October 14, 2004

The difference between Web and Middleware

Service Oriented Architectures By: ams

Mark Nottingham wrote:

From the standpoint of interface semantics, the difference here is really just one between saying “POST machineMgmtFormat” and “MANAGEMACHINE.” In the uniform approach, the service-specific semantics are pushed down into the type (media type) and content (entity body) of the data. In the specific approach, they’re surfaced in the interface itself.

This isn’t a big difference… While there isn’t much technical difference between these approaches, there’s a big gap in how people can use them. In HTTP, creating new methods is expensive, while creating new URIs is very, very cheap. OTOH, Web services makes creating new methods cheap, while making the creation of new URIs expensive. This is not because either approach is technically limited; it’s due to the design of both the specifications — like WSDL — and the toolkits that people use.

Bill de hÓra adds:

While HTTP does allow for addition, practically speaking, the verb set is fixed. It has taken years for WebDAV additions to HTTP* to penetrate more than a fraction of the Web. Other efforts, such as HTTPR, an extension for reliable messaging, have gone nowhere. Even within the mandated verb set of HTTP itself, we find the availibility of verbs varies widely (notably PUT and DELETE) with entire eco-systems (such as mobile device clients) having only a subset. One can argue that the active verb set of HTTP comprises a subset of 3 verbs – HEAD, GET, POST – anything else is dead tongue.

The problem with HTTP POST, and what makes it special, is that it is a semantic catchall. What makes POST a uniform speech act is ironically the absence of interesting semantics and lack of specificity. Although it has specifications that are helpful to people when dealing with caches and state management, there’s no controlled means of defining what one is actually saying with it, without some further and prior agreement between client and server. The reality is that POST has been overloaded and abused to get systems talking even where such systems would have done better with an alternate verb – and the result is that in many systems the POST speech act is close to meaningless. WS-Transfer aims to throw some light into this void by providing a means to add consistent meaning to operations that would often be drilled through POST. In particular this may prove valuable for use with web services toolkits which are often designed to hide the networking aspect of communications from the developer.

Systems are being built, week in, week out, than cross the Web/Middleware boundary without being informed by both approaches and where they are approriate. This implies projects with excess risks and costs, wasted effort, re-learning of best practices or what is already in the state of the art. This is all the more important now that systems that incorporate web and middleware aspects are increasingly the norm (the size of the industry sector affected is significant).

At CommerceNet Labs we have a team of people who jump back and forth between the Web and middleware worlds regularly, and none of us find ourselves enthusiastic about WS-Transfer. I’m trying to figure out why that is. Perhaps it’s Mark Nottingham’s Web services has no architecture observation.

Perhaps it’s the potential for verb proliferation getting out of hand. Perhaps it’s just general WS-* malaise. Or perhaps it’s the feeling that this protocol feels more complicated than HTTP for most applications that come to mind. Services shouldn’t have to be complicated, right?

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