Service oriented architecture centres heavily on the concepts of service providers and consumers. It’s easy with request/reply web services to fall into the lazy habit of thinking of the provider as being the “server” side of the request/reply interaction. The consumer requests information from the provider, which the provider – naturally – provides! But this is wrong.
What happens in an N-tier architecture where there may be many “servers” in the stack? What happens with JMS-based services using a one-way message exchange pattern (MEP)? If one application is using SOAP/JMS to send a message to another application, which is the consumer and which is the provider?
On the face of it, you might say the “sender” is the “provider” and the “receiver” is the “consumer”, but that ignores the fact that there are two types of one-way MEP – “one-way out” and “one-way in.” (Actually there are many types of MEP and they differ slightly depending on the version of WSDL you use, see the WSDL standard for more confusing details).
We really need to look beyond the technology to find the answer and the Web Services Glossary gives a clue. It splits the model into an “agent” (software or process) that operates on behalf of an “entity” (person or organization). Specifically a Provider Agent and a Requester Agent operate on behalf of a Provider Entity and a Requestor Entity respectively.
So the “provider” of a Web service is basically the person or organization responsible for that service. It is the person or organization that you contact to get permission to use the service, or obtain the WSDL, or give your credit card details for charging.
An example will help to clarify the relationship between provider and consumer in one-way MEPs. Suppose a service provides alert notifications. Multiple consumers subscribe to this service to receive alerts on subjects that are important to them. At the messaging level, the provider puts a message onto a JMS Topic and multiple consumers receive the message. This is a “one-way out” MEP.
Another service might be a central audit service where multiple agents send messages via a JMS Queue representing steps in a distributed process. This is commonly used for “track and trace” in distributed workflows. In this case, the message senders are not responsible for the audit system, they are “users” or “consumers” of the service. This is a “one-way in” MEP.
In summary, service providers and consumers can be confusing in an N-tier architecture or with one-way MEPs. The fundamental consideration is more “business” than “technical”. Who is the organization or person responsible for the service? Then the way consumers interact with them determines the MEP that is being used.