Push versus Pull

From OSCON via O’Reilly Radar here’s a good case study of an architectural decision driven by the system requirements rather than the usual religious considerations that pollute the bloggosphere.

FriendFeed needed update info from Flikr but a REST-based “pull” approach is highly inefficient in this case. Instead the solution architects opted for a “push” approach using xmpp as the message transport. This is a really good presentation because it goes into the architectural choices and implications of “push” versus “pull”.

I characterize this as “pull vs push” rather than “REST vs xmpp” (or “REST vs *” or “why REST is crap”) because fundamentally it comes down to the best choice of how to synchronize changes between systems. You make this choice based on the usage characteristics of the different systems, the likely traffic volumes this will result in and the consequential resource impacts. Having made the choice between push or pull you then choose the appropriate message transport.

The web doesn’t do a lot of “push” and consequently there is not a lot of discussion about push and REST. Dare Obasanjo characterises it nicely:

Polling is a good idea for RSS/Atom for a few reasons

  • there are a thousands to hundreds of thousands clients that might be interested in a resource so the server keeping track of subscriptions is prohibitively expensive
  • a lot of these end points aren’t persistently connected (i.e. your desktop RSS reader isn’t always running)
  • RSS/Atom publishing is as simple as plopping a file in the right directory and letting IIS or Apache work its magic

The situation between FriendFeed and Flickr is almost the exact opposite. Instead of thousands of clients interested in document, we have one subscriber interested in thousands of documents. Both end points are always on or are at least expected to be. The cost of developing a publish-subscribe model is one that both sides can afford.

Inside the firewall, the situation is often more akin to that between FriendFeed and Flikr. This is why messaging is more common inside the firewall than outside – not because of any universal superiority between REST versus messaging, but because the system requirements are different and often favour a push approach rather than pull.

While your over at Dare’s excellent Blog, be sure to also check out his discussion of push versus pull in the context of scaling Twitter and MS Exchange.  These are important considerations for designers of federated systems such as federated databases or federated messaging systems. The example of FriendFeed to Flikr could be considered as the first incremental step toward a federation.


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