Is the Northwest weather softening Savas? Is it the food? I just read the “how do I model state? let me count the ways” article that he, Ian Foster, Paul Watson and Mark McKeown published in the September 2008 Communications of the ACM. In the article, the authors attempt to recap (and advance?) the 5 years-old debate between the WSRF, HTTP-only and “no convention” (e.g. Zen-SOAP as used in CMIS) approaches to interacting with stateful resources over the Web. If you were anywhere near OGF (then called GGF) around 2003, you know what I am talking about. And you remember how heated the arguments were. There was something about this subject (or maybe it was the people involved) that consistently generated great showmanship (and some bruised egos) in the debates.
With that in mind, reading this article felt like watching a Chinese opera adaptation of Apocalypse Now. Or listening to Heavy Metal with the base dialed down to zero.
This would have been a very useful article to have in 2003. At the time, it would have clearly framed the question, shown the overwhelming similarities and small differences between the approaches and allowed people to see that there wasn’t actually that much to debate at a fundamental level, but mainly practical considerations to juggle. It may have prevented the quasi-religious war that erupted.
It took a while, but that period of religious war is well over now and we are firmly in the “I’ve heard you, you’ve heard me, do what you want I’ll do what I want” stage. WSRF people are still doing WSRF (or equivalent like WSRT). REST people are HTTPing right and left. They don’t meet much but when they do they don’t bump shoulders anymore. And in a way this article is a good illustration of this much more dispassionate environment.
So why am I complaining? Because these fights were fun! At least from a spectator’s point of view, but I suspect that Savas and the gang had plenty of fun too (not sure about the other side who, at least at first, expected “why are you throwing away OGSI” kind of pushback rather than this more radical-sounding response).
I printed this ACM article a little bit on the off chance that it would provide some new way to look at the problem, one that hadn’t emerged in the past five years. But in retrospect I think my true motivation was that I expected it to capture, like in the days, some of the entertainment value of a radio talk show. Instead, the excitement level in this article is in the league of NPR’s StarDate astronomy report.
I feel cheated. I haven’t learned anything new and I haven’t been entertained either. This article feels like the end of the party, when the bottles are being put away, the lights are flickering and bad music is playing to nudge the last guests out of the house.
Now that I am grumpy, I guess I have to point out a few highly questionable statements in the article in retribution:
“Fortunately, there seems to be industry support for an integration of the WS-Transfer and WS-RF approaches, based on a WS-Transfer substrate – the WS-ResourceTransfer specification.” See the last two paragraphs of this entry.
“Support for WS-Addressing has since become quasi-universal, and now few find its use objectionable.” Time to pull out the Victor Hugo quote I have been saving for a special occasion: “Et s’il n’en reste qu’un, je serai celui-là“. But frankly I very much doubt that I am the only one still shaking his head sadly in contemplation of WS-Addressing.
In fact, Stu agrees with me on this (see item #6a in his list of disagreements with the article). Looks like he too was made a bit grumpy by the article, for different reasons.
There is one more debatable choice in this article, and it’s more serious than the two above. It introduces an arbitrary difference between the WS-Transfer and HTTP approaches. Compare the third lines of tables 4 and 5 (retrieving the status of a specific job). According to the article, WS-Transfer gives you the choice between two options:
- retrieve the entire state of the job and fish for the status field inside of it (the approach in table 4), or
- “a new operation (for example GetEPRtoPart) is defined that requests that a new state representation be exposed, through a different EPR, representing parts of the original state representation”
The way it works for HTTP, on the other hand is through an “application-specific convention” (in this example, appending “/status” at the end of the URL).
Except there is no reason why this third approach cannot be used in the WS-Transfer scenario. The article says that “in WS-Transfer, the same effect [accessing a subset of the resource state] can be achieved, but only by defining an auxiliary operation that returns an EPR to a desired subset”. What, pray tell, prevents a WS-Transfer implementation from having an “application-specific convention” just like the HTTP kids next door? It can be at the URL level (e.g. adding “/status”). Or at the EPR reference parameter level. The latter is actually exactly what WS-Management does, using the wsman:SelectorSet header. It does not, as the article claims, define a special operation to get these fine-grained EPR. It uses an application convention to do so (which, in the case of WS-Management, happens to be “whatever Windows implements”, but that’s a different debate).
By the way, this question of “convention over specification” is where I don’t quite follow Stu (see his point #4 in his aforementioned list of disagreements) and his invocation of the “hypermedia constraint”. I don’t see how any of the four specifications he calls to the rescue (HTML form submission, XForms submission options, Atompub service documents and URI templates) would prevent me from having to have an application-specific agreement about how to retrieve the state (as opposed to another subset of the representation, like the creation date). URI templates, for example, might support how this agreement is expressed but it doesn’t replace it.
The article does a pretty good job at showing how close the alternatives are (even though, as illustrated above, it still portrays them as more different than they need to be). I am not saying it’s a bad article for the Communications of the ACM. I am saying that the Communications of the ACM is a bad medium for one of the few nerdy debates that have genuine entertainment value.
[UPDATED 2008/10/2: Jim Webber, Savas Parastatidis and Ian Robinson provide a full REST example for InfoQ: how to GET a cup of coffee. Includes state considerations discussed in the ACM article.]