Category Archives: SOAP header

Yoga framework for REST-like partial resource access

A tweet by Stefan Tilkov brought Yoga to my attention, “a framework for supporting REST-like URI requests with field selectors”.

As the name suggests, “Yoga” lets you practice some contortions that would strain a run-of-the-mill REST programmer. Basically, you can use a request like

GET /teams/4234.json?selector=:(members:(id,name,birthday)

to retrieve the id, name and birthday of all members of a softball team, rather than having to retrieve the team roaster and then do a GET on each and every team member to retrieve their name and birthday (and lots of other information you don’t care about).

Where have I seen this before? That use case came up over and over again when we were using SOAP Web services for resource management. I have personally crafted support for it a few times. Using this blog to support my memory, here is the list of SOAP-related management efforts listed in the “post-mortem on the previous IT management revolution”:

WSMF, WS-Manageability, WSDM, OGSI, WSRF, WS-Management, WS-ResourceTransfer, WSRA, WS-ResourceCatalog, CMDBf

Each one of them supports this “partial access” use case: WS-Management has :

WSMF, WS-Manageability, WSDM, OGSI, WSRF, WS-Management, WS-ResourceTransfer, WSRA, WS-ResourceCatalog, CMDBf

Each one of them supports this “partial access” use case: WS-Management has SelectorSet, WSRF has ResourceProperties, CMDBf has ContentSelector, WSRA has Fragments, etc.

Years ago, I also created the XMLFrag SOAP header to attack a more general version of this problem. There may be something to salvage in all this for people willing to break REST orthodoxy (with the full knowledge of what they gain and what they loose).

I’m not being sarcastic when I ask “where have I seen this before”. The problem hasn’t gone away just because we failed to solve it in a pragmatic way with SOAP. If the industry is moving towards HTTP+JSON then we’ll need to solve it again on that ground and it’s no surprise if the solution looks similar.

I have a sense of what’s coming next. XPath-for-JSON-over-the-wire. See, getting individual properties is nice, but sometimes you want more. You want to select only the members of the team who are above 14 years old. Or you just want to count these members rather than retrieve specific information about them individually. Or you just want a list of all the cities they live in. Etc.

But even though we want this, I am not convinced (anymore) that we need it.

What I know we need is better support for graph queries. Kingsley Idehen once provided a good explanation of why that is and how SPARQL and XML query languages (or now JSON query languages) complement one another (wouldn’t that be a nice trifecta: RDF/OWL’s precise modeling, JSON’s friendly syntax and SPARQL’s graph support – but I digress).

Going back to partial resource access, the last feature is the biggie: a fine-grained mechanism to update resource properties. That one is extra-hard.


Filed under API, CMDBf, Everything, Graph query, IT Systems Mgmt, Manageability, Mgmt integration, Modeling, Protocols, Query, REST, SOAP, SOAP header, Specs, Standards, Web services, WS-Management, WS-ResourceCatalog, WS-ResourceTransfer, WS-Transfer, XMLFrag, XPath

Missing out on the OCCI fun

As a recovering “design by committee” offender I have to be careful when lurking near standards groups mailing list, for fear my instincts may take over and I might join the fray. But tonight a few tweets containing alluring words like “header” and “metadata” got the better of me and sent me plowing through a long and heated discussion thread in the OGF OCCI mailing list archive.

I found the discussion fascinating, both from a technical perspective and a theatrical perspective.

Technically, the discussion is about whether to use HTTP headers to carry “metadata” (by which I think they  mean everything that’s not part of the business payload, e.g. an OVF document or other domain-specific payload). I don’t have enough context on the specific proposal to care to express my opinion on its merits, but what I find very interesting is that this shines another light on the age-old issue of how to carry non-payload info when designing a protocol. Whatever you call these data fields, you have to specify (by decreasing order of architectural importance):

  • How you deal with unknown fields: mustUnderstand or mustIgnore semantics.
  • How you keep them apart (prevent two people defining fields by the same name, telling different versions apart).
  • How you parse their content (and are they all parsed in the same manner or is it specific to each field).
  • Where they go.

SOAP provides one set of answers.

  • You can tag each one with a mustUnderstand attribute to force any consumer who doesn’t understand them to fault.
  • They are namespace-qualified.
  • They are XML-formatted.
  • They go at the top of the XML doc, in a section called the SOAP header.

You may agree or not with the approach SOAP took, but it’s important to realize that at its core SOAP is just this: the answer (in the form of the SOAP processing model) to these simple questions (here is more about the SOAP processing model and the abuses it has suffered if you’re interested). WSDL is something else. The WS-* stack is also something else. It’s probably too late to rescue SOAP from these associations, but I wanted to point this out for the record.

Whatever you answer to the four “non-payload data fields” questions above, there are many practical concerns that you have to consider when validating your proposal. They may not all be relevant to your use case, but then explicitly decide that they are not. They are things like:

  • Performance
  • Ability to process in a stream-based system
  • Ease of development (tool support, runtime accessibility…)
  • Ease of debugging
  • Field length limitations
  • Security
  • Ability to structure the data in the fields
  • Ability to use different transports (way overplayed in SOAP, but not totally irrelevant either)
  • Ability to survive intermediaries / proxies

Now leaving the technology aside, this OCCI email thread is also interesting from a human and organizational perspective. Another take on the good old Commedia dell standarte. Again, I don’t have enough context in the history of this specific group to have an opinion about the dynamics. I’ll just say that things are a bit more “free-flowing” than when people like my friend Dave Snelling were in charge in OGF. In any case, it’s great that the debate is taking place in public. If it had been a closed discussion they probably would not have benefited from Tim Bray dropping in to share his experience. On the plus side, they would have avoided my pontifications…


Filed under Cloud Computing, Everything, People, Protocols, SOAP, SOAP header, Specs, Standards, Utility computing

REST in practice for IT and Cloud management (part 2: configuration management)

What benefits does REST provide for configuration management (in traditional data centers and in Clouds)?

Part 1 of the “REST in practice for IT and Cloud management” investigation looked at Cloud APIs from leading IaaS providers. It examined how RESTful they are and what concrete benefits derive from their RESTfulness. In part 2 we will now look at the configuration management domain. Even though it’s less trendy, it is just as useful, if not more, in understanding the practical value of REST for IT management. Plus, as long as Cloud deployments are mainly of the IaaS kind, you are still left with the problem of managing the configuration of everything that runs of top the virtual machines (OS, middleware, DB, applications…). Or, if you are a glass-half-full person, here is another way to look at it: the great thing about IaaS (and host virtualization in general) is that you can choose to keep your existing infrastructure, applications and management tools (including configuration management) largely unchanged.

At first blush, REST is ideally suited to configuration management.

The RESTful Cloud APIs have no problem retrieving resource descriptions, but they seem somewhat hesitant in the way they deal with resource-specific actions. Tim Bray described one of the challenges in his well-considered Slow REST post. And indeed, applying REST to these “do something that may take some time and not result exactly in what was requested” scenarios is a lot less straightforward than when you’re just doing document/data retrieval. In contrast you’d think that applying REST to the task of retrieving configuration data from a CMDB or other configuration store would be a no-brainer. Especially in the IT management world, where we already have explicit resource models and a rich set of relationships defined. Let’s give each resource a URI that responds to HTTP GET requests, let’s turn the associations into hyperlinks in the resource presentation, let’s mint a MIME type to represent this format and we are out of the office in time for a 4:00PM tennis game when all the courts are available (hopefully our tennis partners are as bright as us and can get out early too). This “work smarter not harder” approach would allow us to present this list of benefits in our weekly progress report:

-1- A URI-based scheme makes the protocol independent of the resource topology, unlike today’s data stores that usually struggle to represent relationships between stores.

-2- It is simpler to code against than CIM-over-HTTP or WS-Management. It is cross-platform, unlike WMI or JMX.

-3- It makes it trivial to browse the configuration data from a Web browser (the resources themselves could provide an HTML representation based on content-type negotiation, or a simple transformation could generate it for the Web browser).

-4- You get REST-induced caching and scalability.

In the shower after the tennis game, it becomes apparent that benefit #4 is largely irrelevant for IT management use cases. That the browser in #3 would not be all that useful beyond simple use cases. That #2 is good for karma but developers will demand a library that hides this benefit anyway. And that the boss is going to say that he doesn’t care about #1either because his product is “the single source of truth” so it needs to import from the other configuration store, not reference them.

Even if we ignore the boss (once again) it only  leaves #1 as a practical benefit. Surprise, that’s also the aspect that came out on top of the analysis in part 1 (see “the API doesn’t constrain the design of the URI space” highlight, reinforced by Mark’s excellent comment on the role of hypertext). Clearly, there is something useful for IT management in this “hypermedia” thing. This will largely be the topic of part 3.

There are also quite a few things that this RESTification of the configuration management store doesn’t solve:

-1- The ability to query: “show me all the WebLogic instances that run on a Windows host and don’t have patch xyz applied”. You don’t have much of a CMDB if you can’t answer this. For an analogy, remember (or imagine) a pre-1995 Web with no search engine, where you can only navigate by starting from your browser home page and clicking through static links step by step, or through bookmarks.

-2- The ability to retrieve the configuration change history and to compare configurations across resources (or to a reference configuration).

This is not to say that these two features cannot be built on top of a RESTful IT resource model. Just that they are the real meat of configuration management (rather than a simple resource-by-resource configuration browser) and that your brilliant re-architecture hasn’t really helped in addressing them. Does a RESTful foundation make these features harder to build? Not necessarily, but there are some tricky aspects to take care of:

-1- In hypermedia systems, the links are usually part of the resource representation, not resources of their own. In IT management, relationships/associations can have their own lifecycle and configuration properties.

-2- Be careful that you can really maintain the address of a resource. It’s one thing to make sure that a UUID gets maintained as a resource configuration changes, it’s another to ensure that a dereferenceable URI remains unchanged. For example, the admin server of a cluster may move over time from one node to another.

More fundamentally, the ability to deal with multiple resources at the same time and/or to use the model at different levels of granularity is often a challenge. Either you make your protocol more complex to account for this or your pollute your resource model (with a bunch of arbitrary “groups”, implicit or explicit).

We saw this in the Cloud APIs too. It typically goes something like this: you can address an individual server (called “foo”) by sending requests to Drop the “foo” part of the URL and now you can address all the servers, for example to retrieve their configuration or possibly to reboot them. This gives me a way of dealing with multiple resources at time, but only along the lines pre-defined by the API. What if I want to deal only with the servers that host nodes of a given cluster. Sorry, not possible. What if the servers have different hosts in their URIs (remember, “the API doesn’t constrain the design of the URI space”)? Oops.

WS-Management, in the SOAP world, takes this one step further with Selectors, through which you can embed some kind of query, the result of which is what you are addressing in your message. Or, if all you want to do is GET, you can model you entire datacenter as one giant virtual XML doc (a document which is never assembled in practice) and use WSRF/WSDM’s “QueryExpression” or WS-Management’s “FragmentTransfer” to the same effect. BTW, I have issues with the details of how these mechanisms work (and I have described an alternative under the motto “if you are going to suffer with WS-Addressing, at least get some value out of it”).

These are all non-RESTful atrocities to a RESTafarian, but in my mind the Cloud REST API reviewed in part 1 have open Pandora’s box by allowing less-qualified URIs to address all instances of a class. I expect you’ll soon see more precise query parameters in these URIs and they’ll look a lot like WS-Management Selectors (e.g. Want to take bets about when a Cloud API URI format with an embedded regex first arrives?

When you need this, my gut feeling is that you are better off not worrying too much about trying to look RESTful. There is no shame to using an RPC pattern in the right circumstances. Don’t be the stupid skier who ends up crashing in a tree because he is just too cool for the using snowplow position.

One of the most common reasons to deal with multiple resources together is to run queries such as the “show me all the WebLogic instances that run on a Windows host and don’t have patch xyz applied” example above. Such a query mechanism recently became a DMTF standard, it’s called CMDBf. It is SOAP-based and doesn’t attempt to have anything to do with REST. Not that it didn’t cross the mind of a bunch of people, lead by Michael Coté when CMDBf first emerged (read the comments too). But as James Governor rightly predicted in the first comment, Coté heard “dick” from us on this (I represented HP in CMDBf and ended up being an editor of the specification, focusing on the “query” part). I don’t remember reading the entry back then but I must have since I have been a long time Coté fan. I must have dismissed the idea so quickly that it didn’t even register with my memory. Well, it’s 2009 now, CMDBf v1 is a DMTF standard and guess what? I, and many other SOAP-the-world-till-it-shines alumni, are looking a lot more seriously into what’s in this REST thing (thus this series of posts for me). BTW in this piece Coté also correctly predicted that CMDBf would be “more about CMDB interoperation than federation” but that didn’t take as much foresight (it was pretty obvious to me from the start).

Frankly I am still not sure that there is much benefit from REST in what CMDBf does, which is mostly a query interface. Yes the CMDBf query and its response go over SOAP. Yes in this case SOAP is mostly a useless wrapper since none of the implementations will likely support any WS-* SOAP header (other than paying the WS-Addressing tax). Sure we could remove it and send plain XML over HTTP. Or replace the SOAP wrapper with an Atom wrapper. Would it be anymore RESTful? Not one bit.

And I don’t see how to make it more RESTful. There are plenty of things in the periphery the query operation that can be made RESTful, along the lines of what I described above. REST could make the discovery/reconciliation tasks of the CMDB more efficient. The CMDBf query result format could be improved so that from the returned elements I can navigate my way among resources by following hyperlinks. But the query operation itself looks fundamentally RPCish to me, just like my interaction with the Google search page is really an RPC call that happens to return a Web page full of hyperlinks. In a way, this query (whether Google or CMDBf) can at best be the transition point from RPC to REST. It can return results that open a world of RESTful requests to you, but the query invocation itself is not RESTful. And that’s OK.

In part 3 (now available), I will try to synthesize the lessons from the Cloud APIs (part 1) and configuration management (this post) and extract specific guidance to get the best of what REST has to offer in future IT management protocols. Just so you can plan ahead, in part 4 I will reform the US health care system and in part 5 I will provide a practical roadmap for global nuclear disarmament. Suggestions for part 6 are accepted.


Filed under API, Application Mgmt, Automation, Cloud Computing, CMDB, CMDB Federation, CMDBf, DMTF, Everything, IT Systems Mgmt, Mashup, Mgmt integration, Modeling, REST, SOAP, SOAP header, Specs, Standards, Utility computing

REST in practice for IT and Cloud management (part 1: Cloud APIs)

In this entry I compare four public Cloud APIs (AWS EC2, GoGrid, Rackspace and Sun Cloud) to see what practical benefits REST provides for resource management protocols.

As someone who was involved with the creation of the WS-* stack (especially the parts related to resource management) and who genuinely likes the SOAP processing model I have a tendency to be a little defensive about REST, which is often defined in opposition to WS-*. On the other hand, as someone who started writing web apps when the state of the art was a CGI Perl script, who loves on-the-wire protocols (e.g. this recent exploration of the Windows management stack from an on-the-wire perspective), who is happy to deal with raw XML (as long as I get to do it with a good library), who appreciates the semantic web, and who values models over protocols the REST principles are very natural to me.

I have read the introduction and the bible but beyond this I haven’t seen a lot of practical and profound information about using REST (by “profound” I mean something that is not obvious to anyone who has written web applications). I had high hopes when Pete Lacey promised to deliver this through a realistic example, but it seems to have stalled after two posts. Still, his conversation with Stefan Tilkov (video + transcript) remains the most informed comparison of WS-* and REST.

The domain I care the most about is IT resource management (which includes “Cloud” in my view). I am familiar with most of the remote API mechanisms in this area (SNMP to WBEM to WMI to JMX/RMI to OGSI, to WSDM/WS-Management to a flurry of proprietary interfaces). I can think of ways in which some REST principles would help in this area, but they are mainly along the lines of “any consistent set of principles would help” rather than anything specific to REST. For a while now I have been wondering if I am missing something important about REST and its applicability to IT management or if it’s mostly a matter of “just pick one protocol and focus on the model” (as well as simply avoiding the various drawbacks of the alternative methods, which is a valid reason but not an intrinsic benefit of REST).

I have been trying to learn from others, by looking at how they apply REST to IT/Cloud management scenarios. The Cloud area has been especially fecund in such specifications so I will focus on this for part 1. Here is what I think we can learn from this body of work.

Amazon EC2

When it came out a few years ago, the Amazon EC2 API, with its equivalent SOAP and plain-HTTP alternatives, did nothing to move me from the view that it’s just a matter of picking a protocol and being consistent. They give you the choice of plain HTTP versus SOAP, but it’s just a matter of tweaking how the messages are serialized (URL parameters versus a SOAP message in the input; whether or not there is a SOAP wrapper in the output). The operations are the same whether you use SOAP or not. The responses don’t even contain URLs. For example, “RunInstances” returns the IDs of the instances, not a URL for each of them. You then call “TerminateInstances” and pass these instance IDs as parameters rather than doing a “delete” on an instance URL. This API seems to have served Amazon (and their ecosystem) well. It’s easy to understand, easy to use and it provides a convenient way to handle many instances at once. Since no SOAP header is supported, the SOAP wrapper adds no value (I remember reading that the adoption rate for the EC2 SOAP API reflect this though I don’t have a link handy).

Overall, seeing the EC2 API did not weaken my suspicion that there was no fundamental difference between REST and SOAP in the IT/Cloud management field. But I was very aware that Amazon didn’t really “do” REST in the EC2 API, so the possibility remained that someone would, in a way that would open my eyes to the benefits of true REST for IT/Cloud management.

Fast forward to 2009 and many people have now created and published RESTful APIs for Cloud computing. APIs that are backed by real implementations and that explicitly claim RESTfulness (unlike Amazon). Plus, their authors have great credentials in datacenter automation and/or REST design. First came GoGrid, then the Sun Cloud API and recently Rackspace. So now we have concrete specifications to analyze to understand what REST means for resource management.

I am not going to do a detailed comparative review of these three APIs, though I may get to that in a future post. Overall, they are pretty similar in many dimensions. They let you do similar things (create server instances based on images, destroy them, assign IPs to them…). Some features differ: GoGrid supports more load balancing features, Rackspace gives you control of backup schedules, Sun gives you clusters (a way to achieve the kind of manage-as-group features inherent in the EC2 API), etc. Leaving aside the feature-per-feature comparison, here is what I learned about what REST means in practice for resource management from each of the three specifications.


Though it calls itself “REST-like”, the GoGrid API is actually more along the lines of EC2. The first version of their API claimed that “the API is a REST-like API meaning all API calls are submitted as HTTP GET or POST requests” which is the kind of “HTTP ergo REST” declaration that makes me cringe. It’s been somewhat rephrased in later versions (thank you) though they still use the undefined term “REST-like”. Maybe it refers to their use of “call patterns”. The main difference with EC2 is that they put the operation name in the URI path rather than the arguments. For example, EC2 uses…(auth-parameters)…

while GoGrid uses…(auth-parameters)…

So they have action-specific endpoints rather than a do-everything endpoint. It’s unclear to me that this change anything in practice. They don’t pass resource-specific URLs around (especially since, like EC2, they include the authentication parameters in the URL), they simply pass IDs, again like EC2 (but unlike EC2 they only let you delete one server at a time). So whatever “REST-like” means in their mind, it doesn’t seem to be “RESTful”. Again, the EC2 API gets the job done and I have no reason to think that GoGrid doesn’t also. My comments are not necessarily a criticism of the API. It’s just that it doesn’t move the needle for my appreciation of REST in the context of IT management. But then again, “instruct William Vambenepe” was probably not a goal in their functional spec


In this “interview” to announce the release of the Rackspace “Cloud Servers” API, lead architects Erik Carlin and Jason Seats make a big deal of their goal to apply REST principles: “We wanted to adhere as strictly as possible to RESTful practice. We iterated several times on the design to make it more and more RESTful. We actually did an update this week where we made some final changes because we just didn’t feel like it was RESTful enough”. So presumably this API should finally show me the benefits of true REST in the IT resource management domain. And to be sure it does a better job than EC2 and GoGrid at applying REST principles. The authentication uses HTTP headers, keeping URLs clean. They use the different HTTP verbs the way they are intended. Well mostly, as some of the logic escapes me: doing a GET on /servers/id (where id is the server ID) returns the details of the server configuration, doing a DELETE on it terminates the server, but doing a PUT on the same URL changes the admin username/password of the server. Weird. I understand that the output of a GET can’t always have the same content as the input of a PUT on the same resource, but here they are not even similar. For non-CRUD actions, the API introduces a special URL (/servers/id/action) to which you can POST. The type of the payload describes the action to execute (reboot, resize, rebuild…). This is very similar to Sun’s “controller URLs” (see below).

I came out thinking that this is a nice on-the-wire interface that should be easy to use. But it’s not clear to me what REST-specific benefit it exhibits. For example, how would this API be less useful if “delete” was another action POSTed to /servers/id/action rather than being a DELETE on /servers/id? The authors carefully define the HTTP behavior (content compression, caching…) but I fail to see how the volume of data involved in using this API necessitates this (we are talking about commands here, not passing disk images around). Maybe I am a lazy pig, but I would systematically bypass the cache because I suspect that the performance benefit would be nothing in comparison to the cost of having to handle in my code the possibility of caching taking place (“is it ok here that the content might be stale? what about here? and here?”).


Like Rackspace, the Sun Cloud API is explicitly RESTful. And, by virtue of Tim Bray being on board, we benefit from not just seeing the API but also reading in well-explained details the issues, alternatives and choices that went into it. It is pretty similar to the Rackspace API (e.g. the “controller URL” approach mentioned above) but I like it a bit better and not just because the underlying model is richer (and getting richer every day as I just realized by re-reading it tonight). It handles many-as-one management through clusters in a way that is consistent with the direct resource access paradigm. And what you PUT on a resource is closely related to what you GET from it.

I have commented before on the Sun Cloud API (though the increasing richness of their model is starting to make my comments less understandable, maybe I should look into changing the links to a point-in-time version of Kenai). It shows that at the end it’s the model, not the protocol that matters. And Tim is right to see REST in this case as more of a set of hygiene guidelines for on-the-wire protocols then as the enabler for some unneeded scalability (which takes me back to wondering why the Rackspace guys care so much about caching).

Anything learned?

So, what do these APIs teach us about the practical value of REST for IT/Cloud management?

I haven’t written code against all of them, but I get the feeling that the Sun and Rackspace APIs are those I would most enjoy using (Sun because it’s the most polished, Rackspace because it doesn’t force me to use JSON). The JSON part has two component. One is simply my lack of familiarity with using it compared to XML, but I assume I’ll quickly get over this when I start using it. The second is my concern that it will be cumbersome when the models handled get more complex, heterogeneous and versioned, chiefly from the lack of namespace support. But this is a topic for another day.

I can’t tell if it’s a coincidence that the most attractive APIs to me happen to be the most explicitly RESTful. On the one hand, I don’t think they would be any less useful if all the interactions where replaced by XML RPC calls. Where the payloads of the requests and responses correspond to the parameters the APIs define for the different operations. The Sun API could still return resource URLs to me (e.g. a VM URL as a result of creating a VM) and I would send reboot/destroy commands to this VM via XML RPC messages to this URL. How would it matter that everything goes over HTTP POST instead of skillfully choosing the right HTTP verb for each operation? BTW, whether the XML RPC is SOAP-wrapped or not is only a secondary concern.

On the other hand, maybe the process of following REST alone forces you to come up with a clear resource model that makes for a clean API, independently of many of the other REST principles. In this view, REST is to IT management protocol design what classical music training is to a rock musician.

So, at least for the short-term expected usage of these APIs (automating deployments, auto-scaling, cloudburst, load testing, etc) I don’t think there is anything inherently beneficial in REST for IT/Cloud management protocols. What matter is the amount of thought you put into it and that it has a clear on-the-wire definition.

What about longer term scenarios? Wouldn’t it be nice to just use a Web browser to navigate HTML pages representing the different Cloud resources? Could I use these resource representations to create mashups tying together current configuration, metrics history and events from wherever they reside? In other words, could I throw away my IT management console because all the pages it laboriously generates today would exist already in the ether, served by the controllers of the resources. Or rather as a mashup of what is served by these controllers. Such that my IT management console is really “in the cloud”, meaning not just running in somebody else’s datacenter but rather assembled on the fly from scattered pieces of information that live close to the resources managed. And wouldn’t this be especially convenient if/when I use a “federated” cloud, one that spans my own datacenter and/or multiple Cloud providers? The scalability of REST could then become more relevant, but more importantly its mashup-friendliness and location transparency would be essential.

This, to me, is the intriguing aspect of using REST for IT/Cloud management. This is where the Sun Cloud API would beat the EC2 API. Tim says that in the Sun Cloud “the router is just a big case statement over URI-matching regexps”. Tomorrow this router could turn into five different routers deployed in different locations and it wouldn’t change anything for the API user. Because they’d still just follow URLs. Unlike all the others APIs listed above, for which you know the instance ID but you need to somehow know which controller to talk to about this instance. Today it doesn’t matter because there is one controller per Cloud and you use one Cloud at a time. Tomorrow? As Tim says, “the API doesn’t constrain the design of the URI space at all” and this, to me, is the most compelling long-term reason to use REST. But it only applies if you use it properly, rather than just calling your whatever-over-HTTP interface RESTful. And it won’t differentiate you in the short term.

The second part in the “REST in practice for IT and Cloud management” series will be about the use of REST for configuration management and especially federation. Where you can expect to read more about the benefits of links (I mean “hypermedia”).

[UPDATE: Part 2 is now available. Also make sure to read the comments below.]


Filed under Amazon, API, Cloud Computing, Everything, IT Systems Mgmt, Manageability, Mgmt integration, REST, SOA, SOAP, SOAP header, Specs, Utility computing, Virtualization

Uploading a file to a Windows machine via WMI/WS-Management

[UPDATED 2009/6/30: Check the following post for a more practical solution.]

Here is a simple way to upload a text (i.e. not binary) file to a Windows machine. Because my interest is to be able to do it from any platform, I investigated the use of WS-Management. But the method relies on invoking WMI methods over WS-Management, so I don’t see why it would not also work in a straight WMI scenario if you prefer.

I am not a Windows management expert, so there may be a much better way to do this (e.g. BITS). But if what you’re after is the simplest possible way to drop a file on a Windows machine it from a non-Windows machine, it doesn’t get much simpler than sending an XML doc over HTTP and calling it a day. Here is how.

The easiest would be if the CIM_DataFile WMI class had a “create” method to create a new file. It doesn’t. But Win32_Process does. Invoking this method creates a new process and you get to specify the command line to execute. All you need to do is come up with a command line that invokes a program that will create the file that you want to upload.

There may be alternatives, but the command line I came up with for this purpose uses the “cmd.exe” interpreter (the Windows command-line shell). By using the “/c” option, you can invoke this interpreter with its instructions as parameters directly on the command line (it gets a bit confusing because we have two “command lines” here, the one that is used to launch the “cmd.exe” shell and the one that is presented inside the “cmd.exe” shell).

Anyway, if you type the following line inside the “start/run” field in Windows

cmd /c echo 1st line > test1.txt

It will have the same effect as opening a command shell, typing “echo 1st line > test1.txt” in it and the closing it. It creates a new file called “test1.txt” with one line of content (“1st line”). If you want a second line, you can do this by adding a second command that uses “>>” (append) instead of “>”. And the two commands can be joined by “&&” to invoke them in one pass. So to create a file with three lines, we’d execute:

cmd /c echo 1st line > test1.txt && echo 2nd line >> test1.txt
&& echo 3rd line >> test1.txt

Now all we have to do is package this in a WS-Management SOAP message and post it to the WS-Management listener of the Windows machine. In the process, we have to escape the “&” in the command line to “&” because of XML syntax rules. The resulting message looks like:

<w:ResourceURI s:mustUnderstand="true">
<a:Address s:mustUnderstand="true">
<a:Action s:mustUnderstand="true">
<p:CommandLine>cmd /c echo 1st line > test1.txt &amp;&amp; echo 2nd line >>
  test1.txt &amp;&amp; echo 3rd line >> test1.txt</p:CommandLine>

You don’t even need a WS-Management toolkit to do this as the only WS-Management header is w:ResourceURI which can easily be set manually. You don’t need a WS-Addressing library either as all the headers are also static (except for the MessageID even though nobody will care in practice if you always send the same value; I hereby authorize you to re-use the one in my example as much as you want). As a side note, this is yet another illustration of how useless this header (and more generally WS-Addressing) is in 95% of the case. And yet the Microsoft WS-Management implementation (like many others) will make a point to fault if you don’t send it. But ranting against WS-Addressing is a topic for another day (look for a future post titled “WS-IfInteroperabilityWasEasyItWouldNotBeFunWouldIt”).

I should mention that you want to set the Content-Type HTTP header to “application/soap+xml;charset=UTF-8” for this message. Or UTF-16 if that’s what you’re sending.

A few comments:

  • This obviously only works for character-based files, not binaries
  • I’ve noticed that the parsing of the wsa:Action header is pretty minimalistic. The Microsoft implementation seems to just pick up the text behind the last “/”. So you can type send “blahblah/Create” and it works just as well as the correct value, “” (it knows what class to apply the operation on from the Resource URI). Interestingly, there is only one URL ending in “/Create” that doesn’t work and it’s the WS-Transfer “Create” operation (“”). That’s because the “Create” operation invoked in the message above is not the WS-Transfer “Create” operation but rather the homonymous operation on the WMI class.
  • Using the “/k” modifier on “cmd” in the command line (instead of “/c”) would also work, but the command shell would stay alive after returning so over time you’d have quite a few of them hanging out and using up memory on the remote machine. Not a good move.
  • As part of this exercise, I noticed an error in the MSDN page describing the “invoke” method of Win32_Process. In the SOAP body, the URI for the “p” namespace prefix uses “…/cim/…” instead of “…/cimv2/…”, which caused my first attempts to fail.

If the file you want to upload is large, you can break the upload over several successive messages similar to the one above. As long as you use the same file name and use “>>” instead of “>” you’ll keep appending to the end of the file until it’s complete.

Of course this could be any type of text file, including XML (watch for the character-escaping rules though, both for XML and for “cmd” as you have to apply them in the right sequence). Even better, it could be a Python, Perl or PowerShell script too. And in that case (assuming the corresponding interpreter is installed on the machine) you can use the same mechanism to also invoke the script for execution. So that you use this WS-Management interface just to bootstrap into a more comfortable remote-control mechanism.

The next logical question (for extra credit) is whether WS-Management can be used to read files remotely instead of writing them. In theory yes, though in practice you’re much better off with alternate solutions, like the remote shell extension to WS-Management that I have described as “dumb SSH” previously.

But since you ask, here is the theory. My first attempt was to do a WS-Management “Get” (the Get operation from WS-Transfer) on an instance of CIM_DataFile (using the “Name” selector and setting it to “C:datawinrm-testtest1.txt”). But this returns the properties of the file rather than its content. Whether this is kosher is an interesting theoretical question to ponder from a REST-beard-stroking perspective, but it’s useless for my file retrieval purpose. As before, one solution is to use the magical Win32_Process “Create” method to overcome the shortcomings of the CIM_DataFile class. The windows command shell “type” command can be used to display the content of a text file. But the WMI Win32_Process “create” operation that we use here only returns the processId and a result code, not the stdout stream (unlike the remote shell protocol that I mentioned above). We cannot therefore use it directly to return the output of the “type” command over the wire.

The solution is to use one Win32_Process “create” operation over WS-Management to write the content of the file in a place where a subsequent WS-Management opeation can read it. I can think of two examples off the top of my head: directory names and environment variables.

Here is how you’d do it with directory names. The following command takes the test1.txt file, reads it and creates nested subdirectories, one for each line in the input file. The name of the directory is the content of the corresponding line in the file.

for /f "delims=" %I in (test1.txt) do @mkdir "%I" && cd "%I"

For example, if the file content is

1st line
2nd line
3rd line

The command will generate the following three subdirectories:

1st line
  |_ 2nd line
      |_ 3rd line

What’s the point? You can use WS-Management enumeration to retrieve the names of all directories (using the Win32_Directory WMI class). Now that may be a bit overwhelming, so you want to add a WS-Enumeration filter to your WS-Management request. The Microsoft WS-Management implementation supports the WQL filter syntax that lets you do just that.

BTW, you can presumably do the same thing with files, but directories by their nesting make it easy to read the lines in the order in which their appear in the file. Though you’d quickly run into path length limitations (and characters that are not valid in file/directory names).

A slightly more robust approach may be to set each line of the file in an environment variable (again via the “for”, and using “set” after the “do”). You can then read these environment variables over WS-Management by doing a WS-Transfer Get on the Win32_Environment WMI class. Unlike CIM_DataFile (for which Get only return properties, not the content), a Get on Win32_Environment includes the value of the environment variable as one of the properties. The pragmatic reasons for this dichotomy are obvious, but the architectural consequences will give a headache to anyone who still has any illusion that WS-Transfer has anything to do with REST.

As a side note, the “for” instruction can keep no more than 52 variables at a time, so if your file has more than 52 lines you’d have to send successive WS-Management requests and add a “skip” option to the “for” operation on subsequent requests (“skip=52”, “skip=104”, etc…). Again, practicality isn’t much of a concern here, we’re just playing with theory (Ed: “we”? how many people do you expect will still be reading at this point?).

That’s it for today’s episod of “Windows management for the on-the-wire-protocol guy”. Maybe next weekend I’ll take some time to look more into the remote shell over WS-Management protocol extention and how it can be misued/abused.

[UPDATE: The next post describes a more practical approach.]


Filed under DMTF, Everything, Implementation, IT Systems Mgmt, Manageability, Microsoft, SOAP header, Specs, Standards, WS-Management

Is notification wrapping getting a bum rap?

Looks like the question of whether to wrap SOAP-based notifications is back. Like Gil I prefer to stay away from wrapping notifications but my reasons are somewhat different.

I am not convinced by WSDL-centric arguments one way or the other. Proponents of wrapping say that it gives them a WSDL they can use for creating a generic listener, while opponents say that avoiding wrapping gives them a WSDL that generates useful code (payload-aware). I am not a big fan of WSDL-based code generation, but even if you are going to do it nobody says that you have to do it based on the WSDL document that ships with the specification. You’re free to modify the WSDL any way you want before feeding it to your code generation tool, as long as the result correctly describes the messages. One can write an infinity of WSDL documents for a given set of messages, some more precise and others more high-level (in which you quickly hit an xs:any). So, if the spec gives you a WSDL where the payload is xs:any and you know that in your case the payload is going to be sec:intrusionDetected, feel free to insert that element in the WSDL before running wsdl2java or whatever.

At the end, the question is not about what the WSDL in the specification looks like. The question is simply to what extent you know ahead of time the payload of the events you are going to have to handle. And you’d better know enough about the payload to create whatever logic your event consumer has to apply to the notification. Whether that’s through WSDL or some other mean. If you are not going to apply any payload-dependent logic (“generic sink”) then you don’t need to know anything about the payload. And I don’t see why someone needs a wrapper to create a generic sink.

Rather, what I don’t like about wrapping notifications is that you force them to be handled only as notifications, not as regular SOAP messages. You put them in a separate world and you make it hard for someone to create a service that can be invoked either in a subscription-driven way or in a direct way.

Here is a made-up example: consider a message to indicate that a physical intrusion has been detected in a building. There are many possible consumers for this message (local security staff, private security company, police, sound alarm, the cell phone of the owner, audit log, etc…). There are many possible sources for the message. In some cases, the message does not come from a subscription (e.g. a homeowner calls the security company and the operator enters data in a system that produces the message, or the sensor is hard-coded to sound the alarm). In others, there is a subscription (e.g. a home alarm system allows someone to register phone numbers and email addresses to which to send intrusion alerts). Sometimes something that starts as a subscription-based notification gets forwarded to someone who did not register for anything. It’s a good thing if web services that consume this message do not have to know (if they don’t care) whether this message originated because of a subscription or not. All they need to worry about is that there is a message that they have to respond to (e.g. by dispatching a patrol of clowns with orange lights on their car).

Here is a simpler analogy. Imagine that you have a filter in your email client to move all messages from Joe to a given folder. How much would you like to have to write the rule twice, one for messages that Joe sends to you directly and one for messages that Joe sends to a mailing list to which you are subscribed? Not very much I imagine.

At the same time, most notification systems are aware that they are processing notifications and there may be notification-related data that you’d like to have available in a consistent way (e.g. enough information to manage the subscription that resulted in you receiving this message). That’s fine but you don’t need an intrusive wrapper for this. Just use a SOAP header. It’s out of the way if you don’t care about it and it’s right there if you do (if you want to subject yourself to a two-year-old rant about how the SOAP processing model is unfortunately underutilized, be my guest).

One place where you need some kind of wrapping is when delivering several events at a time (either because you use pull-style retrieval or because you find it more efficient to push them in batches). If that’s what you’re after (and you want to handle it within one SOAP message rather than boxcarring a set of SOAP messages) then go ahead define a wrapper but make it a specialized wrapper that serves this purpose: collecting notifications and properly attaching whatever metadata to each. That’s a real purpose, not some WSDL make-believe.

Another use case is if you apply some transformation to the notification before sending it. Say that instead of returning a large notification you filter it by running an XPath on it and returning a serialization of the resulting node set (assuming you first solve the XPath serialization conundrum). You’d need some kind of wrapper to contain the result and put it in context, but again that should be a specialized wrapper for you filter mechanism. Not a generic wrapper.

It’s been a while since I really thought about this. My recollection may be flawed but I think I was already holding this position in the OASIS WS-Notification technical committee (which completed its work by publishing three standards in October 2006). I remember David Hull making a very eloquent case in the same direction (“wrapping” as policy-advertised option, not a part of the base framework), and strong pushback from IBM. I learned a lot about pub/sub systems from my WS-Notification committee co-chair, IBM’s Peter Niblett (a leading expert on the topic) while working on WS-Notification, but this is one area in which he did not convert me.

Comments Off on Is notification wrapping getting a bum rap?

Filed under Everything, Mashup, Mgmt integration, Middleware, SOAP, SOAP header, Specs, Standards, Tech

WS Resource Access working group starting at W3C

Things went quiet for a while, but the W3C Web Services Resource Access Working Group has finally taken life, as was announced last week. It’s a well-know PR trick to announce bad news on a Friday such that it goes undetected, is it a coincidence that W3C picked a Friday for this announcement?

As you can tell by this last remark, I have no trouble containing my enthusiasm about this new group. Which should not come as a surprise to regular readers of this blog (see this, this, this and this, chronologically).

The most obvious potential pushback against this effort is the questionable architectural need to redo over SOAP what can be done over simple HTTP. Along the lines of Erik Wilde’s “HTTP over SOAP over HTTP” post. But I don’t expect too much noise about this aspect, because even on the blogosphere people eventually get tired of repeating the same arguments. If some really wanted to put up a fight against this, it would have been done when the group was first announced, not now. That resource modeling party is over.

While I understand the “WS-Transfer is just HTTP over SOAP over HTTP” argument, this is not my problem with this group. For one thing, this group is not really about WS-Transfer, it’s about WS-ResourceTransfer (WS-RT) which adds fine-grained resource access on top of WS-Transfer. Which is not something that HTTP gives you out of the box. You may argue that this is not needed (just model your addressable resources in a fine-grained way and use “hypermedia” to navigate between them) but I don’t really buy this. At least not in the context of IT management models, which is where the whole thing started. You may be able to architect an IT management system in such RESTful way, but even if you can it’s too far away from current IT modeling practices to be practical in many scenarios (unfortunately, as it would be a great complement to an RDF-based IT model). On the other hand, I am not convinced that this fine-grained access needs to go beyond “read” (i.e. no need for “fine-grained write”).

The next concern along that “HTTP over SOAP over HTTP” line of thought might then be why build this on top of SOAP rather than on top of HTTP. I don’t really buy this one either. SOAP, through the SOAP processing model (mainly the use of headers, something that WS-RT unfortunately butchers) is better suited than HTTP for such extensions. And enough of them have already been defined that you may want to piggyback on. The main problem with SOAP is the WS-Addressing tumor that grew on it (first I thoughts it was just a wart, but then it metastatized). WS-RT is affected by it, but it’s not intrinsic to WS-RT.

Finally, it would be a little hard for me to reject SOAP-based resources access altogether, having been associated with many such systems: WSMF, WSDM/WSRF, WS-Management and even WS-RT in its pre-submission days (and my pre-Oracle days). Not that I have signed away my rights to change my mind.

So my problem with WS-RAWG is not a fundamental architectural problem. It’s not even a problem with the defects in the current version of WS-RT. They are fixable and the alternative specifications aren’t beauty queens either.

Rather, my concerns are focused on the impact on the interoperability landscape.

When WS-RT started (when I was involved in it), it was as part of a convergence effort between HP, IBM, Intel and Microsoft. With the plan to use this to unify the competing WS-Management and WSDM/WSRF stacks. Sure it was also an opportunity to improve things a bit, but 90% of the value came from the convergence/unification aspect, not technical improvements.

With three of the four companies having given up on this, it isn’t much of a convergence anymore. Rather then paring-down the number of conflicting options that developers have to chose from (a choice that usually results in “I won’t pick either sine there is no consensus, I’ll just do it my own way”), this effort is going to increase it. One more candidate. WS-Management is not going to go away, and it’s pretty likely that in W3C WS-RT will move further away from it.

Not to mention the fact that CMDBf (and its SOAP-based graph-oriented query protocol) has since emerged and is progressing towards standardization. At this point, my (notoriously buggy) crystal ball shows a mix of WS-management and CMDBf taking the prize overall. With WS-Management used to access individual resources and CMDBf used to access any kind of overall system view. Which, as a side note, means that DMTF has really taken this game over (at least in the IT management domain) from W3C and OASIS. Not that W3C really wanted to be part of the game in the first place…


Filed under CMDBf, DMTF, Everything, HP, IBM, IT Systems Mgmt, Manageability, Mgmt integration, Microsoft, Query, REST, SOAP, SOAP header, Specs, Standards, W3C, WS-Management, WS-ResourceTransfer, WS-Transfer

State modeling: party over, go home now.

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.]


Filed under Articles, Everything, Grid, People, REST, SOAP, SOAP header, Specs, Standards, Tech, WS-Management, WS-ResourceTransfer, WS-Transfer

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

WS Resource Access at W3C: the good, the bad and the ugly

As far as I know, the W3C is still reviewing the proposal that was made to them to create a new working group to standardize WS-Transfer, WS-ResourceTransfer, WS-Enumeration and WS-MetadataExchange. The suggested name, “Web Services Resource Access Working Group” or WS-RAWG is likely, if it sticks, to end up being shortened to WS-RAW. Which is a bit more cruel than needed. I’d say it’s simply half-baked.

There are many aspects to the specifications and features covered by the proposal. Some goodness, some badness and some ugliness. This post analyzes the good, points at the bad and hints at the ugly. Like your average family-oriented summer movie.

The good

The specifications proposed for W3C standardization describe a way to provide some generally useful features for SOAP messages. Some SOAP messages can get very long. In some cases, I know ahead of time what portion of the long messages promised by the contract (e.g. WSDL) I want. Wouldn’t it be nice, as an optimization, to let the message sender know about this so they can, if they are able to, filter down the message to just the part I want? Alternatively, maybe I do want the full response but I can’t consume it as one big message so I would like to get it in chunks.

You’ll notice that the paragraph above says nothing about “resources”. We are just talking about messaging features for SOAP messages. There are precedents for this. WS-Security can be used to encrypt a message. Any message. WS-ReliableMessaging can be used to ensure delivery of a message. Any message. These “quality of service” specifications are mostly orthogonal to the message content.

WS-RT and WS-Enumeration provide a solution to the “message filtering” and “message chunking”, respectively. But they only address them in the context of a GET-like operation. They can’t be layered on top of any SOAP message. How useful would WS-Security and WS-ReliableMessaging be if they had such a restriction?

If W3C takes on part of the work listed in the proposal, I hope they’ll do so in a way that expends the utility of these features to all SOAP messages.

And just like WS-Security and WS-ReliableMessaging, these features should be provided in a way that leverages the SOAP processing model. Such that I can judiciously use the soap:mustUnderstand header to not break existing services. If I’d like the message to be paired down but I can handle the complete message if need be, I’ll set this attribute to false. If I can’t handle the full message, I’ll set the attribute to true and I’ll get an error if the other party doesn’t understand this extension. At which point I can pick an alternative way to get the task accomplished. Sounds pretty basic but it’s amazing how often this important feature of SOAP (which heralds from and extends XML’s must-ignore semantics) is neglected and obstructed by designers of SOAP messages.

And then there is WS-MetadataExchange. While I am not a huge fan of this specification, I agree with the need for a simple, reliable way to retrieve different types of metadata for an endpoint.

So that’s the (potential) good. A flexible and generally useful way to pair-down long SOAP messages, to chunk them and to retrieve metadata for SOAP endpoints.

The bad

The bad is the whole “resource access” spin. It is not actually intrinsically bad. There are scenarios where such a pattern actually fits. But the way that pattern is being addressed by WS-RT and friends is overly generalized and overly XML-centric. By the latter I mean that it takes XML from an agreed-upon on-the-wire interchange format to an implicit metamodel (e.g. it assumes not just that you agree to exchange XML-formated data but that your model and your business logic are organized and implemented around an XML representation of the domain, which is a much more constraining requirement). I could go on and on about this, especially the use of XPath in the PUT operation. In fact I did go on and on with it, but I spun that off as a separate entry.

In the context of the W3C proposal at hand, this is bad because it burdens the generally useful features (see the “good” section above) with an unneeded and limiting formalism. Not to mention the fact that W3C kind of already has its resource access mechanism, but I’ll leave that aspect of the question to Mark and various bloggers (see a short list of relevant posts at the end of this entry).

The resource access part might be worth doing (one more time), but probably not in the same group as things like metadata discovery, message filtering and message chunking, which are not specific to “resource access” situations. And if someone is going to do this again, rather than repeating the not too useful approaches of the past, it may be good to consider alternatives.

The ugly

That’s the politics around this whole deal. There is, as you would expect, a lot more to it than meets the eye. The underlying drivers for all this have little to do with REST/WS or other architecture considerations. They have a lot to do with control. But that’s a topic for another post (maybe) when more of it can be publicly discussed.

A lot of what I describe in this post was already explained in the WS-ManagementHammer post from a couple of months ago. But that was before the W3C proposal and before WS-MetadataExchange was dragged into the deal. So I thought it might be useful to put the analysis in the context of that proposal. And BTW, this is a personal opinion, not an Oracle position (which is true in general for everything on this blog but is worth repeating specifically for this post).


Filed under Everything, Grid, IT Systems Mgmt, Manageability, Mgmt integration, Modeling, SOAP, SOAP header, Specs, Standards, Tech, W3C, WS-Management, WS-ResourceTransfer, WS-Transfer, XMLFrag, XPath

RESTful JMX access from someone who knows both sides

Anyone interested in application manageability and/or management integration should read about Jean-Francois Denise’s prototype for RESTful Access to JMX Instrumentation. Not (at least for now) as something to make use of, but to force us to think pragmatically about the pros and cons of the WS-* stack when used for management integration.

The interesting question is: which of these two interfaces (the WS-Management-based interface being standardized or the HTTP-centric interface that Jean-Francois prototyped) makes it easier to write a cross-platform management application such as the poker-cheating demo at JavaOne 2008?

Some may say that he cheated in that demo by using the Microsoft-provided WinRM implementation of WS-Management on the VBScript side. Without it, it would have clearly been a lot harder to implement the WS-Management based protocol in VBScript than the REST approach. True, but that’s the exact point of standards, that they allow such libraries to be made available to assist implementers. The question is whether such a library is available for your platform/language, how good and interoperable that library is (it could actually hinder rather than help) and what is the cost to the project of depending on it. Which is why the question is hard to answer in absolute. I suspect that, even with WinRM, the simple use case demonstrated at JavaOne would have been easier to implement using straight HTTP but that things change quickly when you run into more demanding use cases (e.g. event notification with filters, sequencing of large responses into an enumeration…). Which is why I still think that the sweetspot would be a simplified WS-Management specification (freed of the WS-Addressing crud for example) that makes it easy (almost as easy as the HTTP-based interface) to implement simple use cases (like a GET) by hand but is still SOAP-based, which lets it seamlessly enter library-driven territory when more advanced features are added (e.g. WS-Security, WS-Enumeration…). Rather than the current situation in which there is a protocol-level disconnect between the HTTP interface (easy to implement by hand) and the WS-Management interface (for which manually implementation is a cruel – and hopefully unusual – punishment).

So, Jean-Francois, where is this JMX-REST work going now?

While you’re on Jean-Francois’ blog, another must-read is his account of the use of Wiseman and Metro in the WS Connector for JMX Agent RI.

As a side note (that runs all the way to the end of this post), Jean-Francois’ blog is a perfect illustration of the kind of blogs I like to subscribe to. He doesn’t feel the need to post all the time. But when he does (only four entries so far this year, three of them “must read”), he provides a lot of insight on a topic he really understands. That’s the magic of RSS/Atom. There is zero cost to me in keeping his feed in my reader (it doesn’t even appear until he posts something). The opposite of what used to be conventional knowledge (that you need to post often to “keep your readers engaged” as the HP guidelines for bloggers used to say). Leaving the technology aside (there is nothing to RSS/Atom technologically other than the fact that they happen to be agreed upon formats), my biggest hope for these specifications is that they promote that more thoughtful (and occasional) style of web publishing. In my grumpy days (are there others?), a “I can’t believe United lost my luggage again” or “look at the nice flowers in my backyard” post is an almost-automatic cause for unsubscribing (the “no country for old IT guys” series gets a free pass though).

And Jean-Francois even manages to repress his Frenchness enough to not take snipes at people just for the fun of it. Another thing I need to learn from him. For example, look at this paragraph from the post that describes his use of Wiseman and Metro:

“The JAX-WS Endpoint we developed is a Provider<SOAPMessage>. Simply annotating with @WebService was not possible. WS-Addressing makes intensive use of SOAP headers to convey part of the protocol information. To access to such headers, we need full access to the SOAP Message. After some redesigning of the existing code we extracted a WSManAgent Class that is accessible from a JAX-WS Endpoint or a Servlet.”

In one paragraph he describes how to do something that IBM has been claiming for years can’t be done (implement WS-Management on top of JAX-WS). And he doesn’t even rub it in. Is he a saint? Good think I am here to do the dirty work for him.

BTW, did anyone notice the irony that this diatribe (which, by now, is taking as much space as the original topic of the post) is an example of the kind of text that I am glad Jean-Francois doesn’t post? You can take the man out of standards, but you can’t take the double standard out of the man.

[UPDATED 2008/6/3: Jean-Francois now has a second post to continue his exploration of marrying the Zen philosophy with the JMX technology.]


Filed under Application Mgmt, CMDB Federation, Everything, Implementation, IT Systems Mgmt, JMX, Manageability, Mgmt integration, Open source, SOAP, SOAP header, Specs, Standards, WS-Management

WS-ManagementHammer: don’t do it but if you are going to do it anyway then…

With the IBM/Microsoft/Intel/HP WSDM/WS-Management convergence now implicitly (if not yet officially) dead, it will be interesting to see what IBM is going to do with WSRF. WSRF is being used today, rarely explicitly but rather in an embedded fashion. People who use WSDM use it, people who use CDDLM use it, people who use the Globus Toolkit use it, etc. IBM could write off the convergence work (WS-ResourceTransfer, which was published as a draft, and WS-ResourceEnumeration and WS-EventNotification which were never published) and stick to using the existing WSRF specifications when they need the corresponding functionality. That’s what I hope they do.

Alternatively, they could decide to get the forceps out of the drawer. They can create a new, IBM-friendly (e.g. Fujitsu, CA, Cisco…) private consortium to take over the unfinished drafts (if the IBM/Microsoft/Intel/HP legal agreement allows this) or start new ones. Or they could go directly to W3C, OASIS or OGF and push for a new working group to do the work in the open (and since no-one else would really care about this work IBM should have relatively free hands there, the way Microsoft did in DMTF when IBM chose to boycott WS-Management). Why W3C would care and why OASIS or OGF would want to start commitees to obsolete their existing work is a separate question.

While I hope that IBM doesn’t try to push another pile of WS-* resouce management specifications on an industry that already has too many, if they do I hope that at least they’ll do it right. And that means doing away with the approach embedded in WS-ResourceTransfer. Having personally been involved in many iterations on this problem, I hope to have some insight to contribute.

Along the lines of the age-old parental advice “don’t do it but if you are going to do it then use a condom”, here is my advice to anyone thinking of doing another iteration on the WSRF question: don’t do it but if you are going to do it then be specific about what problem you are addressing.

First, let’s separate three scenarios.

Database query

WS-ResourceTransfer should not be seen as a way to query an XML database. Use XQuery for this.


While architecturally it should be possible to build RESTful applications on top of WS-Transfer‘s operations, this is simply not what is happening. WS-Transfer is being used either by CIM people (who get to it via WS-Management) or by big-SOA people (who get is as part of the whole WS-* stack) and neither of them is doing anything remotely RESTful. So just leave that aside and don’t see WS-ResourceTransfer as a way to do “fine-grained REST”. No REST user is loosing sleep over WS-ResourceTransfer being in limbo.

A flexible way to interact with a complex system

This is the use case that you should focus on. You have a system made up of many parts (e.g. a composite application or a server that is made of many components) that you can represent as an XML document. The XML repesentation contains some important information about the system, but it isn’t the system. There are identified resources within the system that have lifecycles, management capabilities and internal parameters. Not everything relevant is captured in the XML model. This is why it is different from an XML database.

In general, I don’t think that XML is the best way to represent complex IT systems. It has plenty of complications that are not relevant to IT management and it doesn’t elegantly support the representation of graphs, often the most natural way to represent such a system (more on this here). CMDBf, with its graph-oriented approach, is a better choice in general. But there are plenty of areas (especially smaller, well-defined, sub-systems) in which XML formats have been defined to represent systems. SCA and SML for example.

In the case where you are dealing with such an XML-described system, then there is value in standard ways to simplify interactions with the system and its parts. But here too, we need to distinguished different patterns rather than trying to handle them all in the same way.

Filtering/sequencing of returned data

Complex IT systems can generate a lot of configuration and/or monitoring data and often you only care for a small subset. For example, an asset record has dozens of elements (lease terms, owner, assigned user…) but you may only care to retrieve the date the lease expires. When you do a GET on the record, you want to qualify it by specifying that only that date needs to be returned. That’s what WS-RP, WS-RT and the WS-Management wsman:TransferFragment header allow. In a variation of this, you want all the data but you don’t want it in one go, you want to pull it piece by piece. That’s what WS-Enumeration gives you. The problem with all these specifications is that they only offer that feature when you are retrieving the resource representation (a WS-Transfer GET or equivalent), not for other operations. But how is this different from invoking an AirlineBooking operation and saying that you only want to be sent the confirmation code, not the full itinerary, equipment type, assigned seat, etc? Bundling this inside WS-RT (or equivalent) is not helpful. A generic SOAP header that can go on any message would be more appropriate (the definition of this header would need to pay special attention to security considerations, especially if the response is signed, because it could be abused to trick the server into sending, and signing, specifically-crafted messages).

Interacting with a sub-element of the system

If you have a handle to a computer system resource and you know that it has one CPU and that this CPU is represented by the /comp:CPU element of the system, why would you need to use some out-of-band discovery mechanism to interact with that CPU? It’s right there, you can see it, you can point to it. Surely there must be a way to address operations to it directly, right? WS-Management tries to do it with its wsman:Selector mechanism, but the selectors are not tied to the model and require, effectively, a separate out-of-band agreement for addressing. There shouldn’t be a need for such an additional agreement once an agreement has already been reached on the model.

What is needed is a way, for systems that have a known XML model, to address message to subpart by using the model itself to support that addressing. Call it SOAPy mashup if you want to feel like you are part of the cool kids. I described such a mechanism a while ago. In effect, it is an improvement on wsman:Selector that an eventual new iteration of WSRF should at least consider.

In some cases, namely when the operation is a WS-Transfer GET, this capability overlaps with the “filtering of returned data” capability. One way to look at it is that you are doing a GET at the level of the overall computer system and filtering the results down to the part that represents the CPU. Another way to look at it is that you are pinpointing the message to a subset of the model (the CPU part) and doing an unmodified GET on it. It doesn’t matter how you choose to think about it. In my proposal, these two ways produce the same message. Like the wave view and particle view of a photon, that in the end, describe the same physical entity with each being the best representation for a set of situations.

The problem with WS-RT and its predecessors is that it doesn’t recognise that this is just the intersection of two orthogonal concerns (filering of output versus addressing of sub-elements) and only handles that intersection.

Interacting with a set of resources as a set

The same kind of expression (typically XPath) that lets you point at a sub-element inside of a system also lets you point at a set of such sub-elements. But even though from an XPath perspective there isn’t much of a different (the first one just happens to return a nodeset that contains only one node), from an architectural perspective it is a very different use case. If you want to support such a use case then you have handle it as such and define all the associated semantics (sequential/parallel execution, fault handling, partial completion, resource-specific permissions…). You can’t just cross your fingers and assume that you get such features “for free” just because XPath can return a nodeset.

I know that this post illustrates a way of giving free advice that virtually ensures that it gets ignored. Similar (if you’ll allow the big stretch) to the way Chirac and Villepin were arguing againt an Iraq invasion in ways that probably reinforced the Bush administration’s determination to do it. When will the world finally learn to appreciate the oh-so-slightly obnoxious undertone that is inherently French (because, let me tell you, we’re not about to loose it)? At least, when my grandchildren ask me “where were you when IBM invented WS-ManagementHammer?” I can point to this post and say “I tried to stop it, I tried”.

[UPDATED 2008/5/15: How timely! Just after publishing this I find, via Coté, what looks like another example of French abrasiveness in the systems management world: the attitude, name and the way Jeff ends with a French-language quote make it quite likely that the “Jacques” person discounting the fact that his company’s SNMP agent is broken is indeed a compatriot. French obnoxiousness aside, and despite my respect for standards, my advice to Jeff is that if a given SNMP agent works with HP, IBM, BMC and CA you will probably save yourself time in the long run by finding a way to support it (even if it is not spec-compliant) rather than getting the vendor to change. There are lots of sites out there that work fine with Firefox and IE but are not compliant with Web standards. Good luck getting them all fixed.]

[UPDATED 2008/7/14: I don’t really plan to turn this post into a ongoing set of updates about “French attitude” but since today is Bastille Day I’ll point to this map of the world as seen from Paris. If I wasn’t on strike right now, I’d explain why the commenter is wrong to assert that “French self-deprecating humour” is rare.]


Filed under Everything, HP, IBM, IT Systems Mgmt, Mgmt integration, Microsoft, SCA, SML, SOAP, SOAP header, Specs, Standards, WS-Management, WS-ResourceTransfer, WS-Transfer, XMLFrag, XPath

How not to re-use XML technologies

I like XML. Call me crazy but I find it relatively easy to work with. Whether it is hand-editing an XML document in a text editor, manipulating it programmatically (as long as you pick a reasonable API, e.g. XOM in Java), transforming it (e.g. XSLT) or querying an XML back-end through XPath/XQuery. Sure it carries useless features that betray its roots in the publishing world (processing instructions anyone?), sure the whole attribute/element overlap doesn’t have much value for systems modeling, but overall it hits a good compromise between human readability and machine processing and it has a pretty solid extensibility story with namespaces.

In addition, the XML toolbox of specifications is very large and offers standard-based answers to many XML-related tasks. That’s good, but when composing a solution it also means that one needs to keep two things in mind:

  • not all these XML specifications are technically sound (even if they carry a W3C stamp of approval), and
  • just because XML’s inherent flexibility lets one stretch a round hole, it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to jam a square peg into it.

The domain of IT management provides examples for both of these risks. These examples constitute some of the technical deficiencies of management-related XML specifications that I mentioned in the previous post. More specifically, let’s look at three instances of XML mis-use that relate to management-related specifications. We will see:

  • a terrible XML specification that infects any solution it touches (WS-Addressing, used in WS-Management),
  • a mediocre XML specification that has plenty of warts but can be useful for a class of problems, except in this case it isn’t (XSD, used in SML), and
  • a very good XML specification except it is used in the wrong place (XPath, used in CMDBf).

Let’s go through them one by one.

WS-Addressing in WS-Management

The main defect of WS-Management (and of WSDM before it) is probably its use of WS-Addressing. SOAP needs WS-Addressing like a migraine patient needs a bullet in the head (actually, four bullets in the head since we got to deal with four successive versions). SOAP didn’t need a new addressing model, it already had URIs. It just needed a message correlation mechanism. But what we got is many useless headers (like wsa:Action) and the awful EPR construct which solves a problem that didn’t exist and creates many very real new ones. One can imagine nifty hacks that would be enabled by a templating mechanism for SOAP (I indulged myself and sketched one to facilicate mash-up style integrations with SOAP) but if that’s what we’re after then there is no reason to limit it to headers.


The words “Microsoft” and “bully” often appear in the same sentence, but invariably “Microsoft” is the subject not the object of the bullying. Well, to some extent we have a reverse example here, as unlikely as it may seem. Microsoft created an XML-based meta-model called SDM that included capabilities that looked like parts of XSD. When they opened it up to the industry and floated the idea of standardizing it, they heard back pretty loudly that it would have to re-use XSD rather than “re-invent” it. So they did and that ended up as SML. Except it was the wrong choice and in retrospect I think it would have been better to improve on the original SDM to create a management-specific meta-model than swallow XSD (SML does profile out a few of the more obscure features of XSD, like xs:redefine, but that’s marginal). Syntactic validation of documents is very different from validation of IT models. Of course this may all be irrelevant anyway if SML doesn’t get adopted, which at this point still looks like the most likely outcome (due to things like the failure of CML to produce any model element so far, the ever-changing technical strategy for DSI and of course the XSD-induced complexity of SML).

XPath in CMDBf

I have already covered this in my review of CMDBf 1.0. The main problem is that while XML is a fine interchange format for the CMDBf specification, one should not assume that it is the native format of the data stores that get connected. Using XPath as a selector language makes life difficult for those who don’t use XML as their backend format. Especially when it is not just XPath 1.0 but also the much more complex XPath 2.0. To make matters worse, there is no interoperable serialization format for XPath 1.0 nodesets, which will prevent any kind of interoperability on this. That omission can be easily fixed (and I am sure it will be fixed in DMTF) but that won’t address the primary concern. In the context of CMDBf, XPath/XQuery is an excellent implementation choice for some situations, but not something that should be pushed at the level of the protocol. For example, because XPath is based on the XML model, it has clear notions of order of elements. But what if I have an OO or an RDF-based backend? What am I to make of a selector that says that the “foo” element has to come after the “bar” element? There is no notion of order in Java attributes and/or RDF properties.


My name (in the context of my previous job at HP) appears in all three management specifications listed above (in increasing level of involvement as contributor for WS-Management, co-author for SML and co-editor for CMDBf) so I am not a neutral observer on these questions. My goal here is not to de-associate myself from these specifications or pick and choose the sections I want to be associated with (we can have this discussion over drinks if anyone is interested). Some of these concerns I had at the time the specifications were being written and I was overruled by the majority. Other weren’t as clear to me then as they are now (my view of WS-Addressing has moved over time from “mostly harmless” to “toxic”). I am sure all other authors have a list of things they wished had come out differently. And while this article lists deficiencies of these specifications, I am not throwing the baby with the bathwater. I wrote recently about WS-Management’s potential for providing consistency for resource manageability. I have good hopes for CMDBf, now in the DTMF, not necessarily as a federation technology but as a useful basis for increased interoperability between configuration repositories. SML has the most dubious fate at this time because, unlike the other two, it hasn’t (yet?) transcended its original supporter to become something that many companies clearly see fitting in their plans.

[UPDATED 2008/3/27: For an extreme example of purposely abusing XML technologies (namely XPath in that case) in a scenario in which it is not the right tool for the job (graph queries), check out this XPath brain teasers article.]


Filed under CMDB Federation, CMDBf, Everything, IT Systems Mgmt, Microsoft, SML, SOAP, SOAP header, Specs, Standards, Tech, WS-Management, XOM

Gutting the SOAP processing model

One thing I have constantly witnessed in the SOAP design work I have been involved in is the fear of headers. There are several aspects to this, and it’s very hard to sort out the causes and the consequences as they are now linked in a vicious cycle.

For one thing, headers in SOAP messages don’t map well to RPC and we all know SOAP’s history there. Even now, as people have learned that they’re supposed to say they are not doing RPC (“look, my WSDL says doc/literal therefore I am not doing RPC”), the code is still RPC-ish with the grand-children of the body being serialized into Java (or another language) objects and passed as arguments to an operation inside a machine-generated stub. No room for pesky headers.

In addition (and maybe because of this view), tools often bend over backward to prevent you from processing headers along with the rest of the message, requiring instead some handlers to be separately written and registered/configured in whatever way (usually poorly documented as people aren’t expected to do this) the SOAP stack requires.

And the circle goes on, with poor tooling support for headers being used to justify staying away from them in SOAP-based interfaces.

I wrote above that “headers in SOAP messages don’t map well to RPC” but the more accurate sentence is “headers that are not handled by the infrastructure don’t map well to RPC”. If the headers are generic enough to be processed by the SOAP stack before getting to the programmer, then the RPC paradigm can still apply. Halleluiah. Which is why there is no shortage of specs that define headers. But those are the specs written by the “big boys” of Web services, the same who build SOAP stacks. They trust themselves to create code in their stacks to handle WS-Addressing, WS-Security and WS-ReliableMessaging headers for the developers. Those headers are ok. But the little guys shouldn’t be trusted with headers. They’d poke their eyes out. Or, as Elliotte Rusty Harold recently wrote (on a related topic, namely WS-* versus REST), “developers have to be told what to do and kept from getting their grubby little hands all over the network protocols because they can’t be trusted to make the right choices”. The difference is that Elliotte is blasting any use of WS-* while I am advocating a use of SOAP that gives developers full access to the network protocol. Which goes in the same direction but without closing the door on using WS-* specs when they actually help.

I don’t mean to keep banging on my IBM friends, but I’ve spent a lot of time developing specs with well respected IBM engineers who will say openly that headers should not contain “application information”, by which they mean that headers should be processed by the SOAP stack and not require the programmer to deal with them.

That sounds very kind, and certainly making life easy for programmers is good, but what it does is rob them of the single most useful feature in SOAP. Let’s take a step back and look at what SOAP is. If we charitably leave aside the parts that are lipstick on the SOAP-RPC pig (e.g. SOAP data model, SOAP encoding and other RPC features), we are left with:

  • the SOAP processing model
  • the SOAP extensibility model
  • SOAP faults

Of these three, the first two are all about headers. Loose the ability to define headers in your interface, you loose 2/3 of the benefits of SOAP (and maybe even more, I would argue that SOAP faults aren’t nearly as useful as the other two items in the list).

The SOAP processing model describes how headers can be processed by intermediaries and, most important of all, it clearly spells out how the mustUnderstand attribute works. So that everyone who processes a SOAP message knows (or should know) that a header with no such attribute (or where the attribute has a value of “false”) can be ignored if not recognized, while the message must not be processed if a non-understood header has this attribute set to “true”. It doesn’t sound like much, but it is huge in terms of reliably supporting features and extending an existing set of SOAP messages.

When they are deprived of this mechanism (or rather, scared away from using it), people who create SOAP interfaces end up re-specifying this very common behavior over and over by attaching it to parts of the body. But then it has to be understood and implemented correctly every time rather than leveraging a built-in feature of SOAP that any SOAP engine must (if compliance with the SOAP spec has any meaning) implement.

Case in point, the wsman:OptimizeEnumeration element in WS-Management. The normal pattern for an enumeration (see WS-Enumeration) is to first send an Enumerate request to retrieve an enumeration context and then a series of Pull requests to get the data. In this approach, the minimum number of interactions to retrieve even a small enumeration set is 2 (one Enumerate and one Pull). The OptimizeEnumeration element was designed to allow one to request that the Enumerate call be also the first Pull so that we can save one interaction. Not a big deal if you are going to send 500 Pull messages to retrieve the data, but if the enumeration set is small enough to retrieve all the data in one or two Pull messages then you can optimize traffic by up to 50%.

WS-Management decided to do that with an extension element in the body rather than a SOAP header. The problem then is what happens when a WS-Enumeration implementation that doesn’t use the WS-Management additions gets that element. There is no general rule in SOAP about how to handle this. In this case, the WS-Enumeration specs says to ignore the extensions, but it only says so in the “notation conventions” section, and as a SHOULD, not a MUST.

Not surprisingly, some implementers made the wrong assumption on what the presence of wsman:OptimizeEnumeration means and as a result their code faults on receiving a message with this option, rather than ignoring it. Something that would likely not have happened had the SOAP processing model been used rather than re-specifying this behavior.

Using a header not only makes it clear when an extension can be ignored, it also provides, at no additional cost, the ability to specify when it should not be ignored. Rather than baking this into the spec as WS-Management tries to do (not very successfully), using headers allows a sender to decide based on his/her specific needs and capabilities whether support for this extension is a must or not in this specific instance. Usually, flexibility and interoperability tug in opposing directions, but using headers rather than body elements for protocol extensions improves both!

Two more comments about the use of headers in WS-Management:

  • It shows that it’s not all IBM’s fault, because IBM had no involvement in the development of the WS-Management standard,
  • WS-Management is far from being the worst offender at under-using SOAP headers, since it makes good use of them in other places (which probably wouldn’t have been the case had the first bullet not been true). But not consistently enough.

Now let’s look at WS-ResourceTransfer for another example. This too illustrates that those who ignore the SOAP processing model just end up re-inventing it in the body, but it also gives a beautiful illustration of the kind of compromises that come from design by committee (and I was part of this compromise so I am as guilty as the other authors).

WS-ResourceTransfer creates a set of extensions on top of the WS-Transfer specification. The main one is the ability to retrieve only a portion of the document as opposed to the whole document. Defining this extension as a SOAP header (as WS-Management does it) leverages the SOAP processing model. Doing so means you don’t have to write any text in your spec about whether this header can be ignored or not, and the behavior can be specified clearly and interoperably by the sender, through the use of the mustUnderstand attribute. In some case (say if the underlying XML document is in fact an entire database with gigabytes of data) I definitely want the receiver to fault if it doesn’t understand that I only want a portion of the document, so I will set mustUnderstand to true. In other cases (if the subset is not much smaller than the entire document and I am willing to wad through the entire document to extract the relevant data if I have to) then I’ll set mustUnderstand to “false” so that if the receiver can’t honor the extension then I get the whole document instead of a fault.

But with WS-ResourceTransfer, we had to deal with the “headers should not contain application information” view of the world in which it is heresy to use headers for these extensions (why the portion of the document to retrieve is considered “application information” while addressing information is not is beyond my reach and frankly not a debate worth having because this whole dichotomy only makes sense in an RPC view of the world).

So, between the “this information must be in the body” camp and the “let’s leverage the SOAP processing model” camp (my view, as should be obvious by now), the only possible compromise was to do both, with a mustUnderstand header that just says “look in the body to find the extensions that you must follow”. So much for elegance and simplicity. And since that header applies to all the extensions, you have to make all of them mustUnderstand or none of them. For example, you can’t have a wsrt:Create message in which the wsmex:Metadata extension must be understood but the wsrt:Fragment extension can be ignored.

WS-Management and WS-ResourceTransfer share the characteristic of being designed as extensions to existing specifications. But even when creating a SOAP-based interaction from scratch, one benefits from using the SOAP processing model rather than re-inventing ways to express whether support for an option is required or not. I have seen several other examples (in interfaces that aren’t public like the two examples above) that also re-invent this very common behavior for no good reason. Simply because developers are scared of headers.

These examples illustrate a simple point. Most of the value in SOAP resides in how headers are used in the SOAP processing model and the SOAP extensibility model. Steering developers away from defining headers is robbing them of that value. Rather than thinking in terms of header and body, I prefer to think of them as header and tail.


Filed under Everything, SOAP, SOAP header, Specs, Standards, Tech

XMLFrag SOAP header

This HTML document titled “XMLFrag header” describes a proposal I wrote for a header that would allow one to target a SOAP message to a subset of the resource to which the message is sent. This is useful in cases where messages are used to interact with systems that have a well-known model, as is often the case in the IT systems management world. If you’ve ever used or been intrigued by WS-Management’s “FragmentTransfer” header, or WS-ResourceProperties’s “QueryResourceProperties” message or WS-RessourceTransfer’s “Expression” element then you may be interested by a different approach that is operation-independent. Please read the example at the beginning of the proposal for an explanation of what XMLFrag does.

I think it’s nifty, but I am not sure how much need for this there is. Are the composition/mash-up scenarios that this allows important enough to replace well established alternatives, such as WS-Management’s “FragmentTransfer” header? I am not sure. Which is why I am putting this out, to see if there’s any interest.

One possible approach would be to generalize WS-Management’s current mechanism to support the features presented here. This could be done very easily and in a backward-compatible way by declaring that the response wrapper (wsman:XmlFragment) is not applied for all dialect but defined in a per-dialect fashion. The currently defined dialects would keep using the wsman:XmlFragment wrapper, but a new dialect could be defined that didn’t use a wrapper and would behave like the XMLFrag element defined in my proposal.

A few additional notes and comments:

This proposal has been called “WS-SubversiveAddressing” by some of my IBM friends who have very definite ideas about what belongs in SOAP headers, what belongs in the body and what headers are appropriate to use as reference properties in an EPR. And this proposal seems to break all these rules. But since the rules seem more inspired by lack of flexibility in the WebSphere message routing/processing capabilities than by true architectural constraints I am not too worried. I would even say that this proposal represents the only kind of header that really make sense to use as reference properties. Headers that sometimes are set by the sender explicitly and sometimes are hard-coded in the EPR used. Using reference properties for headers that only come from reference properties (and aren’t expected to ever be set explicitly by the sender) is a sign of lack of ability of the stack to route messages based on URL. A too-frequent limitation of Java SOAP stacks. But I am digressing…

I didn’t think there was anything worthy of a patent in this, but in these sad times you can’t be sure that someone is not going to try to get one for it, so just to be sure HP published this a year ago in Research Disclosure so that no-one can patent it. If you want to check, it starts on page 627 of the May 2006 Research Disclosure (not available on-line unless you have an account w/ them, but you can order it). So in reality, this document has already been public for a year, but in a pretty hidden form. This post just gives it a little bit more visibility.

This is not a spec. It is just a description of what a spec could do. It doesn’t have normative language, it doesn’t provide formal syntax (pseudo-schema, XSD and/or other) and it doesn’t address some of the details that would be needed for interoperability (e.g. what namespaces declarations are in context for the XPath evaluation).

Why use a car fleet as an example for illustration? For the same reason that the SML spec uses a university (class/student) example. To pick a domain that is different from the expected domain of application of the technology to not invite modeling discussions that are irrelevant to the proposal and to not biaise people’s view of what this could be used for.

Is there a relationship between this and federation efforts? Sort of. This could be very useful when exposed by a a federator, if the model is very hierachical. But it doesn’t work so well for graph-type models. Which is what CMDBF does and which is why CMDBF is coming up with a more graph-oriented approach. But that too is a different topic.


Filed under Everything, SOAP, SOAP header, Specs, Tech, XMLFrag