TONY HEY ON THE NEED FOR WEB SERVICES STANDARDS

By By Tony Hey, Contributing Editor

January 10, 2005

The UK e-Science Initiative, which started in 2001, began by gaining some understanding of the problems of implementing distributed middleware services that crossed institutional boundaries by evaluating the then current NASA Information Power Grid software — which primarily consisted of the Globus Toolkit, Condor and the Storage Resource Broker packages. But even in 2001, it was clear that any future distributed middleware that wished to have support and tooling from the IT industry would have to be based on Web services. However, it is an unfortunate fact that, although the Web services movement is supported by all the IT companies, even at the end of 2004, this “grand project” is still very much “work in progress.” The presently accepted Web services certainly do not constitute a satisfactory basis to construct a robust, international Cyberinfrastructure — “e-Infrastructure” in Europe — on which to build novel and demanding e-Science and business applications.

This is a problem. Funding agencies in the United States, Europe and Asia are funding many hundreds of e-Science or “Grid” projects, all of which involve one or more forms of distributed data, computation and collaboration. In the United States alone, even in the absence of a long-delayedCyberinfrastructure initiative along the lines recommended by theAtkins Report, the NSF is funding over $400 million worth of “e-Science” projects per year. In the United Kingdom, with the present dollar exchange rate, the e-Science program amounts to some $500 million over five years. Germany and the Netherlands have just announced 90-million- and 50-million-Euro e-Science programs, respectively, and the European Commission have launched over 400 million Euros worth of new Grid projects. China and Japan also have ambitious and significant e-Science programs.

To underpin all of this activity we need a set of standard middleware services that enable the coordinated, collaborative use of distributed resources (computation, data sets, facilities). This set of middleware services — determined by the application requirements — is what I call the”Grid,” as a shorthand for distributed middleware infrastructure or Cyberinfrastructure, according to my definition. There is clearly awhole community of scientistsand engineers — in both academia and industry — all gearing up tomake scientific and commercial e-Science and Cyberinfrastructureapplications a reality. So what is the problem? The problem lies with the slow pace of the standards process and the ongoing Web services standards “wars.”

A quick aside on Web services. This is the distributed computing technology that the IT industry is trying to define to be the building blocks for building loosely-coupled, distributed applications, based on Service Oriented Architecture principles. Web services interact by exchanging messages in SOAP format while the contracts for the message exchanges that implement those interactions are described via WSDL and other metadata formats. When a SOAP message arrives at a Web service, it is first handled by the service's message processing logic which transforms network level SOAP messages into something more tangible for applications to deal with (such as domain-specific objects). Once the message has been consumed, its contents are then processed by the application logic, making use of the resources available to the service. Typically, some response is then generated which is fed back via one or more messages.

By encapsulating the internal resources within the service, and providing a layer of application logic between those resources and the consumers, the owners of the service are free to evolve its internal structure over time (for example to improve its performance or dependability), without making changes to the message exchange patterns that are used by existing service consumers. This encourages loose-coupling between consumers and service providers, which is important in inter-enterprise computing, as no one party is in complete control of all parts of the distributed application. However, loose-coupling does not mean that the functionality of applications is compromised, since the set of existing and emerging Web services specifications should allow distributed application builders to model complex interactions between services.

Web services specifications can be divided into two classes. Infrastructure specifications define generic aspects of services (or other specifications), e.g. WSDL, WS-Security and the proposed “Grid” service WSRF. High-level specifications define domain specific aspects of services, e.g. a data access and integration service specification. Policy also plays a key role in a service oriented architecture. While WSDL describes the functional characteristics of a Web service — such as operations supported, messages sent and consumed — the non-functional requirements associated with service invocation are also a very important aspect of Web services and service oriented architectures in general. WS-Policy and WS-PolicyAttachment describe a foundation policy framework within which the behaviors associated with a service — such as security, transactionality, reliability and so on — can be specified. Conceptually, WSDL and WS-Policy are peers in the Web services stack. Now read on …

By leveraging the developments in Web services technologies, Grid architects will be able to exploit the tools, documentation, educational materials, and experience from the Web services community when building applications, without having to create a parallel set of solutions. This will allow the Grid community to concentrate on building the higher-level services that are specific to the Grid application domain while the responsibility for the underlying infrastructure is left to IT industry. The software vendors will work on standardizing the Web services technologies, developing production-quality tooling, achieving wide adoption, testing for the interoperability of the implementations of those standards, educating developers, etc.

This all sounds very desirable and obvious. So, again, where is the problem? At this point in time there are a large number of industry-led standardization efforts, only some of which are being developed within an open standards organization. This makes it difficult for a user to identify those that have completed the standardization process, those that are proprietary standards or indeed those that may have little future in terms of broad acceptance. The sheer number of specifications and the mixed signals coming from industry due to competing specifications in similar areas can leave application architects with the impression that there is no single clear vision for Web services. Even where there is a clear need for a standard (e.g., workflow, security, transactions, notification), it is still taking a long time for a widely accepted one to emerge. Different sets of vendors are producing competing specifications and it will therefore take time to resolve the differences in a manner that is both technically and commercially acceptable.

The uncertainty that this range of specifications creates becomes a real problem for developers who must choose which specifications to use in their implementations. If a specification is chosen too early in its lifecycle, then developers may suffer from lack of tool support as well as instability due to changes incurred as the specification evolves through a standardization process. In the worst case, a specification may never be widely adopted, and so will over time wither and die, adversely impacting any services that chose to adopt it.

What can be done about this and who should take the lead? The “Men in Black” theory of standards suggests that a Web Service specification that is supported by both Microsoft and IBM is most likely to achieve widespread acceptance. Indeed, it was not so long ago that Bill Gates from Microsoft and Steve Mills from IBM shared a stage and gave guarantees that their implementations of Web services would interoperate with each other. The problem is that this agreement apparently does not extend to Web services for Grids. Examples of competing or overlapping specifications relevant to Grids are WS-Eventing, WS-Transfer, WS-Enumeration and WS-Management, supported by Microsoft and others; and WS-Notification, WS-ResourceFramework and WS-DistributedManagement, supported by IBM and their friends. The resolution is not so obvious — since both companies approach Web services from very different commercial perspectives. Microsoft is concerned with keeping Web Services as simple as possible and easy to implement efficiently on Intel architectures. By contrast, IBM is concerned with defining more sophisticated Web services that can be used to create robust applications for commercial data centers.

However, by not reaching some compromise, both Microsoft and IBM risk confusing and antagonizing their major commercial customers. At a recent meeting in Europe, I counted dozens of major companies involved in the latest set of European Grid projects — Atos Origin, DataMat, Telenor, EADS, ESI, MSC, BAESystems, Boeing, SAP, T-Systems, Daimler-Chrysler, Audi, GlaxoSmithKlein and BT, among others, as well as Microsoft and IBM. All of these are multi-national companies with multi-vendor IT systems and it makes no sense for Microsoft and IBM to continue to talk past each other about Grids. Agreement on these low level standards is a matter of urgency for the world-wide e-Science and Grid research and business community and needs some resolution as soon as possible. Only Microsoft and IBM can provide the necessary leadership and this is what they need to show now. Only when these Web services standards have been stabilized can the Global Grid Forum concentrate on defining and standardizing, where appropriate, the higher level services that will constitute the Open Grid Services Architecture.

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