Just What We Need: Another RPC Package

May 22nd, 2008  |  Published in commentary, distributed systems, IDL, integration, RPC, SOAP, WSDL  |  Bookmark on

I see from this CIO Magazine article that Cisco is releasing a new client/server messaging system called Etch. Sigh — those who don’t know history are indeed doomed to repeat it. Some choice quotes from the article:

This week Cisco Systems announced a new messaging protocol intended to allow developers to integrate client/server applications without the overhead of traditional protocols such as SOAP.

I was unaware that SOAP had become “traditional.”

One of its design goals was to create an inter-application communications technology without SOAP’s complexity and overhead, explained Marascio. While SOAP relies on a very complicated WSDL file to define the interface between the client and server, Etch uses a file in Cisco’s own interface definition language that shares many similarities to a Java interface file.

I bet this new IDL is not only simpler than WSDL, but it probably also avoids all the impedance mismatch problems that invariably occur when mapping IDL to programming languages.

In addition to a simplified configuration, Etch also promises less overhead over the wire, compared to SOAP. In a testbed environment where SOAP was managing around 900 calls a second, Etch generated more than 50,000 messages in a one-way mode, and 15,000 transactions with a full round-trip, company officials stated.

Oh good, the “performance presumption.” So now we’re back to where we were a decade ago, at least as far as message transfer rates go. I wonder if Etch also solves the problem that the bottlenecks usually lie elsewhere?

The Etch integration into Visual Studio and Eclipse will be very familiar to anyone who has used SOAP integration tools. After authoring the IDL definition, the developer tells the IDE to generate either a client stub or a server skeleton. The client stub is usable immediately; the developer needs only to configure the transport and endpoint, and to code the message calls.

On the server, the developer takes the skeleton and implements the business logic that lives inside the message handlers.

Now that’s what I call innovation!

Projects implementing their communications using Etch aren’t out of luck if they need to interoperate with SOAP, JSON, REST or other existing protocols. Cisco has already demonstrated the capability to easily create bridges between Etch and SOAP, according to Marascio. He said that turnkey bridges to SOAP and REST should be available six to nine months after the release of Etch.

Or, to put it another way: Etch is really just adding more stuff to be developed, tested, deployed, managed, maintained, and integrated, yet it doesn’t actually solve any new problems or solve any old problems better than what already exists.

Cisco also is examining the possibility of establishing Etch as a standard. Marascio pointed out that Cisco is well represented in the IETF, the main standards body for Internet protocols. Alternatively, Cisco might attempt to promote Etch as an industry standard, an effort that would be aided by Etch’s open source nature.

Well of course you want to standardize it — where would any new NIH RPC protocol be without an accompanying standards effort? Rather than the IETF, though, perhaps you ought to get those ISO OOXML guys to rubber-stamp it?

I find it hard to believe that in 2008 people are still inventing stuff like this. Sheesh. Color me underwhelmed.

More REST and IDL

January 20th, 2008  |  Published in CORBA, HTTP, IDL, REST, services, WSDL  |  Bookmark on

Regarding the REST and IDL discussion, Joe Gregorio already wrote an excellent explanation six months ago. Perhaps the rest of us should have just linked to it to begin with and avoided wasting our time rehashing it all.

But then again, rehashing is fun! :-) On the same topic, I agree with much of what Dare said, except for this:

When building services with WS-*, you have a WSDL to describe your methods & expected inputs/outputs and XSD schema(s) to describe the schemas for said inputs/outputs. When building a RESTful Web Service, the need for both of these documents does not go away regardless of how often you repeat the phrase “uniform interface”.

I still disagree. The HTTP verb set defines a RESTful uniform interface. When comparing CORBA IDL or WSDL to HTTP web services, that verb set must be considered because it’s the only thing that you can directly relate to IDL and WSDL interfaces. Otherwise, you’re talking apples and oranges. The uniform HTTP interface is the only way for applications to interact with web resources in the same sense that CORBA applications interact with CORBA objects, and WSDL applications interact with WSDL services.

Much of the typical IDL and WSDL definition is devoted to defining one or more specialized interfaces consisting of specialized methods/operations and specialized data types to pass across them. For web resources that use the uniform interface, however, there’s simply no need whatsoever to define interfaces like that. What are you going to do, define GET again and again for each of your resources, each time with exactly the same semantics already specified in RFC 2616? Obviously not.

It’s easy to see that Joe’s OpenSearch document bears no semantic resemblance to a CORBA IDL or WSDL definition. Similarly, an AtomPub service document is nothing like IDL or WSDL either. Both of those documents essentially inform you of service URIs and media types, but they don’t define methods or operations. They don’t have to, because of the HTTP uniform interface. That’s important, and it’s why I disagree with Dare’s point quoted above.

Consider the mindset of the CORBA and WS-* developer. They use systems that force them to always think about all their service endpoints in terms of specialized interfaces. Given how much time I’ve spent in that world (and don’t forget, I still use CORBA too), I know for certain that the concept of the uniform interface is one of the big items that trips these developers up when they try to figure out what REST is about. It’s therefore important to keep the uniform interface as part of the conversation.

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.