More Thoughts on SOA and the SO Design Tenets

SOA is an architectural approach to creating systems built from autonomous services.  With SOA, integration becomes forethought rather than afterthought – the end solution is likely to be composed of services developed in different programming languages, hosted on disparate platforms with a variety of security models and business processes.  While this concept sounds incredibly complex it is not new – some may argue that SOA evolved out of the experiences associated with designing and developing distributed systems based on previously available technologies.  Many of the concepts associated with SOA such as services, discovery and late binding were associated with CORBA and DCOM.  Similarly, many service design principles have much in common with earlier OOA/OOD techniques based upon encapsulation, abstraction and clearly defined interfaces. 


The acronym SOA prompts an obvious question – what, exactly, is a service?  Simply put, a service is a program that can be interacted with via well-defined message exchanges.  Services must be designed for both availability and stability.  Services are built to last while service configurations and aggregations are built for change.  Agility is often promoted as one of the biggest benefits of SOA – an organization with business processes implemented on a loosely-coupled infrastructure is much more open to change than an organization constrained underlying monolithic applications that require weeks to implement the smallest change.  Loosely-coupled systems result in loosely-coupled business processes, since the business processes are no longer constrained by the limitations of the underlying infrastructure.  Services and their associated interfaces must remain stable, enabling them to be re-configured or re-aggregated to meet the ever-changing needs of business.  Services remain stable by relying upon standards-based interfaces and well-defined messages – in other words, SOAP and XML schemas for message definition.  Services designed to perform simple, granular functions with limited knowledge of how messages are passed to or retrieved from it are much more likely to be reused within a larger SOA infrastructure.  As stated earlier, recalling basic OO design principles regarding encapsulation and interface design will serve us well as we design and build reusable web services.  We can extend these OO principles into the world of web services by further understanding the frequently cited “four tenets” of Service Orientation:


Tenet 1: Boundaries are Explicit


Services interact through explicit message-passing over well-defined boundaries.  Crossing service boundaries may be costly, depending upon geographic, trust or execution factors.  A boundary represents the border between a service’s public interface and its internal, private implementation.  A service’s boundary is published via WSDL and may include assertions dictating the expectations of a given service.  Crossing boundaries is assumed to be an expensive task for several reasons, some of which are listed below:


  • The physical location of the targeted service may be an unknown factor.
  • Security and trust models are likely to change with each boundary crossing.
  • Marshalling and casting of data between a service’s public and private representations may require reliance upon additional resources – some of which may be external to the service itself.
  • While services are built to last, service configurations are built to change.  This fact implies that a reliable service may suddenly experience performance degradations due to network reconfigurations or migration to another physical location.
  • Service consumers are generally unaware of how private, internal processes have been implemented.  The consumer of a given service has limited control over the performance of the service being consumed. 

 The Service Oriented Integration pattern tells us that “service invocations are subject to network latency, network failure, and distributed system failures, but a local implementation is not. A significant amount of error detection and correction logic must be written to anticipate the impacts of using remote object interfaces.”  While we should assume that crossing boundaries is an expensive process, we must also exercise caution in the deployment of local methods designed to minimize such boundary crossings.  A system that implements monolithic local methods and objects may gain performance but duplicate functionality of a previously defined service (this technique was referred to as “cut and paste” in OOP and shares the same risks regarding versioning of the service). 


There are several principles to keep in mind regarding the first Tenet of SO:

  • Know your boundaries.  Services provide a contract to define the public interfaces it provides.  All interaction with the service occurs through the public interface.  The interface consists of public processes and public data representations.  The public process is the entry point into the service while the public data representation represents the messages used by the process.  If we use WSDL to represent a simple contract, the <message> represents the public data while the <portType> represents the public process(es).  
  • Services should be easy to consume.  When designing a service, developers should make it easy for other developers to consume it.  The service’s interface (contract) should also be designed to enable evolving the service without breaking contracts with existing consumers.  (this will be addressed in a future blog entry)
  • Avoid RPC interfaces.  Explicit message passing should be favored over an RPC-like model.  This approach insulates the consumer from the internals of the service implementation, freeing service developers to evolve their services while minimizing the impact on service consumers (encapsulation via public messages instead of publicly available methods). 
  • Keep service surface area small.  The more public interfaces that a service exposes the more difficult it becomes to consume and maintain it.  Provide few well-defined public interfaces to your service.  These interfaces should be relatively simple, designed to accept a well-defined input message and respond with an equally well-defined output message.  Once these interfaces have been designed they should remain static.  These interfaces provide the “constant” design requirement that services must support, serving as the public face to the service’s private, internal implementation. 
  • Internal (private) implementation details should not be leaked outside of a service boundary 

 Tenet 2: Services Are Autonomous


Services are entities that are independently deployed, versioned, and managed.  Developers should avoid making assumptions regarding the space between service boundaries since this space is much more likely to change than the boundaries themselves.  Services are dynamically addressable via URIs, enabling their underlying locations and deployment topologies to change or evolve over time with little impact upon the service itself (this is also true of a service’s communication channels).   While these changes may have little impact upon the service, they can have a devastating impact upon applications consuming the service.  What if a service you were using today moved to a network in New Zealand tomorrow?  The change in response time may have unplanned or unexpected impacts upon the service’s consumers.  Service designers should adopt a pessimistic view of how their services will be consumed – services will fail and their associated behaviors (service levels) are subject to change.  Appropriate levels of exception handling and compensation logic must be associated with any service invocation.  Additionally, service consumers may need to modify their policies to declare minimum response times from services to be consumed.  Communicating performance expectations at the service level preserves autonomy since services need not be familiar with the internal implementations of one another. 


Service consumers are not the only ones who should adopt pessimistic views of performance – service providers should be just as pessimistic when anticipating how their services are to be consumed.  Service consumers should be expected to fail, sometimes without notifying the service itself.  Service providers also cannot trust consumers to “do the right thing”.  For example, consumers may attempt to communicate using malformed/malicious messages or attempt to violate other policies necessary for successful service interaction.  Service internals must attempt to compensate for such inappropriate usage, regardless of user intent.


While services are designed to be autonomous, no service is an island.  A SOA-based solution is fractal, consisting of a number of services configured for a specific solution.  Thinking autonomously, one soon realizes there is no presiding authority within a service-oriented environment – the concept of an orchestration “conductor” is a faulty one (further implying that the concept of “roll-backs” across services is faulty– but this is a topic best left for another paper).  The keys to realizing autonomous services are isolation and decoupling.  Services are designed and deployed independently of one another and may only communicate using contract-driven messages and policies.  


As with other service design principles, we can learn from our past experiences with OO design.   Peter Herzum and Oliver Sims’ work on Business Component Factories provides some interesting insights on the nature of autonomous components.  While most of their work is best suited for large-grained, component-based solutions, the basic design principles are still applicable for service design,


Given these considerations, here are some simple design principles to help ensure compliance with the second principle of SO:

  • Services should be deployed and versioned independent of the system in which they are deployed and consumed
  • Contracts should be designed with the assumption that once published, they cannot be modified.  This approach forces developers to build flexibility into their schema designs.
  • Isolate services from failure by adopting a pessimistic outlook.  From a consumer perspective, plan for unreliable levels of service availability and performance.  From a provider perspective, expect misuse of your service (deliberate or otherwise),expect your service consumers to fail – perhaps without notifying your service. 

Tenet 3: Services share schema and contract, not class


As stated earlier, service interaction should be based solely upon a service’s policies, schema, and contract-based behaviors.  A service’s contract is generally defined using WSDL, while contracts for aggregations of services can be defined using BPEL (which, in turn, uses WSDL for each service aggregated). 


Most developers define classes to represent the various entities within a given problem space (e.g. Customer, Order and Product).  Classes combine behavior and data (messages) into a single programming-language or platform-specific construct.  Services break this model apart to maximize flexibility and interoperability.  Services communicating using XML schema-based messages are agnostic to both programming languages and platforms, ensuring broader levels of interoperability.   Schema defines the structure and content of the messages, while the service’s contract defines the behavior of the service itself.   


In summary, a service’s contract consists of the following elements:

  • Message interchange formats defined using XML Schema
  • Message Exchange Patterns (MEPs) defined using WSDL
  • Capabilities and requirements defined using WS-Policy
  • BPEL may be used as a business-process level contract for aggregating multiple services.

Service consumers will rely upon a service’s contract to invoke and interact with a service.  Given this reliance, a service’s contract must remain stable over time.  Contracts should be designed as explicitly as possible while taking advantage of the extensible nature of XML schema (xsd:any) and the SOAP processing model (optional headers). 


The biggest challenge of the Third Tenet is its permanence.  Once a service contract has been published it becomes extremely difficult to modify it while minimizing the impact upon existing service consumers.  The line between internal and external data representations is critical to the successful deployment and reuse of a given service.  Public data (data passed between services) should be based upon organizational or vertical standards, ensuring broad acceptance across disparate services.  Private data (data within a service) is encapsulated within a service.  In some ways services are like smaller representations of an organization conducting e-business transactions.   Just as an organization must map an external Purchase Order to its internal PO format, a service must also map a contractually agreed-upon data representation into its internal format.  Once again our experiences with OO data encapsulation can be reused to illustrate a similar concept – a service’s internal data representation can only be manipulated through the service’s contract.  Pat Helland examines several issues related to public and private data representations in “Data on the Outside vs. Data on the Inside”.


Given these considerations, here are some simple design principles to help ensure compliance with the third principle of SO:

  • Ensure a service’s contract remains stable to minimize impact upon service consumers.  The contract in this sense refers to the public data representation (data), message exchange pattern (WSDL) and configurable capabilities and service levels (policy).
  • Contracts should be designed to be as explicit as possible to minimize misinterpretation.  Additionally, contracts should be designed to accommodate future versioning of the service via the extensibility of both the XML syntax and the SOAP processing model.
  • Avoid blurring the line between public and private data representations.  A service’s internal data format should be hidden from consumers while its public data schema should be immutable (preferably based upon an organizational, defacto or industry standard).
  • Version services when changes to the service’s contract are unavoidable.  This approach minimizes breakage of existing consumer implementations. 

Tenet 4: Service compatibility Is based upon policy


While this is often considered the least understood design tenet, it is perhaps one of the most powerful in terms of implementing flexible web services.  It is not possible to communicate some requirements for service interaction in WSDL alone.  Policy expressions can be used to separate structural compatibility (what is communicated) from semantic compatibility (how or to whom a message is communicated).


Operational requirements for service providers can be manifested in the form of machine-readable policy expressions.  Policy expressions provide a configurable set of interoperable semantics governing the behavior and expectations of a given service.  The WS-Policy specification defines a machine-readable policy framework capable of expressing service-level policies, enabling them to be discovered or enforced at execution time.  For example, a government security service may require a policy enforcing a specific service level (e.g. Passport photos meeting established criteria must be cross-checked against a terrorist identification system).  The policy information associated with this service could be used with a number of other scenarios or services related to conducting a background check.  WS-Policy can be used to enforce these requirements without requiring a single line of additional code. This scenario illustrates how a policy framework provides additional information about a service’s requirements while also providing a declarative programming model for service definition and execution.


A policy assertion identifies a behavior that is a requirement (or capability) of a policy subject.   (In the scenario above the assertion is the background check against the terrorist identification system.)  Assertions provide domain-specific semantics and will eventually be defined within separate, domain-specific specifications for a variety of vertical industries (establishing the WS-Policy “framework” concept). 


While policy-driven services are still evolving, developers should ensure their policy assertions are as explicit as possible regarding service expectations and service semantic compatibilities. 

Comments (12)

  1. John:

    this is a great summary, of where things are for SOA, however, to me the characteristic that is now emerging the most for a service is "composability". I think it is fortuitous that most WS-* technologies are composable from XML to BPEL, it should become a Tenet as we cannot afford to build IT assets that are not composable (as a reuse model).


  2. John says:


    Great observation – especially on how we can no longer afford to continue building monolithic solutions.

  3. I wanted to follow up a note I mentioned in a previous blog I wrote on how to Manage System Quality and

  4. Another idea to improve system quality … I’ve contributed to the delivery of several enterprise systems

  5. A response to my prior post on Responsibility-Driven Architecture got me thinking… what is the "first

  6. Months ago I published a blog about how to implement system quality attributes ( found here ). In that

  7. There are a number of implications of SOA that are not talked about much by the SOA vendors. They paint

  8. In the past, an enterprise could govern the applications independently. If one department wanted to release

Skip to main content