The Year of Living Asynchronously

Happy New Year! Asynchronicity is busting out all over the web and my prediction is that 2010 will be the year of “events”:

  • Of course Twitter has brought The concept of publish/subscribe messaging to the masses and we enjoyed their journey of discovery to the heights of scalability in 2009.
  • XMPP has been embraced by the real-time web crowd, most publicly in Google Wave but also in other “back-web” contexts such as Gnip.
  • Web sockets is an experimental feature of HTML 5 which enables push messages directly to web pages.
  • New frameworks for event-driven programming are emerging such as EventMachine, Twisted, Node.js.
  • In 2009 every major software vendor had a CEP product.

In the meantime, SOA has become so damn synchronous. But it doesn’t have to be!

One of the fundamental tennets of SOA is that reducing coupling between systems makes them more scalable, reliable and agile (easier to change). SOA goes a long way to reducing coupling by providing a contract-based, platform independent mechanism for service providers and consumers to cooperate. However I still think we can improve on current SOA practices in further reducing coupling.

Coupling still intrudes into many aspects of how SOA is practiced today:

  • HTTP transports tie us to a regimen of synchronous request-reply with timeouts which creates tight couplings between provider and consumer. Even though one-way MEPs were an original feature of SOAP, message-oriented transports remain the forgotten orphan of web-services standards.
  • Many SOA services are conceived, implemented and maintained as point-to-point entities…providers and consumers forced into lock-step due to inadequate versioning and lifecycle management.
  • Process orchestration layers often form a bridge between service providers and consumers, which on the face of it provides some level of indirection. But in many cases orchestration provides limited value and may actually serve to increase the overall system coupling.

In many cases we can achieve the benefits of service orientation to much greater effect by exercising a little scepticism toward some of these shibboleths of the web services world and embracing a more asynchronous, event-oriented way of building processes. So this year, embrace your asynchronous side and do something to reduce your system coupling: build some pub/sub services, learn about Event Processing or Event-Driven Architecture, try one of the technologies I pointed to above.

Just as developers should embrace multiple languages to broaden their skills, so should architects embrace and be fluent in multiple architectural styles.

Reductio ad Lucidus

In a recent comment on my Architectural Characteristics posts, Andy astutely observes that I may be “shoe-horning”. By this I assume he means that I’m taking a large and rather lumpy concept and trying to squeeze it into a smaller and more uniformly shaped container while risking some distortion in the process. I’ll admit that in this respect I’m probably guilty as charged.

But I should clarify my purpose in doing this. I’m trying to cut back the various architectural styles under consideration to a simpler form where the essential characteristics can be discerned without confusion from some other non-essential characteristics. So rather than shoehorning, I’m trying to setup a strawman model which can be used as a starting point for discussion. Or maybe like a physicist I’m trying to model a very complex phenomenon using linear approximations which explain the broad outlines of the phenomenon at the risk of falling short on some of the details.

To extend this latter metaphor, I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to say that the architectural styles I’m considering could be likened to “fundamental” architectural styles and that real-world architectures could be viewed as “superpositions” of those fundamental architectures.

If we consider the simplified forms of EAI and SOA that I describe, each style falls short of representing a real world architecture, but the upside is that the EAI and SOA styles as I describe them are distinct and easily differentiated. So we have a model which provides a way of distinguishing between different styles (via the characteristics I’ve discussed) but falls short of exactly matching a “real-world” architecure.

If we look at any real-world architecture in recent years, I think we can see a superposition of EAI and SOA concepts. This probably reflects an evolutionary path between the two styles. EAI as practiced in the early noughties had already developed the idea of a normalised data model and technology independent interfaces. These were not standardized, but some of the characteristics of SOA were apparent in what was then called EAI.

Similarly, EAI was not always about data integration. There was (and is) a distinction between data integration and process integration. EAI techniques could be used to orchestrate processes across multiple systems. This is even closer to the concept of SOA which has at its core the notion of an independent process layer seperate from the service layer.

Even if we don’t superpose EAI and SOA into one solution, there are still legitimate ways in which EAI, SOA and EDA coexist within any particular architecture. We can easily imagine a solution in which a business process is orchestrated via SOA services, reference data is synchronised using EAI and overall process state is monitored using EDA techniques such as Event Processing.

So real-world solution architectures exhibit some overlap between the different architectural styles – EAI, SOA and EDA. Some of this is due to evolutionary legacies, or due to plain-old confusion between the different styles (e.g. JABOWS as really being EAI). Some of it is also due to legitimate mixing of different styles for different aspects of a solution.

I think that real-world architectures can benefit from seperating out the “essence” of each architectural style and being explicit about how those styles are being applied. Reducing architectural styles to simplified forms clarifies the stucture of a real-world architecture. Not very different from Design Patterns, really.

Gartner 2008 SOA User Survey

The Gartner 2008 SOA User Survey is a good read with some surprising insights into SOA adoption.

One interesting development is that the rate of SOA adoption has slowed in 2008. About half of respondents last year who were planning SOA adoption, now have no plans for SOA adoption. The two main reasons for not pursuing SOA are a lack of SOA expertise, and the perceived lack of a business case. These reasons may be correlated in the sense that lack of SOA expertise makes it difficult to build an SOA business case. But the fundamental conclusion is that SOA doesn’t make sense for everybody.

SOA Adoption shows considerable geographic disparity. Europe has almost universal adoption (70% currently using), followed by North America (55% currently using) then Asia (25% currently using). The majority of organizations in Asia have no plans to adopt SOA. The report doesn’t really analyse why Asia has such low SOA adoption. My guess would be a combination of factors including lack of SOA expertise in the region, the characteristics of Asian companies being late technology adopters and the preponderance of manufacturing in the region which the survey shows has overall low SOA adoption compared with other sectors.

Organisation size correlates strongly with SOA adoption and the range of SOA deployment. There is a sweet spot for mid-size companies with current SOA adoption high in companies with employees between 1000 and 10,000. Large companies obviously struggle with the governance processes required to adopt SOA enterprise wide.

A big surprise for me was the correlation between SOA adoption and primary development language. Forty percent of current SOA adopters use Microsoft .NET. There is also a clear trend over the last 3 years away from Java toward Microsoft .NET and “other” languages such as dynamic languages. Correlation doesn’t mean causality so there is a lot of wiggle room in how you interpret this but clearly there is a move away from Java for SOA development. Harkening back to the COM/CORBA wars of the 90’s one of the key factors was that the Microsoft development environment made COM so easy to develop versus the complexities and diversities of CORBA that eventually COM came to dominate the component world. Is history repeating itself?

Web Services are the dominant SOA model, but a significant minority uses POX and REST approaches. About one third of existing SOA adopters already use or are planning to adopt EDA. The report also claims significant plans for WOA adoption, but I’m not convinced by the data. An eyeball comparison between Figure 14 (current WOA adoption) and Figure 15 (planned WOA adoption) doesn’t show a great deal of difference to me, except for Figure 15 looking a little more “peaky” around the 50% mark. So WOA adoption will increase, but I’m not convinced the data shows this is “dramatic” as stated in the key findings of the report.

Using Events to Add Real-time Intelligence

I will be manning the booth tomorrow afternoon at the TIBCO SOA Online Summit. The topic of discussion is Events and Realtime Business Intelligence which is an active part of my portfolio these days. Two of the guys from my blogroll will be presenting – James Taylor from Smart (Enough) Systems and Paul Vincent from TIBCO. Please come along and say “hi”.