XML is the assembly language of Web 2.0

I’ve been quoted as to have said so at TechEd and I’ll happily repeat it: “XML is the assembly language of Web 2.0”, even though some (and likely some more) disagree. James Speer writes Besides, Assembly Language is hard, XML isn’t.” , which I have to disagree with.

True, throwing together some angle brackets isn’t the hardest thing in the world, but beating things into the right shape is hard and probably even harder than in assembly. Yes, one can totally, after immersing oneself in the intricacies of Schema, write complex types and ponder for days and months about the right use of attributes and elements. It’s absolutely within reach for a WSDL zealot to code up messages, portTypes and operations by hand. But please, if you think that’s the right way to do things, I also demand that you write and apply your security policy in angle bracket notation from the top of your head and generate WCF config from that using svcutil instead of just throwing a binding together, because XML is so easy. Oh? Too hard? Well, it turns out that except for our developers and testers who are focusing on getting these mappings right, nobody on our product team would probably ever even want to try writing such a beast by hand for any code that sits above the deep-down guts of our stack. This isn’t the fault of the specifications (or people here being ignorant), but it’s a function of security being hard and the related metadata being complex. Similar things, even though the complexity isn’t quite as extreme there, can be said about the other extensions to the policy framework such as WS-RM Policy or those for WS-AT.

As we’re getting to the point where full range of functionality covered by WS-* specifications is due to hit the mainstream by us releasing WCF and our valued competitors releasing their respective implementations, hand-crafted contracts will become increasingly meaningless, because it’s beyond the capacity of anyone whose job it is to build solutions for their customers to write complete set of contracts that not only ensures simple data interop but also protocol interop. Just as there were days that all you needed was assembly and INT21h to write a DOS program (yikes) or knowledge of “C” alongside stdio.h and fellows to write anything for everthing, things are changing now in the same way in Web Services land. Command of XSD and WSDL is no longer sufficient, all the other stuff is just as important to make things work.

Our WCF [DataContract] doesn’t support attributes. That’s a deliberate choice because we want to enforce simplicity and enhance interoperability of schemas. We put an abstraction over XSD and limit the control over it, because we want to simplify the stuff that goes across the wire. We certainly allow everyone to use the XmlSerializer with all of it’s attribute based fine-grained control over schema, even though there are quite a few Schema constructs that even that doesn’t support when building schema from such metadata. If you choose to, you can just ignore all of our serialization magic and fiddle with the XML Infoset outright and supply your own schema. However, XML and Schema are specifications that everyone and their dog wanted to get features into and Schema is hopelessly overengineered. Ever since we all (the industry, not only MS) boarded the SOAP/WS train, we’re debating how to constrain the features of that monster to a reasonable subset that makes sense and the debate doesn’t want to end.

James writes that he take[s] a lot of care in terms of elements vs. attributes and mak[es] sure the structure of the XML is business-document-like”, which only really makes sense if XML documents used in WS scenarios were meant for immediate human consumption, which they’re not.

We want to promote a model that is simple and consistent to serialize to and from on any platform and that things like the differentiation between attributes and elements doesn’t stand in the way of allowing a 1:1 mapping into alternate, non-XML serialization formats such as JSON or what-have-you (most of which don’t care about that sort of differentiation).  James’ statement about “business-document-like” structures is also interesting considering EDIFACT, X.12 or SWIFT, all of which only know records, fields and values, and don’t care about that sort of subtle element/attribute differentation, either. (Yes, no of those might be “hip” any more, but they are implemented and power a considerable chunk of the world economy’s data exchange).

By now, XML is the foundation for everything that happens on the web, and I surely don’t want to have it go away. But have arrived at the point where matters have gotten so complicated that a layer of abstraction over pretty much all things XML has become a necessity for everyone who makes their money building customer solutions and not by teaching or writing about XML. In my last session at TechEd, I asked a room of about 200 people “Who of you hand-writes XSLT transforms?” 4 hands. “Who of you used to hand-write XSLT transforms?” 40+ hands. I think it’s safe to assume that a bunch of those folks who have sworn off masochism and no longer hand-code XSLT are now using tools like the BizTalk Mapper or Altova’s MapForce, which means that XSL/T is alive and kicking, but only downstairs in the basement. However, the abstractions that these tools provide also allow bypassing XSLT altogether and generate the transformation logic straight into compiled C++, Java, or C# code, which is what MapForce offers. WSDL is already walking down that path.

Comments (3)

  1. I need to rant: If one more person brags about their class library saying "you don’t have to write a…

  2. Mike Stall has decided to vent on Xml and picks up Clemens’ quote which I picked up on at TechEd….