Inside the big house....

Back in December of last year and about two weeks before I publicly announced that I will be working from Microsoft, I started a nine-part series on REST/POX* programming with Indigo WCF. (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9). Since then, the WCF object model has seen quite a few feature and usability improvements across the board and those are significant enough to justify that I rewrite the entire series to get it up to the February CTP level and I will keep updating it through Vista/WinFX Beta2 and as we are marching towards our RTM. We've got a few changes/extensions in our production pipeline to make the REST/POX story for WCF v1 stronger and I will track those changes with yet another re-release of this series.

Except in one or two occasions, I haven't re-posted a reworked story on my blog. This here is quite a bit different, because of it sheer size and the things I learned in the process of writing it and developing the code along the way. So even though it is relatively new, it's already due for an end-to-end overhaul to represent my current thinking. It's also different, because I am starting to cross-post content to http://blogs.msdn.com/clemensv with this post; however http://friends.newtelligence.net/clemensv remains my primary blog since that runs my engine ;-)

Listening

The "current thinking" is of course very much influenced by now working for the team that builds WCF instead of being a customer looking at things from the outside. That changes the perspective quite a bit. One great insight I gained is how non-dogmatic and customer-oriented our team is. When I started the concrete REST/POX work with WCF back in last September (on the customer side still working with newtelligence), the extensions to the HTTP transport that enabled this work were just showing up in the public builds and they were sometimes referred to as the "Tim/Aaaron feature". Tim Ewald and Aaron Skonnard had beat the drums for having simple XML (non-SOAP) support in WCF so loudly that the team investigated the options and figured that some minimal changes to the HTTP transport would enable most of these scenarios**. Based on that feature, I wrote the set of dispatcher extensions that I've been presenting in the V1 of this series and newtellivision as the applied example did not only turn out to be a big hit as a demo, it also was one of many motivations to give the REST/POX scenario even deeper consideration within the team.

REST/POX is a scenario we think about as a first-class scenario alongside SOAP-based messaging - we are working with the ASP.NET Atlas team to integrate WCF with their AJAX story and we continue to tweak the core WCF product to enable those scenarios in a more straightforward fashion. Proof for that is that my talk (PPT here) at the MIX06 conference in Las Vegas two weeks ago was entirely dedicated to the non-SOAP scenarios.

What does that say about SOAP? Nothing. There are two parallel worlds of application-level network communication that live in peaceful co-existence:

  • Simple point-to-point, request/response scenarios with limited security requirements and no need for "enterprise features" along the lines of reliable messaging and transaction integration.
  • Rich messaging scenarios with support for message routing, reliable delivery, discoverable metadata, out-of-band data, transactions, one-way and duplex, etcetc.

The Faceless Web

The first scenario is the web as we know it. Almost. HTTP is an incredibly rich application protocol once you dig into RFC2616 and look at the methods in detail and consider response codes beyond 200 and 404. HTTP is strong because it is well-defined, widely supported and designed to scale, HTTP is weak because it is effectively constrained to request/response, there is no story for server-to-client notifications and it abstracts away the inherent reliability of the transmission-control protocol (TCP). These pros and cons lists are not exhaustive.

What REST/POX does is to elevate the web model above the "you give me text/html or */* and I give you application/x-www-form-urlencoded" interaction model. Whether the server punts up markup in the form of text/html or text/xml or some other angle-bracket dialect or some raw binary isn't too interesting. What's changing the way applications are built and what is really creating the foundation for, say, AJAX is that the path back to the server is increasingly XML'ised. PUT and POST with a content-type of text/xml is significantly different from application/x-www-form-urlencoded. What we are observing is the emancipation of HTTP from HTML to a degree that the "HT" in HTTP is becoming a misnomer. Something like IXTP ("Interlinked XML Transport Protocol" - I just made that up) would be a better fit by now.

The astonishing bit in this is that there has been been no fundamental technology change that has been driving this. The only thing I can identify is that browsers other than IE are now supporting XMLHTTP and therefore created the critical mass for broad adoption. REST/POX rips the face off the web and enables a separation of data and presentation in a way that mashups become easily possible and we're driving towards a point where the browser cache becomes more of an application repository than merely a place that holds cacheable collateral. When developing the newtellivision application I have spent quite a bit of time on tuning the caching behavior in a way that HTML and script are pulled from the server only when necessary and as static resources and all actual interaction with the backend services happens through XMLHTTP and in REST/POX style. newtellivision is not really a hypertext website, it's more like a smart client application that is delivered through the web technology stack.

Distributed Enterprise Computing

All that said, the significant investments in SOAP and WS-* that were made my Microsoft and industry partners such as Sun, IBM, Tibco and BEA have their primary justification in the parallel universe of highly interoperable, feature-rich intra and inter-application communication as well as in enterprise messaging. Even though there was a two-way split right through through the industry in the 1990s with one side adopting the Distributed Computing Environment (DCE) and the other side driving the Common Object Request Broker Architecture (CORBA), both of these camps made great advances towards rich, interoperable (within their boundaries) enterprise communication infrastructures. All of that got effectively killed by the web gold-rush starting in 1994/1995 as the focus (and investment) in the industry turned to HTML/HTTP and to building infrastructures that supported the web in the first place and everything else as a secondary consideration. The direct consequence of the resulting (even if big) technology islands hat sit underneath the web and the neglect of inter-application communication needs was that inter-application communication has slowly grown to become one of the greatest industry problems and cost factors. Contributing to that is that the average yearly number of corporate mergers and acquisitions has tripled compared to 10-15 years ago (even though the trend has slowed in recent years) and the information technology dependency of today's corporations has grown to become one of the deciding if not the deciding competitive factor for an ever increasing number of industries.

What we (the industry as a whole) are doing now and for the last few years is that we're working towards getting to a point where we're both writing the next chapter of the story of the web and we're fixing the distributed computing story at the same time by bringing them both onto a commonly agreed platform. The underpinning of that is XML; REST/POX is the simplest implementation. SOAP and the WS-* standards elevate that model up to the distributed enterprise computing realm.

If you compare the core properties of SOAP+WS-Adressing and the Internet Protocol (IP) in an interpretative fashion side-by-side and then also compare the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) to WS-ReliableMessaging it may become quite clear to you what a fundamental abstraction above the networking stacks and concrete technology coupling the WS-* specification family has become. Every specification in the long list of WS-* specs is about converging and unifying formerly proprietary approaches to messaging, security, transactions, metadata, management, business process management and other aspects of distributed computing into this common platform.

Convergence

The beauty of that model is that it is an implementation superset of the web. SOAP is the out-of-band metadata container for these abstractions. The key feature of SOAP is SOAP:Header, which provides a standardized facility to relay the required metadata alongside payloads. If you are willing to constrain out-of-band metadata to one transport or application protocol, you don't need SOAP.

There is really very little difference between SOAP and REST/POX in terms of the information model. SOAP carries headers and HTTP carries headers. In HTTP they are bolted to the protocol layer and in SOAP they are tunneled through whatever carries the envelope. [In that sense, SOAP is calculated abuse of HTTP as a transport protocol for the purpose of abstraction.] You can map WS-Addressing headers from and to HTTP headers.

The SOAP/WS-* model is richer, more flexible and more complex. The SOAP/WS-* set of specifications is about infrastructure protocols. HTTP is an application protocol and therefore it is naturally more constrained - but has inherently defined qualities and features that require an explicit protocol implementation in the SOAP/WS-* world; one example is the inherent CRUD (create, read, update, delete) support in HTTP that is matched by the explicitly composed-on-top WS-Transfer protocol in SOAP/WS-*

The common platform is XML. You can scale down from SOAP/WS-* to REST/POX by putting the naked payload on the wire and rely on HTTP for your metadata, error and status information if that suits your needs. You can scale up from REST/POX to SOAP/WS-* by encapsulating payloads and leverage the WS-* infrastructure for all the flexibility and features it brings to the table. [It is fairly straightforward to go from HTTP to SOAP/WS-*, and it is harder to go the other way. That's why I say "superset".]

Doing the right thing for a given scenario is precisely what are enabling in WCF. There is a place for REST/POX for building the surface of the mashed and faceless web and there is a place for SOAP for building the backbone of it - and some may choose to mix and match these worlds. There are many scenarios and architectural models that suit them. What we want is

One Way To Program

* REST=REpresentational State Transfer; POX="Plain-Old XML" or "simple XML"