IDLs vs. Human Documentation

January 16th, 2008  |  Published in code generation, CORBA, documentation, IDL, WSDL  |  Bookmark on

Patrick Mueller responded to my previous blog posting on interface definition languages, and I wanted to comment on his response. Long ago Patrick was involved in defining the Smalltalk bindings for CORBA IDL, so he’s a CORBA veteran like me, and in the big picture we agree on many things. It’s nice having him cast a critical eye on this stuff.

Note that Patrick mostly talks about data schemas, whereas my posting talks only of interface definition languages. These are two very different things, which I’ve noted in comments on his blog. In a reply comment he said they’re both metadata, which is true, but still, they’re very separable. REST depends heavily on data definitions, but it doesn’t require specialized interface definitions because it promotes a uniform interface. For data definition REST relies on and promotes media/MIME types, and the standardization of such data definitions is critical to allowing independently-developed consumers and providers to interact correctly. I doubt Patrick and I really disagree on this last point.

One area where we apparently do disagree, though, is in the area of documentation. In my previous post I said that users of services ultimately rely on human-generated and human-readable documentation, not interface definition languages, to ensure their consuming applications interact correctly with those services. Patrick commented:

The documentation? What documentation? I’m picturing here that Steve has in mind a separate document (separate from the code, not generated from the code) written by a developer. But human generated documentation like this is still schema, only it’s not understandable by machines, pretty much guaranteed to get out of sync with the code, probably incomplete and/or imprecise. Not that machine generated schema might fare any better, but it couldn’t be any worse.

But there are more problems with this thought. The notion of hand-crafted documentation for an API is quaint, but impractical if I’m dealing with more than a handful of APIs.

I understand what Patrick’s saying here. Yes, documentation can get stale and out of sync. Still, I disagree. I’ve been near interface definition languages for at least 20 years now, and never once — not even once — have I seen anyone develop a consuming application without relying on some form of human-oriented documentation for the service being consumed. Such documentation might be as simple as a conversation with a developer across the hall, or reading comments in the definition language file itself, or might be from a README, email, a web page, a wiki, a Word document, a PDF, or a whole formal specification. I mean, what if the OMG had published only the ORB and Object Services IDL interfaces without the accompanying reams of human-oriented description and definition? Or if WSDL were enough, why the need for so many pages of human-oriented WS-* documentation?

Like I said in my previous post, interface definition languages exist for machines to generate code. They’re totally inadequate, though, for instructing developers on how to write code to use a service. The need for human documentation in this context isn’t quaint or impractical at all — it’s simply reality.