Internet Computing Call for Special Issue Proposals

January 22nd, 2008  |  Published in distributed systems, integration, performance, publishing, REST, reuse, scalability, services  |  Bookmark on

As you may know, I’m a columnist for IEEE Internet Computing (IC), and I’m also on their editorial board. Our annual board meeting is coming up, so to help with planning, we’ve issued a call for special issue proposals.

The topics that typically come up in this blog and others it connects to are pretty much all fair game as special issue topics: REST and the programmatic web, service definition languages, scalability issues, intermediation, tools, reuse, development languages, back-end integration, etc. Putting together a special issue doesn’t take a lot of work, either. It requires you to find 3-4 authors each willing to contribute an article, reviewers to review those articles (and IC can help with that), and a couple others to work with you as editors. As editors you also have to write a brief introduction for the special issue. I’ve done a few special issues over the years and if you enlist the right authors, it’s a lot less work than you might think.

As far as technical magazines go, IC is typically one of the most cited, usually second only to IEEE Software, as measured by independent firms. I think one reason for this is that it has a nice balance of industry and academic articles, so its pages provide information relevant to both the practitioner and the researcher.

Ron Schmelzer on ESBs

October 24th, 2007  |  Published in integration, services  |  Bookmark on

A little over a week ago, Ron Schmelzer of ZapThink, who’s pretty well known as an expert SOA analyst, quietly snuck an interesting comment into the ESB brouhaha that developed here recently. The ESB proponents who expressed displeasure at my view of ESBs, especially those who quoted ZapThink in their defense, will want to read what Ron had to say. If you don’t feel like chasing that link, here’s what he said:

The poster (Curt) who says that ZapThink says that ESBs are an enabling technology on the road to SOA has mischaracterized our position. Speaking from ZapThink’s perspective, we don’t believe that ESBs are neither necessary nor sufficient to enable SOA. In fact, we’ve seen plenty of SOA solutions that leverage a wide variety of non-ESB infrastructure. To be as unambiguous as possible: ESB is vendor marketing spin. True, there is certainly capabilities within an ESB that *might* enable companies to produce truly loosely coupled, composite, and heterogeneous Services in an environment of continuous change, but you can just as easily build tightly-coupled, proprietary, point-to-point Service integration with ESBs. There’s nothing about an ESB that substitutes for the need to do architecture. And there’s nothing about architecture that requires the adherence to a particular technological infrastructure.

If you want to make SOA work in a heterogeneous environment, why would you want to limit yourself to one technology, one approach? You’re buying right into their strategy of locking you into a platform. That’s only good if you sell platforms. Wake up folks – architecture is YOUR responsibility, not that of some vendors hawking middleware!

So, don’t put ZapThink in the camp of the ESB bigots. We certainly are not. Implement SOA with intermediaries and REST. Why not?

The Degenerating ESB Discussion

October 6th, 2007  |  Published in enterprise, integration, REST, services, WS-*  |  Bookmark on

In a comment to the many comments on my post entitled “The ESB Question,” Bill de hÓra gets it right:

I’m disappointed with the responses here. Steve’s an expert technologist in this domain. There’s a real opportunity for learning when the ESB approach is *appropriate* – instead we see the same old reactionary web v enterprise positioning and the usual suspect arguments being rolled out against REST style integration.

Bill’s right; the discussion has unfortunately mostly degenerated into the usual no-light-all-heat “us vs. them” argument. I especially object to the folks who twist what I say and accuse me of saying things that I never even remotely hinted at, but I guess that’s the price of blogging publicly.

I’m not going to try to address the comments individually, especially the ones from the guys who, amusingly, wrote lengthy diatribes explaining to me just what ESBs are, what they’re supposed to do, and why they’re beneficial. Yes, guys, I get all that. Perhaps you should go back and read some of my publications from 3, or 4, or 5 years ago? Funny how I don’t recall any of you being around back then, when I felt more positive about ESBs (hint, it was before that term was coined) and I was blogging and writing to that effect.

Arguing this issue on technical merits is rather pointless. One of the best comments in this thread was from Dan Hatfield:

Honestly, I see the ESB as primarily a political thing. It allows for a greater degree of control on delivered solutions. In large companies, we don’t often do architecture – we do politecture…The politics drive the architecture. Not the way it should be…but that’s the way it is.

So true, so true. Another non-technical way to look at it is from the viewpoint of Clayton Christensen’s classic book, The Innovator’s Dilemma. For quite a few years now, we’ve seen a series of sustaining innovations in the “object/service RPC” line of descent originally popularized by CORBA and COM, both of which built on earlier RPC, distributed object, and TP monitor technologies. RMI, EJB, SOAP, WS-*, and ESB are all offspring in that line, and there are surely more to come. I feel that REST, on the other hand, fits the definition of a disruptive innovation perfectly (and if you’re too lazy to read the book, then please at least follow the link, otherwise you won’t understand this at all). The proponents of the sustaining technologies look at REST and say, “well it can’t solve this and it can’t solve that” and voice numerous other complaints about it, precisely as Christensen predicts they would. But Chistensen also explains why, at the end of the day, any real or perceived technical shortcomings simply don’t matter (and in this case, they’re mostly perceived, not real). HTTP-based REST approaches have a lower barrier to entry and are less complex than anything the sustaining technologies have to offer, and REST is disrupting them, whether all the smart folks pushing ESBs like it or not. It’s not a technical issue, and there’s no amount of technology the non-REST tribe can throw at it to stop it because it’s based on how markets work, not on the technical specifics.

At the end of the day, if you don’t think REST is viable or you don’t like dynamic languages, then don’t use them. It just means that you’re at a different point than I am on the Technology Adoption Lifecycle curve. Like I already said in my first follow-up, I’m not in that business anymore, so it doesn’t matter to me at all. I’ll just keep using what I know to be generally superior to all the other approaches I’ve worked on over the years.

Reactions to the ESB Question

October 4th, 2007  |  Published in enterprise, integration, REST, services, WS-*  |  Bookmark on

Comments and reactions to my previous post have been interesting. Rather than responding to comments by adding more comments to that post, let me address them here:

  • Mark says what I’m recommending isn’t entirely new. And you know what: he’s exactly right! What might be interesting, though, is why he’s right. I pushed these ideas surrounding REST and dynamic languages for a number of years in my former position before finally leaving that position, partly because those ideas were not getting the level of attention I felt they deserved. So yes, the ideas are certainly nothing new today, but they were reasonably new back then.
  • REST is unproven. Sigh. I can’t decide if people say this because they’re just trying to stir up an argument, or they’re so heavily biased toward their non-REST approaches that they just can’t even consider that there might be viable alternatives, or they really have no clue about what REST is, how it works, and why it works, and they’re not interested in learning it, so they just react badly whenever they hear it, or all of the above. If you’re anti-REST or REST-ignorant, and you haven’t read RESTful Web Services, then don’t even talk to me about REST. The book is absolutely wonderful, and its explanations and answers are extremely clear. If you consider yourself informed and capable when it comes to distributed systems and integration, but you don’t know REST, then there’s simply no way you can read that book and not have it lead you to seriously question your core beliefs regarding how you think such systems should be built, unless you’re completely close-minded of course.
  • Are you saying we should throw everything out and redo it with REST and dynamic languages? No, not at all. I would never advocate wholesale rip-and-replace, because the cure is almost always worse than the disease. I’m simply saying that many integration projects can be done easier and with less expense if you use those tools and approaches (and please notice I said “many,” not “all”).
  • Steve’s thrown out the baby with the bathwater. It seems that people might not have read my entire post, because a number seem to think I said that ESBs should never be used at all. That’s not what I said; if you read all the way to the bottom, you’ll see that I explained some conditions under which I thought they can come in mighty handy.
  • What do mono-language programmers have to do with ESBs? It’s all part of the same culture, the “one size fits all” approach, where you have answers looking for problems rather than the other way around, and where people intentionally wear blinders to less expensive, more productive, and far more flexible and agile approaches because “it’s just not the way we do things around here.”
  • Are you seriously recommending dynamic languages for enterprise integration projects?! Hmm, that’s mighty enterprisey of you to ask that. Yes, that’s exactly what I’m recommending, because they’re solid, fast, flexible, smaller and therefore less buggy, easily deployed, easily maintained, and the solutions you get by using them will be in production well ahead of your traditional compiled languages.

At the end of the day, if you want to ignore my advice on using REST and dynamic languages, that’s your own problem. You won’t get any arguments from me, because I’m not in that business anymore. All I know is that I’m using them very successfully as part of what I’m working on these days, and it’s simply glorious.

The ESB Question

October 4th, 2007  |  Published in enterprise, integration, REST, services, WS-*  |  Bookmark on

The other day, the always-insightful Patrick Logan questioned whether ESBs are worth using. It’s definitely a good question.

In a previous life, I helped develop ESBs. I’ve written about them and I’ve promoted them. But somewhere along the way, I lost the religion.

It happened over a period of years as I learned more about REST, and as I learned how simple it was to develop integration systems using dynamic languages, which I’ve always been a fan of (for example, you can still find my name in the Perl source distribution, from about 20 years back when I ported it to Apollo Domain/OS). Despite the fact that I did it for years, I can’t understand anymore why anyone would subject themselves to writing integration systems or frameworks in imperative compiled languages like Java or C++. Doing it from scratch in such languages means that you’re definitely staring at a multi-year project, if you want to do it right. Or, if you’d rather use some sort of ESB platform or middleware framework underneath, you’re still looking at a number of months just to get anything nontrivial fully written, tested, and deployed.

Some of the mindset behind ESB-type middleware is the desire to do everything in Java or C++. Many developers just want to write some code and plug it into a magical framework that transparently handles all the distribution, persistence, security, transactions, and reliability underneath. Chuckle. Underlying frameworks just grow and grow as they try to provide all this, and so they develop more bugs, more inconsistencies, more special cases, less flexibility, and less reliability as time goes on, not to mention foisting on the unwary the XML configuration hell that Patrick alluded to.

Eventually, these mono-language programmers end up completely incapable of addressing a problem unless they can see how to implement it in their One True Language™. Too many programmers I’ve encountered over the decades know only a single programming language, with many of them even lacking in that one language. They therefore tend to settle into areas that let them use that language no matter what, all day, every day, even if it means writing hundreds of lines of code that could easily be replaced by just a few lines of a language better suited to the problem.

Another mindset behind the ESB is that of the enterprise architect. Large enterprises believe they can save themselves a lot of money and trouble if they can just get the whole enterprise to agree on a single integration architecture. Unfortunately, that’s pretty much impossible because of autonomous divisions independently building/buying and deploying different solutions, because of acquisitions and mergers that bring in different technologies and tools, and because of legacy systems that never seem to go away. The ESB appeals to such architects because it’s touted as being so flexible that it can accommodate everything in the enterprise and then some. This flexibility allows the architect to mandate it as “the standard,” and then proceed to beat up the ESB vendor to add this and that, while also beating up teams within the enterprise to use the ESB for everything whether it really fits or not. The ESB becomes like one of those tools you see on late-night TV, where it’s a screwdriver and a hammer and a wrench and fishing reel and a paint brush, and plus you can flip it over and it can make you a grilled cheese sandwich. Of course, such tools always end up not doing any of those things particularly well.

So, why not just do things the way Patrick suggested: when faced with an integration problem, just grab the nearest dynamic language, such as Ruby or Python, grab the modules they provide that surely cover whatever protocols and formats are needed for the integration, and code it up in just a day or two? Well, ESB proponents would say that this would never do because you end up with way too many one-off solutions, while mono-compiled-language proponents would natter on pointlessly about type safety, compilers preventing errors, and performance. An assumption behind these arguments is that the integration problem being solved requires high performance, and that the solution will live for a long time. In my experience, these assumptions are rarely correct, especially the second one, since business rules change so rapidly nowadays that the integrations required to implement them change all the time as well.

Frankly, if I were an enterprise architect today, and I were genuinely concerned about development costs, agility, and extensibility, I’d be looking to solve everything I possibly could with dynamic languages and REST, and specifically the HTTP variety of REST. I’d avoid ESBs and the typical enterprise middleware frameworks unless I had a problem that really required them (see below). I’d also try to totally avoid SOAP and WS-*.

The only place I can imagine using an ESB would be if I had some legacy systems that just couldn’t be replaced, had to be made to talk to each other, and there were significant measured (as opposed to imagined) performance issues to be addressed within the integration. Under such circumstances, the right ESB could shine; I’ve seen those circumstances, and I’ve seen an ESB solve exactly that problem on a number of occasions, and solve it well. But on the whole, such scenarios don’t really arise that often.