WS-* and the Hype Cycle

There’s a persistent theme talked up by WS-*ophobes that it’s all just a fad, rapidly sliding down toward the “Trough of Dilillusionment” in the Gartner Hype Cycle. I’ve come to the opposite conclusion after six weeks back in the web services world.  The WS technologies are taking hold, deep down in the infrastructure, doing the mundane but mission critical work for which they were designed. 

Let’s consider one example, WS-Management, which I had barely heard of when I started in CSD Interoperability. It’s stated purpose is:

To promote interoperability between management applications and managed resources, this specification identifies a core set of Web service specifications and usage requirements that expose a common set of operations central to all systems management. This comprises the abilities to
• Get, put (update), create, and delete individual resource instances, such as settings and dynamic values,
• Enumerate the contents of containers and collections, such as large tables and logs,
• Subscribe to events emitted by managed resources, and
• Execute specific management methods with strongly typed input and output parameters.

At first glance this appears to duplicate widely deployed bits of the web.  For example, it depends on the oftcriticized WS-Transfer spec, and some are advocating using Atom and the Atom Publishing Protocol rather than WS-* for describing collections and subscribing to notifications of their contents.  On closer examination, WS-Management is widely used today in situations where the web-scale alternatives really don’t fit, such as deep within operating systems or in the firmware of chips.    For example:

For IT Professionals, Windows Server and Microsoft Operations Manager will enable the management of heterogeneous software and hardware systems using WS-Management. For consumers, Windows Vista will support the discovery of and interaction with Web services-enabled devices, such as printers, digital cameras, and home control systems.

Those devices may or may not be “on the Web”; increasingly support is built into the firmware of the devices. For that matter, the heterogenous software systems being managed may include HTTP servers.  Furthermore, this is not a Windows-specific technology, it is actively developed and supported across platforms by HP, Intel, and others

Another example where WS standards and technologies are quietly taking root is in the area of identity management.   Both the major identity management stacks (WS-Trust / WS-Federation and Liberty) depend on Web services technologies, and there is no credible “pure Web” alternative. The “identity metasystem” supported by  Windows Cardspace and several other vendors and open source projects that to some extent bridges these stacks is getting real adoption, inching WS-* up toward the “plateau of productivity.”

Perhaps we are seeing a repetition of the pattern that made XML ubiquitous.  It was originally conceived as “SGML for the Web“, but that vision has never materialized — non-wellformed HTM, Javascript,  and proprietary formats such as PDF and Flash predominate on the Web itself. XML has become pervasive as a convenient format for less glamorous tasks, such as configuration files, summaries of site contents (RSS and Atom), and lists of lists (OPML).  Likewise, at the peak of the hype cycle the web services technologies were promoted as part of a grand vision.  The post-Vista world may not look exactly like the 2001-vintage Longhorn vision, but WS technologies are doing the unglamorous work for which they were actually designed. 

In short, from what I have learned recently, the trajectory of WS-* isn’t pointing toward oblivion, it looks headed toward the same sort of pragmatic ubiquity that XML has achieved.  That’s not to say all is rosy; there is lots of confusion and dissension, again just like there was in the early days of the Web and XML.   Likewise, “ubiquity” doesn’t mean that the WS technologies are the best or the only option across the board,  but that it they are increasingly available as a very viable option when developers need protocol-neutrality, security, identity, management capability, etc.

Comments (10)

  1. Mike, you seem to be having a problem with causality. Just because WS-* has adhered to the pattern of the hype cycle so far, it doesn’t mean it will reach the same conclusion.

    And, to paraphrase Senator Bensten: I’ve used XML, I know XML; XML is a friend of mine. Web Services, you’re no XML.

  2. mikechampion says:

    I’m NOT arguing that just because WS-* has fallen down the hype cycle curve it is destined to come up … I’m saying that it IS coming up, in parallel not opposition to REST, based on its real world use in parts of the infrastructure below the web, and in scenarios such as identity  where the native web technologies have no decent story.

    And XML is just as widely hated as WS-* is.  Probably more so, since its numerous complexities are in the face of more people … but neither are going away anytime soon.

  3. Mike Champion defends WS-*, using WS-Management as one example: On closer examination, WS-Management is widely used today in situations where the web-scale alternatives really don’t fit, such as deep within operating systems

  4. Pete Lacey says:

    Since you singled out WS-Management as an exemplar of WS-Goodness, I’ll give the opposing view: How WS-Management showcases much of what’s wrong with WS-*.

    1. Spec Wars: Should I be using WS-Management or WSDM?

    2. Shoddy specs: WS-Management went to 1.0 status, but is built on top of a number of specs that are far from stable: WS-Eventing, WS-Enumeration, WS-Transfer, WS-Policy, WS-Trust.

    3. Uncertain future: The WSDM & WS-Management folks are creating a new super-spec to merge the two:  Now who’s gonna write to a spec that’s soon to be obsolete?

    4. Positioning:  I’m sorry, but a device that can host WS-Management and all it’s attendant baggage is too small to fit a simple HTTP server?  Does not compute.

    5. You’ve already highlighted the WS-Transfer silliness.

    6. Vapor: To the best of my knowledge none of the management products from IBM/Tivoli, CA, or HP use WS-Management.

    Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying that the world couldn’t use something better than SNMP.  I’m not even saying that WS-Management (or its successor) won’t be used.  I am saying that WS-Management is hardly exemplary.

  5. mikechampion says:

    My point is simply that WS-Management, for all the "wrongness" you note, is exemplary of what is actually being implemented today, out of sight, underneath the "web" and in spite of all the arguments about the theoretical superiority of alternatives.

  6. mikechampion says:

    Returning to Pete Lacey’s points now that I have more time:

    On the spec wars and the uncertain future, the chances are good that a unified management spec in the future would be upward compatible with whichever of the inputs has the most market traction.  So people are voting with their feet (or geeks) by writing to the specs that meet their needs, not waiting for the spec wars to sort themselves out.

    On the "stability" of the underlying specs.  It is extremely unlikely that an eventual standard for WS-Eventing, Transfer, Policy, etc. will break the existing implementations.  That is the whole point of the interop-first approach to WS standardization that IBM, MS, and others have used, whatever differences of opinion exist on individual specs.

    On the HTTP server in firmware mater …  HTTP would replace WS-Transfer in the stack, but I’m not clear on why you think this would be useful in a device management scenario.

    As for WS-Transfer’s "silliness", I thought we had gotten past that.  In a world where SOAP is used over UDP, MQ, proprietary JMS transports, etc., the "HTTP over SOAP over HTTP" sneer doesn’t have much sting.

    What I find exemplary in all this is that for all the imperfections and limitations of the WS technologies, people in the real world are using them for their intended purpose.  It was very interesting to me, having more or less checked out of the WS world from 2004-2007, to learn how the specs that were the stuff of WS-Flamewar in 2004 are now implemented deep in the infrastructure – chips, devices, OS’s, etc.  The experience was similar to what I learned when I joined MS in 2004: While XML didn’t live up to the hype on the Web, it found its niche in all sorts of little places down in the infrastructure (something like 80 different Vista components use XML in some way).  What was even more interesting is that WS-Management is one of the easiest to throw rocks at, but one of the first to be burned into silicon.  Go figure.

  7. Em, seems to me ws-mgt is nothing but a bucket of vague spittle. It is not very deep or meaningful. The ws-aspects of it were not chosen on significant technical grounds, rather ws-* was chosen because the deciders thought that was the way the world was going.

    The deciders could have easily chosen something else, even something more restful.

  8. My previous post used WS-Management to illustrate the larger point that "the WS technologies are taking