Category Archives: Tech

Google App Engine is teasing me

Version 1.1.9 of the Google App Engine (GAE) SDK was released earlier this week. The first item in the announcement covers the big news, that developers can “use the Python standard libraries urllib, urllib2 or httplib to make HTTP requests”. My first thought reading this was that I was finally going to be able to use timeouts on outgoing HTTP requests. I care about this because my earlier attempt to emulate a long-running process in GAE was stymied by the GAE quota system, something I think I can work around if I can timeout a request once it has spawned its successor (more precisely, once it has spawned the successor of the incoming request that created the new outgoing request).

I got the new SDK last evening and moved the code from using urlfetch to using urllib2 (with timeout). On my local machine it seems to work, but the quota system (that I am trying to finesse) doesn’t run in the SDK. So the only real test happens once you deploy the app in the Google environment. Which is when I realized that GAE uses Python 2.5.2 and that the timeout parameter in urllib2 (and httplib) came with 2.6. Slap.

I was especially disappointed because the links for urllib2 and httplib in the GAE 1.1.9 SDK announcement take us to the Python 2.6.1 documentation. The timeout parameter is right there at the top of these pages, staring at me. It would be more accurate for this announcement to point to the 2.5.2 documentation (here it is for urllib2 and httplib).

It doesn’t really matter of course because this is just a toy project. And a real scheduler seems to be in the works (see this pre-announcement and this work in progress). I just do this as a fun way to get a glimpse of what it takes to turn existing infrastructure into a *aaS product, something that is going on in different ways in many places these days. Linux wasn’t created to run on something else than hardware. Xen wasn’t created to support EC2. Python wasn’t created to support GAE.

And GAE wasn’t created to support long-running processes. But I haven’t given up.

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Filed under Cloud Computing, Everything, Google App Engine, Implementation, Tech, Utility computing

UCI: setting RDF for failure?

I don’t get it. I just read Reuven Cohen’s description of the Unified Cloud Interface project that he recently started. It’s nothing less than using RDF to create “a Semantic Cloud Infrastructure capable of adapting to a variety of methodologies / architectures and completely agnostic to any specific API or platform being described.”

What made me fall off my chair is the methodology/architecture part of this statement. It’s hard enough (but doable) to use RDF to map philosophically similar APIs. It’s a non-starter to use it to bridge architectural and methodological differences. I have spent a fair amount of time looking at Semantic Web technologies in the context of modeling IT systems (see the “semantic tech” category of this blog). While I think they would be a great foundation I don’t see them ever coming anywhere near what Reuven describes.

But to be fair, I am not sure what he really is describing. There are a few overly ambitious proclamations like the one above and this paragraph:

The key drivers of a unified cloud interface (UCI) is “One abstraction to Rule them All” – an API for other API’s. A singular abstraction that can encompass the entire infrastructure stack as well as emerging cloud centric technologies through a unified interface. What a semantic model enables for UCI is a capability to bridge both cloud based API’s such as Amazon Web Services with existing protocols and standards, regardless of the level of adoption of the underlying API’s or technology. The goal is simple, develop your application once, deploy anywhere at anytime for any reason.

But in his piece you’ll also find CIM being cited as an example. There are good things to be said about CIM, but it certainly is not “a dynamic computing model that can, under certain conditions, be ‘trained’ to appropriately ‘learn’ the meaning of related cloud & infrastructure resources” (or, in the case of CIM, computer system resources). Good luck “training” CIM to “learn” anything. It’s CIM that’s going to train you to do it its way, period.

The CIM example (and other standards he lists) paints the picture of defining a standard API for Cloud Computing and forcing all providers to use it. That’s the conventional approach to universality. If that’s what UCI is after then it is technically achievable. And RDF might be a very good technical foundation for it. Whether anyone can pull this off politically and commercially at this stage is a different question of course. In any case, such an effort would have nothing to do with magically wrapping whatever API each provider has defined and whatever architecture/methodology they chose.

And further down we see a sketch of another, much more modest, vision, when Reuven talks about how “these web resources could just as easily be ‘cloud resources’ or API’s” which seems to represent a whole API as an RDF resource. Sure, then you can use RDF/OWL to capture versioning information between them, backward compatibility etc. Probably very useful, but that’s a very different scope.

So which is it? Reuven is a thought leader in Cloud Computing, so I want to think I am missing his point.

So far, I haven’t seen any Cloud taxonomy that is reasonably complete and has received broad support. Shouldn’t we first try to come up with a human-readable taxonomy before we try to turn it into a machine-readable ontology? In my previous post I explicitly stayed away from being pedantic about the difference between the terms, but the confusion between a taxonomy and an ontology seems to be part of what’s going on here.

The sad thing is that they (you know, them) will point to this as a proof that Semantic Web technologies don’t work.

Or maybe I’ve just set myself up for a generous portion of humble pie on April 2nd (when Reuven says an “initial functional draft UCI implementation, taxonomy and ontology” will be unveiled). I’d love to be surprised. And my ego has taken worse hits before.

[UPDATED 2009/2/10: You should read Steve Oberlin's take on this overall taxonomy/ontology discussion. He knows the topic, carefully reads the posts that he comments on, packs a healthy dose of skepticism and takes the time to explain what taxonomies and ontologies are, which was overdue. Plus, I just love sites that don't feel the need to use decorative pictures. His doesn't have a single image file which means that even if he didn't have superb credentials (which he does) he'd get my respect by default. A blog to watch.]

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Filed under Automation, Cloud Computing, Everything, Modeling, Portability, RDF, Semantic tech, Standards, Tech, Utility computing

A new SPIN on enriching a model with domain knowledge (constraints and inferences)

Back when I was at HP and we got involved with what turned into SML (now a W3C candidate recommendation), we tried to make a case for the specification to be based on RDF/OWL rather than XML/XSD/Schematron. It was a strange situation from a technical perspective because RDF is a better foundation for an IT model than XML, but on the other hand XSD/Schematron is a better choice for validation than OWL. OWL is focused on inference, not validation (because of both fundamental design choices, e.g. the open world assumption, and language expressiveness limitations).

So our options were to either use the right way to represent the system (RDF) combined with the wrong way to capture constraints (OWL) or to use the wrong way to represent the system (XML) combined with the right way to constrain it (mostly Schematron, with some limited help from XSD). At the end, of course, this subtle technical debate was crushed under the steamroller of vendor politics and RDF never got a fair chance anyway.

The point of this little background story is to describe the context in which I read this announcement from Holger Knublauch of TopQuadrant: the new version of their TopBraid Composer tool introduces SPIN, a way to complement OWL with a SPARQL-based constraint checking and inference mechanism.

This relates to SML in two ways.

First, there are similarities in the approach: Schematron leverages the XPath language, used to query XML, to create validation rules. SML then marries Schematron with XSD, for a more powerful validation mechanism. Compare this to SPIN: SPIN leverages the SPARQL query language, used to query RDF, to create validation/inference rules. SPIN also marries this with OWL, for a more powerful validation/inference mechanism.

But beyond the mirroring structures of SPIN and SML, the most interesting thing is that it looks like SPIN could nicely solve the conundrum, described above, of RDF being the right foundation for modeling IT systems but OWL being the wrong constraint mechanism. SPIN may do a better job than SML at what SML is aiming to do (validation rules). And at the same time, you get “for free” (or as close to “for free” as you can get with software, which is still far from “free”) a pretty powerful inference mechanism. The most powerful I know of, short of using a general programming language to capture your inference rules (and good luck with maintaining these rules).

This may sound like sci-fi, but it’s the next logical step for IT configuration standardization. Let’s look at where we are today:

  • SML (at W3C) is an attempt to standardize the expression of constraints.
  • CMDBf (at DMTF) is standardizing how the model content is queried (and, to some limited extent at this point, federated).
  • And recently IBM authored a proposal for a reconciliation specification for items in the model and sent it to an Eclipse group (COSMOS).

But once you tackle reconciliation, you are already half-way into inferencing territory. At least if you want to reconcile between models, not just between instances expressed in the same model. Because the models may not be defined at the same level of granularity, and before you can reconcile items you need to infer finer-grained entities in your coarser-grained model (or vice-versa) so that you can reconcile apples with apples.

Today, inferencing for IT models is done as part of the “discovery packs” that you can buy along with your IT management model repository. But not very well, in general. Because the way you write such a discovery module for the HP Universal CMDB is very different from how you write it for the BMC CMDB, IBM’s CCMDB or as a plug-in for Oracle Enterprise Manager or Microsoft System Center. Not to mention the smaller, more specialized, players. As a result, there is little incentive for 3rd party domain experts to put work into capturing inference rules since the work cannot be widely leveraged.

I am going a bit off-topic here, but one interesting thing about standardization of inferencing for IT management, if it happens, is that it is going to be very hard to not use RDF, OWL and some flavor of SPARQL (SPIN or equivalent) there. And once you do that, the XML-based constraint mechanisms (SML or others) are going to be in for a rough ride. After resisting the RDF stack for constraints, queries and basic reconciliation (because the added value was supposedly not “worth the cost” for each of these separately), the XML dam might get a crack for inferencing. And once RDF starts to trickle through that crack, the whole dam is going to come down in a big wave. Just to be clear, this is a prophetic long-term vision, not a prediction for 2009 (unfortunately).

In the meantime, I’d like to take this SPIN feature a… spin (sorry) when I find some time. We’ll see if I can install the new beta of TopBraid composer despite having used up, a year ago, my evaluation license of the earlier version of the product. Despite what I had hopped at some point, this is not directly applicable to my current work, so I am not sure I want to buy a license. But who knows, SPIN may turn out to be the change that eventually puts RDF back on my “day job” list (one can dream)…

It’s also nice that Holger took the pain to deliver SPIN not just as a feature of his product but also as a stand-alone specification, which should make it pretty easy for anyone who has a SPARQL engine handy to support it. Hopefully the next step will be for him to clarify the IP terms for the specification and to decide whether or not he wants to eventually submit it for standardization. Maybe to the W3C SML working group? :-) I’d have a hard time resisting joining if he did.

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Filed under CMDB, CMDBf, Everything, IT Systems Mgmt, Modeling, RDF, Semantic tech, SML, SPARQL, Specs, Tech, W3C

Announcing Xen Transcendent Memory project

If you have more than one child, you’ve probably heard yourself say things like “if you are not using your train, you should let your brother play with it” more often than you’d like. The same happens in a datacenter (minus the screams and tears, at least usually). In that context, the rivaling siblings take the form of guest virtual machines and the toys in contention are the physical resources of the host system: CPU, I/O, memory. While virtualization platforms do a pretty good job at efficiently sharing the first two, the situation is not nearly as good for memory. It is often, as a result, the limiting factor for virtualization-driven consolidation. A new project aims to fix this.

The Oracle engineers working on the Xen-based Oracle Virtual Machine have just announced a new open source (GPL-licensed) project to improve the sharing of physical memory between guest virtual machines on the same physical system. It’s called Transcendent Memory, or tmem for short.

Much more information, including a comparison with VMWare’s memory balloon, is available from the project home page.

Another reason to come to the upcoming Xen Summit (February 24 and 25), hosted by Oracle here at headquarters.

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Filed under Everything, Linux, Open source, Oracle, OVM, Tech, Virtualization, Xen

Now I know why GAE has been killing me

I haven’t written about Google App Engine lately because I haven’t spent too much time using it. And the time I did spend was mostly consumed fighting JavaScript for some client-side aspects that have nothing to do with the fact that the server side is on GAE. I have only touched JavaScript occasionally in the 12 years since writing this game, and I am pretty rusted. Funny how Python came back to me almost instantly but JavaScript just doesn’t.

I am writing a quick post on GAE today because the Google team just published a blog entry that explains why my attempts to create a long-running process in GAE resulted in my application being disabled for having too many “high CPU requests”, a concept that was never documented in the quota system.

Google is now offering a “quota detailed dashboard” and, as this screen capture shows, it tells us that you only get 60 “high CPU requests” and that they replenish at a rate of 2 per minutes. So at least now I know.

What is still not clear is why a request that is doing nothing but waiting for a URLfetch to come back is considered by Google to use too much CPU…

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Filed under Everything, Google App Engine, Implementation, Tech, Utility computing

First in-depth look at Microsoft’s Oslo and the “M” modeling language

Microsoft’s PDC is taking place this week and more details were shared with the attendees about project Oslo, an effort announced last year to drastically improve the use of models across the application lifecycle. Some code is available (I think the Quadrant code is only for PDC attendees but the Oslo SDK is available to everyone). I am not at PDC, I didn’t see any presentation and I didn’t download any code. But Microsoft has also posted technical details on MSDN and, as far as I am concerned, that’s the most time-effective way to spend a couple of hours learning about Oslo. BTW, the way they share these early design descriptions and accept to make their evolution public is admirable.

For those who only want to spend 10 minutes rather than 2 hours, here are the thoughts that came to my mind as I was reading.

Overall I am somewhat underwhelmed, but not necessarily in a bad way. I know that’s a little schizophrenic so let me explain. After hearing a lot about how Oslo was the next big thing in modeling, it is a little surprising to read a document that can be summarized as “modeling is good, so go create some SQL tables and store them in a RDBMS”. That’s the underwhelming part. But on the other hand, it is more down to earth and practically-minded than I feared. And this is just a summary, in truth there is more than just “use SQL”.

Half of the MSDN documentation basically explains how to use SQL Server to store application models (as of today, the “Developing Models for the Metadata Store” section has only one sub-section, “SQL Server Guidelines for Modeling in the Oslo Repository“). Does this mean that all .NET applications will eventually have to carry with them a deployment of SQL Server 2008 even if they don’t use it to store the their operational data? Sure there are a few extra repository services (e.g. finer-grained change auditing) but most Oslo repository services are generic SQL Server features. That section has quite a lot of T-SQL, but it’s pretty readable. It also has a lot of dependencies on following naming conventions which makes me think that directly creating T-SQL code is not the best approach.

Fortunately there is an alternative, the “M” language. It’s a schema language with a built-in constraint mechanism. I found it more data-oriented (as opposed to resource-oriented) than I expected. Even though “each model is really a set of data structures, relationships, and constraints in serialized form“, there is a lot more support for data structures and constraints than for relationships. It’s just a foreign key. Relationships aren’t items and don’t have any property (or “field” as they’re called in “M”). For example, the relationship between a student’s enrollment record and a given class can’t have, as property, the grade that the student got for that class (as in the example in section 4.1.4 of the second LC of SML). To model this in “M” you need to create another item (e.g. “courseEnrollment”) and have a relationship from the student to that item and another one from that item to the “course” item itself. Or to replace the foreign key in the student table with a complex structure that contains both the foreign key and the properties of the relationship. At the end it has the same expressiveness potential, but in a less streamlined form. I assume Microsoft took this approach for performance reasons.

I am going on a limb here, but it may also be a difference between development-time concerns and operation-time concerns. During development (all the way to testing and packaging), you can still mostly get away with a relatively simple containment structure. You care about the components of your application and how they are packaged inside or next to one another. Sure you care about who calls who outside of the deployment unit but that’s not as core a concern as getting your class dependencies right, your tests in order and your installer configured. In fact, some of the “who calls who” bindings will be only be realized at runtime. Oslo, at least so far, clearly seems more focused on development time than operations so support for a relationship-rich model may not seem critical. At operations time, on the other hand, you don’t really care so much about how things were packaged before installation. You care a lot more about who invokes who (especially for modern distributed applications), what the network layout is, what resources a ticket is attached to, etc. The model looks a lot more like a graph with complex relationships. Something that “M” doesn’t seem ideally suited for.

Except for this caveat, I like “M”. It’s not anti-XML (you can represent values as XML if you’d like) but it avoids the “the answer is XML/XSD what is the question” approach to modeling that is sometimes a little too prevalent. “M” is a much better schema language for IT systems than XSD. I especially like its approach to types. A value is not intrinsically of a given type. A type is a condition that you happen to meet or not at the current time (“take heart little field, you can be anything you want when you grow up”). As such, you can be of several types at the same time. Refined types are potatoes inside potatoes (not sure if “M” supports definition of types as unions and/or intersection of existing types, for intersection I want to write something like”type NewType : OldType1 where this in OldType2” but there is no “this” in “M”). That approach to types (and the way constraints leverage types) is reminiscent of RDF/OWL. It’s a classification more than a typification, but I understand why they didn’t want to call it “class”. The similarities with RDF/OWL don’t go any further. As I wrote earlier, “M”is very data-focused and not resource-focused: as far as I can tell “M” types are defined syntactically, not semantically (the semantics come as a consequence). For example, I don’t think that you can assert that a given item representing a person is of type “friendly” if there is no corresponding data in the item. You’d have to first create a boolean field called “friendly” and define that those that have that field set to “true” are of type “friendly”. Unlike in RDF/OWL where you can just assert that a subject is “friendly”.

Here is another reason why you can’t have “semantics-only” types: “if you do not specify the type of a field or value, M infers a type for it“. Two things don’t sound quite right to me here. First a detail: the sentence (like others in the doc) talks about “the” type of a field of value, while there can be more than one. More importantly, what’s the point of this feature? How does it help me to have my IRC nickname classified as a post code or as a password just because it happens to be made of a compatible combination of letters and numbers? Maybe it makes sense as a storage optimization, but why does it make sense to expose this to the user?

I also like the way “extents” work. The current description of that feature is pretty limited, but based on how it is used in other parts I think one of its usages is to support a non-OO equivalent to inheritance: create two extents, one for the “superclass” and one for the “subclass” where each only contains the properties/fields defined at that level. You should get both of them in order to have the full picture (all the fields). This is, if I understand it correctly, similar to something I have been (unsuccessfully so far because “XML doesn’t do it this way”) trying to sell to the DMTF CMDBf working group: model inheritance through a set of non-overlapping records rather than dealing with a type hierarchy on record types. It’s not just that it makes relational storage easier (even though it does and that’s probably why “M” does it this way), it also makes your query/select operations a lot easier to specify and implement.

All in all (and without having gone through the exercise of defining actual models in “M”), it seems like a fine schema language (except that its dependency on the CLR base types is unpractical for users outside of the Microsoft universe) but I am not sure if it is beefy enough to be a good IT management metamodel. When the document says that “the Oslo repository provides open and flexible access to the data it contains, which enables direct access to SQL Server views of the underlying data. There are no complex data access layers or APIs” it sounds better than saying “it’s just SQL, so map your model to it and if you want relationships or type inheritance just build it on top of it and quit whining”. But it is an admission of limitation at the same time as a claim of simplicity. I also smell an assumption that LINQ will provide enough hand-holding that non-SQL-savvy developers will be ok. We’ll see.

And then there is MGrammar. Things get a little confusing at that point if you try to relate MGrammar to “M”. Actually, the FAQ states that “the M language consists of three parts: MGraph, MSchema and MGrammar“. This came a bit as a surprise to me since at that point I had finished reading (not in details but not too quickly either) the “M” documentation and I hadn’t seen these names mentioned once. Looks like there is some documentation consistency issues here, but that’s hardly surprising considering this is a “hyper-early (pre-alpha)” release as Doug Purdy puts it.

I think that everything that I have referred to as “M” above is MSchema.

MGrammar is something different altogether: it’s the source of the Domain Specific Language (DSL) references we’ve been hearing in relationship with Oslo. Technically, MGrammar is a BNF on steroids plus an automatically generated parser for your syntax. Cute. I assume that “M” (i.e. MSchema) is built as MGrammar-defined DSL but I am not sure why I would care. I am all for reuse and if someone at Microsoft thought that there was something reusable in the way they defined MSchema then it’s a good thing to expose this tool. But where does it come into play in application modeling? The last thing I want is people inventing completely independent languages to describe different domains. I am all for specialization, but a common underlying metamodel is pretty nice when you have to make sense of a whole system. I don’t see any such commonality in MGrammar: as far as I can tell it can be used to define anything from PostScript to sonnets.

From the FAQ, the connection point between MGrammar and MSchema is MGraph (MGrammar languages are parsed into an MGraph, MSchema “builds on MGraph”). That’s nice, but since neither the MSchema nor the MGrammar documentation mention MGraph I don’t really know what to make of this. David Chappell’s white paper also mentions MSchema and MGrammar but not MGraph. The introduction to the MGrammar Language Specification states that “the data that results from Mg [a.k.a. MGrammar] processing is compatible with Mg’s sister language, The Oslo Modeling Language, M, which provides a SQL-compatible schema and query language that can be used to further process the underlying information“. Compatible? I need more information here. In any case, MGrammar sounds like a fun project for a techie. Who am I to deny Microsoft engineers their fun. Jokes aside, I am probably missing something here seeing how prevalent the DSL message is in all discussions of Oslo. Look at the “highlights of this book” section for the upcoming Oslo/M book from the creators of the “M” language: half of it is about the DSL support and there must be a reason beyond pure geekery. As a side note, if you buy this book you need to understand what little shelf life it will have (I can give you a good price on a lightly-used Hailstorm/”.Net my services” specification book).

Aside from the “M” language itself, there are a few models described in the documentation. One corresponds to BPMN (actually, it says that it “closely aligns with” BPPMN 1.1, does this imply that they are not quite the same?). The fact that this model supports imports from Visio is a nice feature.

The Application model (one of the places where you can see “extents” in action) scares me a little bit because I doubt that two different people would use the same “extents” to describe the same software elements. Unless of course that’s being done for them by a pre-defined mapping to their development framework (.NET) enacted by their common development tool (Visual Studio). Which may be the assumption. Yet, the Application model is defined in generic terms, not Microsoft-specific (with a couple of slip-ups, like a WebApplicationModule being defined as a “Web application (module) implemented by IIS or WAS“. Maybe I’ll feel better about the generic applicability of this Application model when I see a full-fledged description (e.g. including relationship semantics as captured in foreign key field names) and an example.

At the bottom of that Application model, there is a lonely “Manageable” type to use if you have a LifecycleState field. This reinforces my impression that despite the claims to link development time with operational time, a lot of the focus to date has been on the former rather than the latter.

The ServiceModel model will look familiar to people familiar with SCA and is presumably complementary to the WorkflowModel and WorkflowServiceModel models, both of which are directly mapped to Windows Workflow Foundation. I guess that’s where Oslo and Dublin touch one another. I am still glad they are now clearly separated.

There is also a “Quadrant” model which concerns me a bit (it seems to be used to store customization of the Quadrant UI which, while convenient to store straight in the repository, doesn’t strike me as necessarily belonging there).

At this point, the question is not whether Microsoft can build Oslo as it is currently defined. SQL Server 2008 already exists, the usage guidelines aren’t unrealistic and even the “M-to-T-SQL” translation doesn’t seem too hard for Microsoft to implement (the SDK presumable already contains an implementation). I have no doubt they can deliver the system they describe. What I don’t know is whether and how it will be actually useful.

Describing “M” in details is good. Describing how the repository is implemented on top of SQL Server 2008 is interesting but not so relevant. What I’d like to see is a description of how all this gets used. How does it change the Visual Studio experience? How does it change the installation process/format? How does it support round-tripping between lifecycle stages (e.g. if the developer changes the workflow model, does that original BPMN model get consequently updated)? How does it relate to SLAs and policies? How does it apply to application monitoring? How does it apply to configuration management, to the change process? Etc. In short, what’s the Oslo ecosystem going to be.

These questions aren’t completely ignored in the MSDN documentation, but they are dispensed with in a couple of pages: “Application Development and Lifecycle Improvements” and “IT Operations Benefits“. The former states, for example, that “having the Oslo repository act as a central location for these models also enables a connection between the design and implementation models. This connection helps prevent these models from becoming disconnected during the development process“. Which all sounds good but is just a set of assertions that we have heard many times before (not just from Microsoft). How do “M” and the Oslo repository really make this true?

On the “IT Operations Benefits” side, things are equally blurry: “the Oslo repository can store all types of machine and application configuration data. When consistently updated, this configuration data is a catalog of the current state of all monitored machines and applications in the environment“. Notice the “when consistently updated” hand wave. That’s kind of the crux if you really want to manage across the lifecycle. How will they achieve this consistency? By centralizing all changes through a model-driven controller a la SDM/SML? Through ongoing discovery and/or change notifications? By relying on good old ITIL/MOF processes?

The FAQ declares that “having a common approach does not necessarily correlate to one physical store, but more of a federated model and we believe that some of the new Repository, along with existing investments in both Configuration Management Database (CMDB) and Team Foundation Server (TFS), will form the foundation for a common Microsoft metadata strategy and should be supported across our set of products“. OK, but who is the source of truth for application configuration data? The Oslo repository or the CMDB? Is one the desired state and the other the observed state? Does the CMDB go back to simply being a Service Desk (and if so, does the Oslo repository take on the responsibility to enforce change processes, something that requires more than the security model in Oslo)? If the CMDB is still going to use SML as its metamodel, how do you efficiently federate across such different metamodels as SML (i.e. XSD + schematron + relationships) and “M”?

Lots of questions remaining. What will Oslo have turned into in a few years? A business process design/implementation/monitoring suite (there is a strong workflow feel to many parts)? A generic drag-and-drop programming environment (“the fact that entire features are already described by models means that for a wide array of application and component categories you can start using visual tools to design and implement your components“)? A control center for end to end application management? All of the above? Nothing?

This was just a quick brain dump after reading the documents. Actually, I just realized it somehow got pretty long (congrats if you’re still reading). I hope this post is not too disorganized. Oslo is an interesting effort, but, as Microsoft is first to admit, it’s at a very early stage. I am just surprised that this first release spends so much time on the “how” rather than the “what”. Maybe it’s just because I only got my information from the MSDN documentation. We’ll see when more content from PDC finds its way online. I just want the slides, watching recorded presentations is rarely time-efficient (and you can expect them to require Silverlight).

Speaking of Silverlight, there is this new site on Oslo if you think watching some videos is worth installing Silverlight. Those screenshots don’t motivate me sufficiently.

[UPDATED 2008/10/30: Rather than going to bed I Googled around a bit and found a  post by Martin Fowler that answers some of my questions about MGrammar, MGraph and MSchema. MGraph is for instances, MSchema is for types. It answers some plumbing question, but I still have questions about expected usage and relevance to applications modeling.]

[UPDATED 2008/10/30: I also found the recordings and slides from past PDC sessions. Nice job Microsoft for this quick turnaround time, even if you require Sliverlight and/or the PPTX viewer. The sessions are:

  • TL23 A Lap around "Oslo" (Doug Purdy, Vijaye Raji)
  • TL27 "Oslo": The Language (Don Box, David Langworthy)
  • TL18 "Oslo": Customizing and Extending the Visual Design Experience (Don Box, Florian Voss)
  • TL28 "Oslo": Repository and Models (Chris Sells)

The first two sessions (deliverd Tuesday) have a replay and slides, the others should, I assume, follow soon.]

[UPDATED 2008/11/3: A nice overview of Oslo by Aaron Skonnard. Unlike most other Oslo articles over the last week, this one tries to paint the (yet-to-be-realized) full picture of the Oslo ecoystem. He mentions that "other Microsoft products and technologies are expected to build on Oslo to provide other runtimes. A few that have already been announced include Microsoft System Center (Operations Manager) and Team Foundation Server (TFS) in Visual Studio Team System". It's interesting that he qualifies System Center to be more specifically "operations manager" rather than "configuration manager" but I wouldn't read too much into it at this point.]

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Filed under Application Mgmt, BPM, Business Process, CMDB, Everything, IT Systems Mgmt, Manageability, Mgmt integration, Microsoft, Middleware, Modeling, Oslo, SML, Specs, Tech

A flash of anti-genius

Just this week, I saw two emails that painfully illustrate what is maybe the single worst thing about the way Flash is used on many web sites: the lack of addressability.

The first email was a request for help about finding a specific view on a Flash-based app (one that, I must shamefully admit, was created by Oracle). The answer came quickly, in the form of a screen capture of the Flash app with the multi-level menu open and pointed at the menu entry that produces the requested view. Does anything with this strike you as wrong?

If not, look at the email that arrived the following day. A fellow Oracle employee wanted to advertise for rent an apartment he owns in the new One Rincon Hill tower in San Francisco. In order to provide a link to the floor plan, here is what he had to put in the email:

Plan 5 – see http://www.onerinconhill.com (Lower right “Skip intro”, then follow the link on Residences and Views -> Condominiums -> Tower One -> 1 Bedroom -> Unit 05)

No need to comment on the “skip intro” part. We all know how stupid these “intros” are. BTW, it would be nice if you didn’t have to download the entire Flash file before clicking on “skip”. But this is a “no Flash, no service” site. There is no alternative. Ironic for a tower in which 95% of occupants own an iPhone (the remaining 5% are  Android-wielding Google employees, also Flash-challenged).

Even more ironic is that fact that Flash is used on this site to navigate menus (usefulness: zero) and when you get to the floor map it’s a plain static image. Even though that’s the place where you could provide innovative features in Flash (like having a list of typical furniture items that people can drag and drop to see how to use the space).

You could say, NRA-style, “Flash apps don’t screw up web sites, bad Flash designers screw up web sites”. Sure. It’s not Flash per se, it’s the way it’s used. There is a good case to be made for small areas of web pages being delivered through Flash for increased interactivity (rather than having Flash become a navigation mechanism). But just like with the gun, when you are on the receiving end the difference seems pretty academic.

In a blog entry three and a half years ago (an entry which, in retrospect, is a strong contender for “most obscure, pretentious title”), I recalled hearing Tim Berners-Lee explain in 1999 on the radio how he came up with the idea of a URL: before the Web, people would create small files that describe where to find information in a human-readable way. TBL wrapped this in a consistent format, the URL.

And now, more than 15 years after TBL’s invention, Flash-drunk nitwits are recreating the problem he solved and forcing people to again “create small files that describe where to find information in a human-readable way”. When WS-Addressing decided to deprecate URLs, they at least provided a replacement (the EPR). What is the Flash equivalent going to be? Who wants to write the DARC (Distributable Addressing for Rich Clients) specification?

[UPDATED 2008/10/3: Someone pointed me at the "solution" for this problem: SWFAddress. Looks interesting. Except that this is an extra step that the Flash developer needs to know about and implement. If your Flash developer has that state of mind and level of competency, you've already solved 95% of the problem. For starters, s/he won't create your whole site as a Flash movie, s/he will just use Flash judiciously on the site. I don't see how SWFAddress is going to help with the throusands of mostly clueless Flash developers who keep banging out Flash-only sites. If you really want a technology solution to the general problem, it would probably require something like a click tracker that generates a trail of crumbs and packages it in a URL. But I don't think the solution here is a technology solution. It's more a "get a clue" solution. After all, almost no web site has an empty, pretty-looking, entry page anymore (except Flash sites of course), even though those were pretty common at a time.]

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Filed under Everything, Flash, Off-topic, Tech

Reviewing DMTF OVF as a “preliminary standard”

OVF 1.0.0d is out as a “preliminary standard” so I gave it a quick read over the weekend. Things have not changed much since the “work in progress” document published this summer, which itself wasn’t a big change from the original specification. As I wrote in the review of the “work in progress”, the DMTF tightened the language of the  specification more than it added features.

Since there aren’t too many technical changes (see the end of this post if you’re interested in a few), the interesting discussion is about the marketing of this specification. And boy does it have wings on that front. The level of visibility the specification has received is pretty amazing, especially considering that it doesn’t really do that much technically. But you wouldn’t know it by reading all the announcements about OVF:

  • VMWare supports OVF packaging (which version?) with its new VMWare Studio.
  • Citrix uses OVF in Kensho to create a platform-agnostic VM management.
  • An Open Source “implementation” of OVF has been created. I put “implementation” between quotes because since OVF per se doesn’t do much its implementation is mostly a specialized command line editor for its XML descriptor. It requires a a vendor-specific runtime for deployment/activation. This is not a criticism of the open source project BTW, just a statement of fact about the spec.
  • Enomaly lists “OVF format support” on its roadmap for Q1 2009.
  • Microsoft support for OVF in products is supposedly “on the board” which doesn’t mean very much but their overall marketing/PR response to OVF has been surprisingly positive for a standard that they don’t control.

I have criticized the DMTF marketing efforts in the past (“give away pens and key chains”) but I must admit that, to the extent that DMTF had a significant role in promoting OVF adoption (in addition to marketing efforts directly from the vendors), it is a very nice marketing success. Well done, and so much for my cynicism. OVF may also have benefited from all the interest in the general topic of virtualization/cloud standards (the “cloud” association is silly, of course, but as we’ve just seen I am not a marketing genius) and the fact that there isn’t much else to talk about on these topics. So by default OVF becomes the name to put on your “standards” banner. Right place at the right time for the vendors behind it.

Speaking of the vendors, I have no insight into the functioning of the OVF working group, but judging by the specification’s foreword VMware is throwing plenty of resources at DMTF: it employs the working group chair and both co-editors, which is pretty atypical in my experience in standards efforts. People are usually sensitive to appearances of one company having disproportionate influence and try to distribute responsibilities around, at least on paper. Add to this VMWare’s recent ramp-up at the DMTF board level. They seem to know what they want. And indeed I can see how the industry leader would want some basic level of standardization, but not too much, which is currently just what OVF offers. We’ll see what’s next in store, if anything.

The specification itself is not marketing-free. According to line 122, “it supports the full range of virtual hard disk formats used for hypervisors today, and it is extensible, which will allow it to accommodate formats that may arise in the future”. Sure, in the same way that my car fully supports passengers of all nationalities (and is extensible enough to transport citizens of yet-to-be created countries – and maybe even other planets, as long as they come with buttocks to sit on). Since OVF doesn’t really do anything with the virtual hard disk formats, it can “support” pretty much any such format.

Speaking of extensibility, OVF clearly tries to have a good story there. Section 7.3 tries to move away from the usual “hey, it’s XML, you can add elements/attributes anywhere” approach towards the definition of new “sections”. This seems a bit drastic. Time will tell if this is visionary or short-sighted. OVF also plans to move towards “an extension model based on the design of the open content model in XML Schema 1.1″. I am not following XSD 1.1 too closely, but it is wise for OVF to not build too much dependency on it at least for now. And it seems to me that an extension model is not something that you plan to “plan [...] to add” but rather something you need to define from the start (sounds like the good old “the next version will add versioning support”, or “no keyboard detected, press F8 to continue”).

But after all this comes what looks to me, from an extensibility perspective, like a big no-no: using (section 8.1) simple strings (e.g. “vmx-4″, “xen-3″) to represent types of virtual systems. You’d think that in 2008 people would have heard about URIs as a way to allow extensibility and prevent name clashes. On further reading, this doesn’t seem to be the fault of OVF as they get this property (vssd:VirtualSystemType) straight out of the politely named DMTF SVP (System Virtualization Profile) specification, itself a preliminary standard. But that’s not much of an excuse because I suspect large overlap of participation between the two groups and in any case you don’t have to take dependencies on something that’s not right (speaking as someone who authored several specs that took a dependency on WS-Addressing, I shouldn’t give lessons). In any case, I am not on top of all virtualization-related work in DMTF but it seems to me that if they are not going to use URIs then someone should step up and maintain a registry of these identifying “virtual system type” strings.

BTW, when left to its own device OVF does a better job. For example, it properly uses URIs to identify the virtual disk format (section 5.2).

One of the few new features is the addition of the ovf:bound attribute on virtual hardware element items (section 8.3) to specify whether the item description represents the normal, minimal or maximal allocation. My heads spins a bit when trying to apply this metadata to the rasd:Limit property (with ovf:bound=”min” the value of the rasd:Limit element would represent the minimal value of the maximum quantity or resources that will be granted, which takes some parsing effort), but I think it more or less squares out.

The final standard should not differ greatly from this version, so at this point we pretty much know what OVF will be technically. The real question is how it will be used and what, if anything, is going to come to complement it.

[UPDATED 2008/10/14: Good timing. OVF-loving Kensho just launched.]

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Filed under DMTF, Everything, IT Systems Mgmt, Manageability, Open source, OVF, Specs, Standards, Tech, Utility computing, Virtualization, VMware

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.]

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

Last call for SML and SML-IF

The SML working group at W3C has published the “last call” working draft of version 1.1 of the SML and SML-IF (“IF” stands for “interchange format”) specifications. You have until October 3rd to tell them what you think.

With all the Oslo fun, the OMG embrace and the silence from System Center there are more questions than answers about the use of SML at Microsoft. But the Eclipse COSMOS project (IBM and friends) is, as far as I know, valiantly going forward with the store/validator implementation. Which may or may not be the same codebase as what was used for the recent CMDBf interop demo (I am not sure how the SML and CDMBf implementations in COSMOS are articulated).

The COSMOS group also recently published an overview of SML. It doesn’t try to tell you why you’d want to use SML but it’s a good and succint description of what SML is technically (from an XML developer’s perspective).

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Filed under CMDB Federation, CMDBf, Desired State, Everything, IBM, Implementation, IT Systems Mgmt, Mgmt integration, Microsoft, Modeling, Open source, Oslo, SML, Specs, Standards, Tech, W3C

Here be (XML) dragons

Spoiler alert: if you like to learn things the hard way, don’t follow this link. It points to a clear description of all the problems, frustrations, disillusions and “ah ah!” moments that are ahead of you as you start to use XML and grow into an expert.

If, on the other hand, you like to be fully prepared and informed when you choose a technology and if you don’t mind sacrificing some adventure and excitement in the process, then you owe it to yourself to read Erik Wilde and Robert Glushko’s XML Fever article. Even if you already consider yourself an XML expert. Especially if you do.

I knew I would like it when I read this in the introduction:

Advanced strains of XML fever often take hold after exposure to the proliferation of more complex and esoteric XML-based technologies layered on top of it. These advanced diseases are harder to catch, but they are also harder to remedy because people who have caught these advanced strains tend to congregate with others with the same diseases and they are continually reinfecting each other.

Oh yes they do. And they speak with such authority that they infect others around them. People who don’t even understand these “more complex and esoteric XML-based technologies” end up being convinced of their magical properties and the need to use them.

I am not going to attempt to summarize the article because it is too tightly packed with great content to be summarized without being butchered. The “tree trauma” section alone could probably save the world billions of dollars in lost productivity if it was widely read.  I’ll just quote a few sections to motivate you to go read the whole thing.

Tree tremors. Whereas tree trauma (discussed earlier) is a basic strain of XML fever caused by the various flavors of trees in XML technologies, tree tremors are a more serious condition afflicting victims trying to manage data in XML that is not inherently tree-structured. The most common causes are data models requiring nontree graph structures and document models needing overlapping structures. In both cases, mapping these models to XML’s tree model results in XML structures that cannot conveniently represent the application-level model.

(…)

The choice of schema languages, however, is more often determined by available tool support and acquired habits than by a thorough analysis of what would be the most appropriate language.

(…)

Triple shock. While RDF itself is simple, large datasets easily contain millions of triples (for truly large datasets this can go up to billions), and managing and querying such a big dataset can become a considerable challenge. If the schema of these large datasets is simple, but ontology overkill has set in and it has been reformulated as an ontology, handling this dataset may become considerably harder, without any immediate benefit.

This is true not just for RDF (a graph model that can be serialized in XML) but for any non-tree model that can be serialized in XML (which is to say any model one can think of). Including every graph model.

Maybe it would help if the article stated more clearly that it’s ok to serialize such a model as XML (e.g. for transmission) as long as you don’t process it (at the application level) as XML. As long as it gets accessed using an API and concepts that are aligned with the semantics of the model.

Imagine that you are receiving an RDF dataset over the wire. You could (if your app runs on the network card rather than in CPU) process it as a bunch of electrical impulses, but that wouldn’t be very convenient. You could process it as a bunch of bits, but that’s still hard. You could process it as a character stream but that’s not that much better. You could process it as XML but that’s still no great. Or you could process it as RDF triplets and be home on time to have dinner with your family. It’s not the fact that it is represented as XML at some point that’s the problem, it’s the fact that your application processes it as XML. Said in another way, just because it makes sense to store it or to send it over the network in XML doesn’t mean that you have to process it as XML in your application.

There is at least one more problem (not covered by the article) that people will eventually run into. You’d think that XML technologies are a consistent and complementary set. Not true. The lack of consistency is illustrated by the “tree trauma” section of the article. But there is also a complementarity problem, in the sense that there are large gaps between the specifications, as anyone who has tried to serialize an XPath nodeset has found out.

As the article points out, all this doesn’t mean that XML is bad or useless. XML technologies can be very useful, but for not for all tasks.

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Filed under Everything, Graph query, Modeling, Query, RDF, Specs, Standards, Tech, XPath, XQuery

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.]

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

Oslo, blog posts and my crystal ball

There is more and more information coming out about Oslo in anticipation of the Microsoft PDC in October.

David Chappell recorded a video about it last month. More recently Doug Purdy and Don Box each posted a short description of Oslo. Don describes the goal of Oslo as “simplify the process of developing, deploying, and managing software”. But when he lists ancestor technologies to illustrate that “Microsoft has been moving in this direction for over a decade now”, they are all about development, not management: COM type libraries, .NET metadata attributes, XAML. Interesting that neither SDM nor SML gets a mention. Neither did SCA by the way, but I wasn’t really expecting that one… :-)

Maybe the I am the only one looking for a SDM/SML echo here, just because I came to hear of Oslo through the DSI angle. Am I wrong to see Oslo as an enabler for DSI? This eWeek article doesn’t have anything to do with IT management. Reading it, Oslo is all about allowing people to write code through drag and drop. Yawn. And Don Box endorses the article.

Maybe it’s just me (an IT management guy more than a software development guy) but I don’t care so much about how the application model is created. I care a lot more about what it allows you to do in terms of IT management. Please don’t make me pull out the often-quoted figure about the percentage of IT budget spent on operations versus development/licensing. The eWeek piece fails to excite me, but fortunately David Chappell’s video interview is a lot more aligned with my thinking, so I still hold hopes for Oslo as an IT management enabler. Here is my approximate transcript of an example that David provides (at around 4:20) in the video:

“If someone comes to you and says i’ve got this business process and the SLA is not being met, what do you do? You’ve got to trace this through the right business process and the right application that supports that part of the process and find the machine it runs on and maybe look at the workflow that implements it and maybe look at the services that it provides. This involves talking to business analysts, or the IT pros or the architect or the developer, all of whom have their own view of the world, their own tools, their own prospective. The repository provides a common place to store all this stuff, to link it all together, and with a visual editor to have a common tool that lets you actually go through and answer this kind of questions.”

Now you’re talking.

And if Oslo is not the new blood of DSI, then what is? The DSI story is getting dated, SML is fading in our memories and of the three parts that supposedly compose DSI (“virtualized infrastructure, design for operations, and knowledge-driven management”), only virtualization is actually represented on the list of technologies on the DSI home page. Has DSI turned into just allowing System Center to manage a hypervisor? I still hold hopes that the Oslo data is going to spice things up there. It would be good for the industry at large, not just Microsoft.

I won’t be at the PDC but it will be interesting to see what filters out of these sessions. The first session in the list adds management of hybrid application systems (hybrid as in “cloud/on-premise combination” or “software+services” as Microsoft calls it), to the long “can do” list for Oslo. Impressive, if there is some meat behind the abstract. I think this task is often overlooked in discussions around management aspects of Cloud computing (see “the new, interesting thing is going to be the IT infrastructure to manage your usage of utility computing services as well as their interactions with your in-house software” in this previous entry).

Yes, I am reading way too much into session abstracts, but while I am at it I can’t help noticing that there is a lot of SQL and very little XML/XSD/XPath mentioned there. Even though one of the presenters is Gudge, the only person I have ever met who fully understands XSD (actually even he doesn’t, I’ve seen him in the WS-I days have to refer to… his book).

Even though I am sure we’ll be told that SML can be built on top of Oslo, the SQL orientation won’t make that so easy (I want to see how to build XSD+Schematron validation on top of a relational store using Oslo’s drag and drop development tool). And it puts Microsoft on a different architectural direction from IBM, who, as far as I can tell, thinks that the world is a big XML document. Neither is the most appropriate for IT management models. I prefer a graph model and associated graph queries along the lines of SPARQL or CMDBf.

But that’s just late-night idle speculations on my part (aka “blogging”). Let’s see what comes out in October.

[UPDATED 2008/9/10: Interesting timing. Microsoft is joining OMG, home of UML and BPMN. Coming next: a submission of a "new version" of UML and BPMN that happens to contain the extensions and tweaks that Microsoft made to them in the process of implementing Oslo. This, BTW, is the final nail in the SML coffin (SML isn't even mentioned in the press release).]

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Filed under Application Mgmt, CMDBf, Conference, Desired State, Everything, Graph query, IT Systems Mgmt, Mgmt integration, Microsoft, Middleware, Modeling, Oslo, Query, SaaS, SCA, SML, SPARQL, Specs, Tech, Trade show, Utility computing, Virtualization

Grid cloudification

Grid computing is moulting and, to no surprise, the new skin has “cloud” written all over it.

That’s one way to interpret the announcement today that HP, Intel and Yahoo are going to launch a compute cloud. Seeing Intel and HP work together on this is no surprise. Back at HP I had some involvement with the collaboration between HP Labs and Intel on PlanetLab.

I have only read the Gigaom article and Steve’s, so this post is not an analysis of the announcement. Just a few questions that come to mind. They can be most concisely expressed by trying to understand the difference with Amazon’s EC2. The quotes below all come from the Gigaom article.

“six physical locations” -> Amazon has availability zones, including the choice of three geographies.

“between 1,000 and 4,000 mostly Intel cores” -> According to this well-publicized story, Amazon can deliver 5,000 servers (each linked to at least one physical core) to one customer without breaking a sweat.

“We want, unlike other partnerships including Google and IBM’s where the lower-level stacks are not provided in a open manner to the world, open access to all levels of the hardware” -> The quote seems to conveniently avoid comparison with EC2 which provides a much lower abstraction level: virtual machines with mountable raw block storage devices. How much lower can you go without handing out access cards to physically walk into the datacenter? Access to the BMC on the motherboard? Access to some internal bus? Remote-controlled little robots that will slide cards in and out of a chassis?

“researchers will be able to access the cloud through a proposal process later this year” -> Ec2 offers pay-as-you go, which tends to be a good driver for people to use the infrastructure efficiently. And of course someone can always give researchers a grant in the form of EC2 rent money.

Just to be clear, I am not belittling the announcement because for one thing I haven’t read much about it and for another I probably know many of the HP Labs people involved and they are part of the “mucho sapiens” branch of “homo sapiens”. I know they wouldn’t bother putting this out if it was nothing more than giving researchers some free EC2 time.

But these are the questions I’ll be trying to answer for myself as I read more about this project.

[UPDATED 2008/9/19: Russ Daniels (who was HP Software CTO when I was at HP and is now CTO of Cloud Services Strategy) comments on the announcement.]

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Filed under Amazon, Everything, Grid, HP, Manageability, Tech, Utility computing, Virtualization, Yahoo

Animoto is no infrastructure flexibility benchmark

I have nothing against Animoto. From what I know about them (mostly from John’s podcast with Brad Jefferson) they built their system, using EC2, in a very smart way.

But I do have something against their story being used to set the benchmark for infrastructure flexibility. For those who haven’t heard it five times already, the summary of “their story” is ramping up from 50 to 5000 machines in a week (according to the podcast). Or from 50 to 3500 (according to the this AWS blog entry). Whatever. If I auto-generate my load (which is mostly what they did when they decided to auto-create a custom video for each new user) I too can create the need for a thousands of machines.

This was probably a good business decision for Animoto. They got plenty of visibility at a low cost. Plus the extra publicity from being an EC2 success story (I for one would never have heard of them through their other channels). Good for them. Good for Amazon who made it possible. And who got a poster child out of it. Good for the facebookers who got to waste another 30 seconds of their time straining their eyes. Everyone is happy, no animal got hurt in the process, hurray.

That’s all good but it doesn’t mean that from now on any utility computing solution needs to support ramping up by a factor of 100 in a week. What if Animoto had been STD’ed (slashdoted, technoratied and dugg) at the same time as the Facebook burst, resulting in the need for 50,000 servers? Would 1,000 X be the new benchmark? What if a few of the sites that target the “lonely guy” demographic decided to use Animoto for… ok let’s not got there.

There are three types of user requirements. The Animoto use case is clearly not in the first category but I am not convinced it’s in the third one either.

  1. The “pulled out of thin air” requirements that someone makes up on the fly to justify a feature that they’ve already decided needs to be there. Most frequently encountered in standards working groups.
  2. The “it happened” requirements that assumes that because something happened sometimes somewhere it needs to be supported all the time everywhere.
  3. The “it makes business sense” requirements that include a cost-value analysis. The kind that comes not from asking “would you like this” to a customer but rather “how much more would you pay for this” or “what other feature would you trade for this”.

When cloud computing succeeds (i.e. when you stop hearing about it all the time and, hopefully, we go back to calling it “utility computing”), it will be because the third category of requirements will have been identified and met. Best exemplified by the attitude of Tarus (from OpenNMS) in the latest Redmonk podcast (paraphrased): sure we’ll customize OpenNMS for cloud environments; as soon as someone pays us to do it.

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Filed under Amazon, Business, CMDB Federation, Everything, Mgmt integration, Specs, Tech, Utility computing

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).

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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

More clues on the Oslo/SCA/SML trail: it’s “D”

I just found out that I completly missed some interesting information about Oslo-related efforts at Microsoft. Back in February, Mary-Jo Foley reported on a new modeling language (code-name “D”, apparently) that is part of this initiative. And more recently she reported that David Chappell gave a presentation about Oslo (and more generally Microsoft’s SOA plans) at TechEd. He reportedly said that we should expect a new “schema language” (which Mary-Jo thinks is “D”). What I want to know is what its relationship is with SML/SDM and SCA.

Mary-Jo might not know about SCA and SML but I know that David does. He wrote this white paper about SCA and an article arguing that “Microsoft Should Not Support SCA” (based on an a questionable assessment that SCA is only about portability). He and I also had a little back-and-forth about SCA, SML and Microsoft in the comments section of his post. Unfortunately, David hasn’t blogged about Microsoft’s SOA strategy for a while for us non-TechEd people.

In addition to Mary-Jo’s report, the only information I was about to quickly dig out about David’s presentation is this blog post on Microsoft’s Israel site. Looks like David gave the same presentation at TechEd Israel 2008. Anyone who understands Hebrew cares to translate the blog? Fortunately there is a two-minutes video (also available here) in which we can hear David talk (in English). During the second of the two minutes you’ll hear and see something that could come straight out of a SCA presentation…

For some reason, David’s TechEd Israel presentation doesn’t seem to be listed here and TechEd online tells me that “Featured videos are unavailable at this time”. That’s both for IT Professionals and Developers. But of course they forced me to install Silverlight before telling me that.

[UPDATED 2008/8/11: Here is a 14 minutes video interview of David Chappell providing an update on Oslo.]

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Filed under Application Mgmt, Automation, Conference, Desired State, Everything, IT Systems Mgmt, Mgmt integration, Microsoft, Modeling, Oslo, SCA, SML, Tech

Recent IT management announcements

There were a few announcements relevant to the evolution of IT management over the last week. The most interesting is VMware’s release of the open-source (BSD license) VI SDK, a Java API to manage a host system and the virtual machines that run on it. Interesting that they went the way of a language-specific API. The alternatives, to complement/improve their existing web services SDK, would have been: define CIM classes and implement a WBEM provider (using CIM-HTTP and/or WS-Management), use WS-Management but without the CIM part (define the model as native XML, not XML-from-CIM), use a RESTful HTTP-driven interface to that same native XML model or, on the more sci-fi side, go the MDA way with a controller from which you retrieve the observed state and to which you specify the desired state. The Java API approach is the easiest one for developers to use, as long as they can access the Java ecosystem and they are mainly concerned with controlling the VMWare entities. If the management application also deals with many other resources (like the OS that runs in the guest machines or the hardware under the host, both of which are likely to have CIM models), a more model-centric approach could be more handy. The Java API of course has an underlying model (described here), but the interface itself is not model-centric. So what with all the DMTF-love that VMWare has been displaying lately (OVF submission, board membership, hiring of the DMTF president…). Should we expect a more model-friendly version of this API in the future? How does this relate to the DMTF SVPC working group that recently released some preliminary profiles? The choice to focus on beefing-up the Java-centric management story (which includes Jython, as VMWare was quick to point out) rather than the platform-agnostic, on-the-wire-interop side might be seen by the more twisted minds as a way to not facilitate Microsoft’s “manage VMWare today to replace it tomorrow” plan any more than necessary.

Speaking of Microsoft, in unrelated news we also got a heartbeat from them on the Oslo project: a tech preview of some of the components is scheduled for October. When Oslo was announced, there was a mix of “next gen BizTalk” aspects and “developer-driven DSI” aspects. From this report, the BizTalk part seems to be dominating. No word on use of SML.

And finally, SOA Software (who was previously called Digital Evolution and who acquired Blue Titan, Flamenco and LogicLibrary, in case you’re trying to keep track) has released a “SOA Development Governance Product”. Nothing too exciting from what I can see on InfoQ about it, but that’s a pretty superficial evaluation so don’t let me stop you. Am I the only one who twitches whenever “federation” is used to mean at worst “import” or at best “synchronization”? Did CMDBf start that trend? BTW, is it just an impression or did SOA Software give InfoQ a list of the questions they wanted to be asked?

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Filed under DMTF, Everything, IT Systems Mgmt, Manageability, Mgmt integration, Open source, Oslo, OVF, SML, Standards, Tech, Virtualization, VMware, WS-Management

Google App Engine: less is more

“If you have a stove, a saucepan and a bottle of cold water, how can you make boiling water?”

If you ask this question to a mathematician, they’ll think about it a while, and finally tell you to pour the water in the saucepan, light up the stove and put the saucepan on it until the water boils. Makes sense. Then ask them a slightly different question: “if you have a stove and a saucepan filled with cold water, how can you make boiling water?”. They’ll look at you and ask “can I also have a bottle”? If you agree to that request they’ll triumphantly announce: “pour the water from the saucepan into the bottle and we are back to the previous problem, which is already solved.”

In addition to making fun of mathematicians, this is a good illustration of the “fake machine” approach to utility computing embodied by Amazon’s EC2. There is plenty of practical value in emulating physical machines (either in your data center, using VMWare/Xen/OVM or at a utility provider’s site, e.g. EC2). They are all rooted in the fact that there is a huge amount of code written with the assumption that it is running on an identified physical machine (or set of machines), and you want to keep using that code. This will remain true for many many years to come, but is it the future of utility computing?

Google’s App Engine is a clear break from this set of assumptions. From this perspective, the App Engine is more interesting for what it doesn’t provide than for what it provides. As the description of the Sandbox explains:

“An App Engine application runs on many web servers simultaneously. Any web request can go to any web server, and multiple requests from the same user may be handled by different web servers. Distribution across multiple web servers is how App Engine ensures your application stays available while serving many simultaneous users [not to mention that this is also how they keep their costs low -- William]. To allow App Engine to distribute your application in this way, the application runs in a restricted ‘sandbox’ environment.”

The page then goes on to succinctly list the limitations of the sandbox (no filesystem, limited networking, no threads, no long-lived requests, no low-level OS functions). The limitations are better described and commented upon here but even that article misses one major limitation, mentioned here: the lack of scheduler/cron.

Rather than a feature-by-feature comparison between the App Engine and EC2 (which Amazon would won handily at this point), what is interesting is to compare the underlying philosophies. Even with Amazon EC2, you don’t get every single feature your local hardware can deliver. For example, in its initial release EC2 didn’t offer a filesystem, only a storage-as-a-service interface (S3 and then SimpleDB). But Amazon worked hard to fix this as quickly as possible in order to be appear as similar to a physical infrastructure as possible. In this entry, announcing persistent storage for EC2, Amazon’s CTO takes pain to highlight this achievement:

“Persistent storage for Amazon EC2 will be offered in the form of storage volumes which you can mount into your EC2 instance as a raw block storage device. It basically looks like an unformatted hard disk. Once you have the volume mounted for the first time you can format it with any file system you want or if you have advanced applications such as high-end database engines, you could use it directly.”

and

“And the great thing is it that it is all done with using standard technologies such that you can use this with any kind of application, middleware or any infrastructure software, whether it is legacy or brand new.”

Amazon works hard to hide (from the application code) the fact that the infrastructure is a huge, shared, distributed system. The beauty (and business value) of their offering is that while the legacy code thinks it is running in a good old data center, the paying customer derives benefits from the fact that this is not the case (e.g. fast/easy/cheap provisioning and reduced management responsibilities).

Google, on the other hand, embraces the change in underlying infrastructure and requires your code to use new abstractions that are optimized for that infrastructure.

To use an automotive analogy, Amazon is offering car drivers to switch to a gas/electric hybrid that refuels in today’s gas stations while Google is pushing for a direct jump to hydrogen fuel cells.

History is rarely kind to promoters of radical departures. The software industry is especially fond of layering the new on top of the old (a practice that has been enabled by the constant increase in underlying computing capacity). If you are wondering why your command prompt, shell terminal or text editor opens with a default width of 80 characters, take a trip back to 1928, when IBM defined its 80-columns punch card format. Will Google beat the odds or be forced to be more accommodating of existing code?

It’s not the idea of moving to a more abstracted development framework that worries me about Google’s offering (JEE, Spring and Ruby on Rails show that developers want this move anyway, for productivity reasons, even if there is no change in the underlying infrastructure to further motivate it). It’s the fact that by defining their offering at the level of this framework (as opposed to one level below, like Amazon), Google puts itself in the position of having to select the right framework. Sure, they can support more than one. But the speed of evolution in that area of the software industry shows that it’s not mature enough (yet?) for any party to guess where application frameworks are going. Community experimentation has been driving application frameworks, and Google App Engine can’t support this. It can only select and freeze a few framework.

Time will tell which approach works best, whether they should exist side by side or whether they slowly merge into a “best of both worlds” offering (Amazon already offers many features, like snapshots, that aim for this “best of both worlds”). Unmanaged code (e.g. C/C++ compiled programs) and managed code (JVM or CLR) have been coexisting for a while now. Traditional applications and utility-enabled applications may do so in the future. For all I know, Google may decide that it makes business sense for them too to offer a Xen-based solution like EC2 and Amazon may decide to offer a more abstracted utility computing environment along the lines of the App Engine. But at this point, I am glad that the leaders in utility computing have taken different paths as this will allow the whole industry to experiment and progress more quickly.

The comparison is somewhat blurred by the fact that the Google offering has not reached the same maturity level as Amazon’s. It has restrictions that are not directly related to the requirements of the underlying infrastructure. For example, I don’t see how the distributed infrastructure prevents the existence of a scheduling service for background jobs. I expect this to be fixed soon. Also, Amazon has a full commercial offering, with a price list and an ecosystem of tools, why Google only offers a very limited beta environment for which you can’t buy extra capacity (but this too is changing).

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Filed under Amazon, Everything, Google, Google App Engine, OVM, Portability, Tech, Utility computing, Virtualization, VMware

The elusive XPath nodeset serialization

I have been involved in various capacity with five different specifications that define a GET (or GET-like) operation that takes as input an XPath expression used to pinpoint the subset of the XML document that should be retrieved (here is a quick history as of a couple of years ago, more has happened since). And I must shamefully admit that all but one are simply impossible to implement in an interoperable way.

That’s because they instruct implementers to return an XPath nodeset in the response SOAP message but say nothing about how to serialize the nodeset. While an XPath nodeset contains the kind of things that make up an XML document, it is not an XML document by itself. There is an infinite number of possible ways to serialized an XPath nodeset into XML. To have any hope of interoperability on this, a serialization algorithm has to be clearly described by the specification. Which hasn’t happened.

Let’s start with WS-ResourceProperties (WS-RP). It has a QueryResourceProperties operation that takes an XPath expression as input. The specification says that “the response MUST contain an XML serialization of the results of evaluating the QueryExpression against the resource properties document“. Great, thanks. The example provided happens to return a nodeset with only one node (a boolean), which is implicitly serialized into the text representation of that boolean. What if there is more than one node in the nodeset? What about other types of nodes?

Moving on to WS-Management, which defines a SOAP header that uses XPath to qualify a WS-Transfer GET request such that it only retrieves a subset of the target XML document. While it does a better job than WS-RP at describing the input (e.g. it specifies the context node and what namespace declarations are in scope for the XPath evaluation) it is even more cavalier than WS-RP in describing the output: “the output (lines 53-55) is like that supplied by a typical XPath processor and might or might not contain XML namespace information or attributes“. By “a typical XPath processor” we should understand MSXML I suppose. But as far as I know a “typical XML processor” doesn’t return XML, it returns language-specific data structures (e.g. a C# or Java object, like a nu.xom.Nodes instance). And here too, the examples only use single-node nodesets.

WS-ResourceTransfer (WS-RT) was supposed to be the convergence of these two efforts, so presumably it would have learned from their mistakes. While it is better written in general than its predecessors, it fails just as badly with regards to specifying the nodeset serialization. And once again, the example provided uses a nodeset with just one node.

And then came the CMDBf query operation which, for some unclear reason, was deemed in need of a built-in XPath transformation of records. As I pointed out in my review of CMDBf 1.0 at the time, this feature was added without taking the pain to define the XML serialization of the resulting nodeset. And there isn’t even an example of the XPath serialization.

It is sad in a way, but the only specification that acknowledges the problem and addresses it came before any of the four above even got started. It is the WSMF (Web Services Management Framework) work that we did at HP, and more specifically the “note on dynamic attributes and meta information” (not available at HP anymore but available from archive.org) . This specification was the first one to define a GET operation that is qualified by an XPath expression. Unlike its successors it also explicitly narrowed down the types of nodes that could be selected (“The manager MUST NOT send as input an XPath statement that returns a nodeset containing nodes other than element, attribute and namespace nodes“). And for those valid types it described how to serialized them in XML (“When a node in the result nodeset is an attribute node, for the sake of the response it is serialized as an element node which has the same name as the name of the original attribute (see example 4 for an illustration). The element is in the same namespace as the namespace the attribute it represents is in. This applies to namespace nodes as well, they are serialized like an attributes in the xmlns namespace“). Turning an attribute into an element of the same QName might not be the smartest thing in retrospect (after all there may be an element by that QName already) but at least we recognized and addressed the problem.

But all is good now, I am told, because XPath 2.0 is here, along with a clean data model and a well-described serialization.

Not so. Anyone wanting to use XPath for a SOAP-based query language still would have to specify a serialization.

The first problem with the W3C serialization is that the XML output method doesn’t work for all nodesets. Try to use it on a nodeset that contains a top-level attribute node and you get error err:SENR0001. And even for the nodesets it accepts, it sometimes returns less-than-useful results. For example, if your XPath is of the form /employee/name/text() and you have four employees, the result will look something like this:

“Joe SmithKathy O’ConnorHelen MartinBrian Jones”

Concatenated text values without separators. I guess W3C is like a department store, they don’t offer complimentary wrapping anymore…

That’s why the nux.xom.xquery.ResultSequenceSerializer class had to define its own wrapping mechanims to produce a useful XML serialization. The API gives you the choice between the W3C_ALGORITHM and the WRAP_ALGORITHM.

Bottom line, and however much some would like to think of it that way, XPath (1 or 2) is not an XML subsetting/transformation mechanism. It could be used to create one (as XSLT does), but you have to do your own plumbing.

In addition to the technical aspects of this discussion, what else can be learned from this sad state of things? The fact that all these specifications define an XPath-driven query mechanism that is simply broken (beyond the simplest use cases) withouth anyone even noticing tells me that there isn’t a real need for full XPath query over SOAP (and I am talking about XPath 1.0, the introduction of XPath 2.0 in CMDBf is even more out there). A way to retrieve individual elements (and maybe text values) is all that is needed for 99% of the use cases addressed by these specifications. Users would be better served (especially in a version 1.0) by specifications that cover the simple case correctly than by overly generic, complex and poorly documented features. There is always time to add features later if the initial specification is successful enough that users encounter its limitations.

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Filed under CMDB Federation, CMDBf, Everything, SOAP, Specs, Standards, Tech, W3C, WS-Management, WS-ResourceTransfer, XPath