CMIS, APP, Zen-SOAP and WS-KitchenSink: some data points

The recent release of an early draft of a content management specification (CMIS, for Content Management Interoperability Services) provides an interesting perspective on not just SOAP-versus-REST but also Zen-SOAP versus WS-KitchenSink.

I know little about content management and I have no comment about the specification from that respect. Others have better informed opinions on that aspect.

What is of interest to me, and where I have some experience, is the way the spec-defined operations are bound to underlying protocols. Here is the way the specification is structured: Part I describes the data model and the operations exposed by all the services. Part II comes in two flavors: a REST binding (based on APP, the Atom Publishing Protocol) and a Web services binding (based on SOAP).

This is the first time, to my knowledge, that someone (who presumably isn’t a participant in the SOAP/REST religious war but simply wants to get something done) describes two ways to achieve a real-life task, using either APP or SOAP. I expect that this will attract a lot of attention and provide data in the SOAP versus REST debate.

But this is not what I want to write about. I’ll just point out that the REST binding specification somehow is twice as long as the SOAP binding specification, which I find intriguing but not necessarily meaningful (things are looking good for your bet Sanjiva).

What really caught my attention is how SOAP is used in CMIS. You can hardly tell it’s SOAP. CMIS just defines XML messages to be used as payload for requests and responses. You would be excused for forgetting halfway through your implementation that you’re supposed to wrap those in a SOAP envelope. Headers are a no-show. The specification says it uses SOAP faults but it actually goes out of its way to avoid the existing elements for fault code and fault message and instead invent its own. The only SOAP feature it really uses is MTOM.

Except for the MTOM part, this reminds me of what SOAP was at the beginning of the decade, before any header had been defined (other than those used as illustration in the SOAP specification itself). I want to call it Zen-SOAP, by opposition to the WS-KitchenSink approach in which even simple, synchronous, clear-text, request-response SOAP exchanges somehow get saddled with a half dozen WS-Addressing headers before they’ve even left the gate (did I mention that I don’t like WS-Addressing?).

Another comedian in the WS-KitchenSink theater troupe is the WS-Transfer stack and especially WS-ResourceTransfer (WS-RT). Unless I read too much into this draft of CMIS, its content is devastating in two ways for WS-ResourceTransfer: in one fell swoop it shows that the specification is mostly useless and it destroys the argument that WS-ResourceTransfer needs to be stand-alone as opposed to just a part of WS-Management.

In “who needs XPath fragment-level PUT?”, I tried to make the case that the use of XPath in WS-RT to do fine-grained updates is a case of over-engineering. That there is no real need for it. Still, in that article I try to think of cases where the feature might be justified. I came up with two and I wrote that “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 dismissed it because wiki-land is REST country. I didn’t think of it at the time, but there is an “enterprise” version of wiki, a world in which, presumably, SOAP is well-regarded: Content Management Systems. Surely, if there is a domain that needs a fine-grained SOAP-based document editing protocol it’s the CMS world.

Today’s release of CMIS demolishes this use case with two punches to the guts:

  • They do have a query language, but it is SQL-based, not XPath-based.
  • The query is only used for reads, not for updates. Updates are done through specialized operations (addObjectToFolder, moveObject, updateProperties, createRelationship…).

This goes beyond not using a generic fine-grained update mechanism. It also goes against using any generic GET/SET operation. The blow reaches all the way to WS-Transfer. For all this, CMIS comes out a much simpler specification and it also frees itself from the web of dependencies (on specifications at different stages of standardization) that has plagued specifications that use WS-Transfer and will plague WS-Federation for using WS-RT.

It will be interesting to see what happens when the WS-* architects and Microsoft and IBM get hold of the CMIS specification and of its authors in their companies. I am especially worried about the fate of the IBM CMIS authors. The recent news about Oslo show that the XML people at Microsoft are a lot more willing to put the XML tools back in the box when needed.

In truth, the CMIS authors do appear to need some help from the SOAP experts in their companies, if only to fix the way they use SOAP faults and to help the poor soul who put this comment in the WSDL:

<!– had to use include – .net wsdl.exe code generator doesn’t seem to like imports on the schema –>

But they might be getting more “suggestions” than they bargained for. In the same way that the WS-Federation folks were going on their own merry way until it was “suggested” to them by someone (who probably had an agenda) to use WS-RT. I’ll try to keep an eye on how CMIS evolves.

In the meantime, I find in CMIS data points that reinforce my opinion that WS-Transfer should be absorbed by WS-Management, WS-MeX and WS-Federation should return to defining their own operations and WS-RT should be left to die (or, for a more positive spin, be used as inspiration in the next version of WS-Management).

[UPDATED 2008/10/02: Roy Fielding doesn’t like the so-called-RESTful binding. Sam Ruby cautiously defends it. Links via Billy Cripe.]

[UPDATED 2009/5/1: For some reason this entry is attracting a lot of comment spam, so I am disabling comments. Contact me if you’d like to comment.]


Filed under Everything, IBM, Microsoft, Query, REST, SOAP, SOAP header, Specs, Standards, Tech, WS-Management, WS-ResourceTransfer, WS-Transfer, XPath

4 Responses to CMIS, APP, Zen-SOAP and WS-KitchenSink: some data points

  1. Is the (somewhat dubious) REST mapping really longer? It seems to include the full Atom syndication schema as well as the schema for the CMIS-specific stuff. My guess is the SOAP mapping would have been the longer one had they chosen to put it first.

  2. William,

    Very cool observations. I’ve argued for some time that WS-* lost its way somewhere along the line, and that simplified messages could do much of the same work with fewer bytes and/or operations. CMIS is important for many reasons that have nothing to do with specific protocol standards efforts, but its good to see someone dig into the implications of a) having both SOAP and REST definitions, and b) the decisions by this team of engineers to forgo adornment for simplicity.

    Thanks for this.


  3. I’m glad that not being part of the content management space professionally didn’t deter you from posting your unique perspective on CMIS. Specifying two protocol bindings for a common domain model is expressly about increasing interop’s accessibility (e.g. SOAP for system-to-system interactions, REST/Atom for system-to-application interactions). The OASIS CMIS TC convenes next week, and there is much work to be done to get the proposed specification from its current 0.5 version into a ratified v1.0. Your attention and participation in this proposed standard is appreciated.

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