receiver side (either explicitly or implicitly because a non-valid new model would simply fail when applied to the system), but the existence of the validation framework guarantees a high rate of successs (the sender would rarely send non-valid change requests). That’s very nice and exciting, but we don’t have this. SML is, as far as I can see, going nowhere fast in terms of adoption. Standardizing a model exchange protocol for that use case is, at this point in time, premature. Maybe one day.


Filed under Everything, IT Systems Mgmt, Mgmt integration, Modeling, REST, SML, Specs, Standards, WS-Management, WS-ResourceTransfer, WS-Transfer, XPath, XQuery