Pragmatic Web Services

In a recent ThoughtWorks podcast, Jim Webber introduced himself as a “MESTian”. This was a new term for me, so I had to investigate. MEST is a message-centric approach to SOA which resonates strongly with my own views on how services ought to be implemented. The MEST approach is a pragmatic approach to SOA to which I think/hope Web Services are evolving naturally. Therefore I agree with Neil Ward-Dutton that we don’t really need to coin a new term (MEST). This is really just Web Services “done properly”.

My views on this are a product of my past experience with MOM-based distributed computing. My earlier description of an ESB is based on a MOM approach and probably differs from the common perception of a “black box” ESB. The MEST approach would be very natural to people with an MQ, Rendezvous or JMS background…which is probably the minority of current SOA practitioners.

About 10 years ago, MOM messages were exchanged between systems using proprietary message representations such as COBOL Copybook or AE-Message formats. Enterprise concerns such as scalability, reliability and fault-tolerance were dealt with using techniques at the messaging level. MOM quality-of-service dealt with guaranteed message delivery and message ordering (in normal cases). Where possible, message endpoints were implemented in a stateless manner to allow for easy failover and load-balancing. This general approach is still valid today…only the message representation has changed.

When XML became more mature and accepted, MOM messages started to be implemented with XML payloads. Even after SOAP became a standard, my experience is that it wasn’t rapidly adopted by the MOM community. Proprietary XML message schemas ruled for a couple of years and SOAP had its initial application in RPC over HTTP implementations. But the great thing about SOAP is that it is a nice generic message envelope that is acceptable by everyone. Put your meta-data into the SOAP header and the payload into the SOAP body. If you didn’t have it, you would have to invent it – and many did. Hence, as a pragmatic approach SOAP was adopted as a generalized envelope over – now – JMS. Add the correct JMS headers and you have SOAP Document Literal Encoding over JMS. Additional standards like WS-Addressing, WS-Security are additional sets of meta-data in the SOAP header with meaning to the endpoints and intermediaries in the message journey. WSDL is simply a way of representing the contract between message producer and consumer. I think this is a relatively natural progression from proprietary MOM to more open mechanisms for message exchange which are compliant with the core Web Services standards.

Contrast this with the original RPC approach to Web Services. SOAP RPC Encoding was the original standard, buried within code generation tools which attempted to hide complexity from the developer. Unfortunately this resulted in Web Services which lacked interoperability and created tight couplings between provider and consumer. Moreover, the attempt to shield developers from the distributed nature of their services and the underlying transports – all very necessary concerns – led to huge problems with meeting the enterprise requirements for services. This is the experience of most Web Services developers and it is no wonder that Web Services have such a bad reputation. Subsequently, Web Services – SOAP in particular – has moved to more inter-operable approaches through WS-I. But a lot of damage has been done, and the continued tendency to ignore the distributed nature of Web Services continues to cause problems in terms of unrealistic expectations.

So I like the MEST approach and find that it resonates well with the “pragmatic” approach to Web Services via the adoption of SOAP and other WS-* standards by the MOM community. I can summarize this “pragmatic” approach as:

  • Transport Independence is a myth. Use the transports for their strengths – JMS for reliability and HTTP for ubiquity.
  • Understand the distributed nature of Web Services and use the long history of best practices from distributed computing and Message Oriented Middleware (MOM).
  • Understand the standards and how they fit together. Most importantly, know where the holes are.
  • Use the standards where they make sense. Augment them with your own enterprise standards and best practices where necessary.

The result will be better confidence and ownership of your SOA infrastructure. You will rule the standards and your tool vendors rather than the other way around. As an added bonus, you get asynchronous services as a natural part of your SOA – an area where the WS-* standards struggle right now.

The benefits of an ESB

In my last post on this topic I talked about the concept of an ESB. Here I talk about why you would want one.

There are plenty of whitepapers, analyst reports and vendor statements about the features and functions of the various ESB products. In my experience, the key advantages of using an ESB are less about features and functions and more about how you use it.


One of the primary advantages of an ESB is that it gives you a standardized platform for integration. When everyone is using the same tools you can develop enterprise-wide frameworks, patterns and best practices for building re-usable services. Without a unifying platform, you get a divergence of integration methods which leads to inconsistency and higher cost of management and change. So an ESB platform helps with design-time governance. Note that this is not the same as standardization in the sense of using web-services standards. The important thing is that you use the ESB to support your own enterprise standards. These may be based on external standards – but that may be of secondary importance.

Loose Coupling

The bus architecture of an ESB encourages you toward a loosely coupled architecture.

  • Physically decoupled by making use of message passing mechanisms (e.g. JMS) versus direct network connections (e.g. HTTP).
  • Semantically decoupled by use of message transformation so that services are exposed in a system-neutral format which reduces application lock-in and reduces the cost of change.

Scalability and Reliability

Physical loose-coupling provides scalability advantages such as high-availability, fault-tolerance and load balancing. The messaging layer in the ESB directs messages between service endpoints to the appropriate instance of the endpoint. For example, in the event of a service provider failure, messages will be redirected to a backup provider – thus supporting high availability. In the case of load balancing, messages are distributed between redundant providers (or consumers) to handle high volumes of message traffic. You could say that physical loose-coupling supports change at the “micro” level where short term changes in the system topology can be compensated for via real-time message redirection.

Routing and mediation

Message routing supports scalability and fault tolerance. An ESB can also be used to support business-level routing and mediation. For example content-based routing allows services to be invoked based on the content of a service request. A business example would be routing of a customer enquiry to the branch where that customer account is located. A technical example would be the routing of a service request based on the version of the service being invoked.

Complex message exchange patterns

Traditional HTTP-based services support only one-to-one request-reply MEPs. An ESB supports more complex MEPs such as asynchronous one-way messaging and to multiple subscribers using topic-based messaging. Asynchronous publish and subscribe mechanisms support new ways of intermediating service consumers and subscribers – such as auditing, service monitoring – which are extremely useful for runtime management and governance of your services. Beyond mere governance, higher level business functions such as complex event processing (CEP) and business activity monitoring (BAM) are supported by this ability to “listen in” to service traffic on the ESB.

The benefits of an ESB that I’ve described above stem largely from the architecture of an ESB and in particular from the use of a message bus as the primary underlying transport. But it is important to understand that these benefits don’t automatically come “out of the box”. Your solution architecture (and your architects) must recognise and utilise the architectural principles underlying the ESB.

What is an ESB and why do I need one?

A question I often get is “what is an ESB and why do I need one”? This question is motivated by a number of concerns; non-technical people have heard the term but don’t understand the concept, semi-technical people are trying to figure out conflicting vendor definitions, and technical people are confused by the debate between different service enablement approachs – RESTful versus ws-* versus middleware-supported hybrids.

The Elevator Pitch

A service bus provides a uniform and consistent platform to allow service providers and service consumers to interoperate. An ESB provides benefits such as:

  • standardization
  • loose coupling
  • resilience and high availability
  • monitoring and intermediation


I’m not sure of the provenance of the word “bus” as it is applied in the technical domain (I’m sure there is some interesting etymology there) but you can confidently trace it back to the concept of a computer hardware bus. The idea of a hardware bus (or backplane) is that hardware components – such as sound-cards, video cards, floating point accelerators, tape-drives, barcode scanners etc – can all slot into and interoperate through a shared infrastructure. By supporting a standard hardware interface and a standard software protocol, the hardware bus abstracts the details of each individual hardware component. The key features of the harwdare bus are:

  • standardized hardware connectivity to the backplane
  • standardized software protocol between each component and the backplane
  • hardware components can operate independently without having to know details about each other
  • a single infrastructure replaces multiple point-to-point connections between components (i.e. does away with a lot of ad hoc soldering).


Networked systems arrived in the seventies and grew out of control in the eighties. Early network infrastructures such as Unix sockets were hard-wired point-to-point affairs with little or no abstraction of the the two programs that were working together.

The idea of a software bus is that software components can work together – yet independently – via a standardized message passing mechanism that would abstract away the need to create individual network connections between components. The software bus would take care of routing messages to the required location and also take care of all that hard stuff like quality-of-service, reliability and scalability. This is equivalent to standardizing the “hardware connectivity” in the hardware bus. TIBCO’s predecessor – Teknekron – articulated the concept of the software bus in the early nineties

The Service Bus

So the hardware bus standardizes hardware connectivity and the software bus standardizes software connectivity. The Service Bus has refined the concept of the software bus by taking a more service-oriented approach and adding support for the XML stack underlying web services and transport connectivity (e.g. bridging HTTP to JMS).

So why do you need an ESB? More on that anon…