Hugh Winkler holding forth on computing and the Web

Friday, March 25, 2005

Good web services make webapps programmable

Just as exposing COM automation interfaces on desktop applications made Excel and Visio more powerful by enabling people to write a Visual Basic script to build composite applications from the two, exposing your webapp as a web service enables people to integrate your webapp with others.

Recipe for a good web service: Start with a good webapp like Amazon or Google or Travelocity. Expose the functionality in the webapp as POSTing and GETing self descriptive messages. That's about it. Now anyone can script your application and coordinate reserving an airline ticket with ordering a book.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Link resolvers

PURL -- persistent URL -- has been around a while, but I only just discovered I could make one myself: That URL will forever redirect to, they think. If I move the blog, I have to update the pointer.

(TinyURL is another useful service for link resolution. Its purpose in life is to shorten long URLS to a manageable length you can actually type; if you move your resource you can't update the tiny URL to point to the new location. gets you here too.)

Why don't we embed a unique identifier into each web page or searchable resource? As I have pointed out (also here), a search engine will always turn up the moved resource, eventually. Couldn't we use META tags to do that? Embed this in your file:

<META scheme="UUID" name="identifier" content="cce89bf0-92e6-11d9-9669-0800200c9a66">

Then a persistent link to the resource might be

Monday, March 07, 2005

NetKernel: RESTful Application server

I have discovered NetKernel at a very late date and I played with it about half a day last weekend. These guys have taken uniform semantics to a new level. Every service, local or remote, is represented by a URI, and you compose services using a declarative * scripting language. You invoke verbs like SOURCE and SINK (analogous to GET and POST) on these URIs, and the kernel understands dependencies and can cache results intelligently.

You create your own services and map them to addresses in the URI namespace.

They also put a lot of emphasis on their available XML pipeline service, and if used properly, there's your engine of application state.

I hope this product can get some attention from REST architects. It's really a unique, REST friendly way to build services.

*My first brush with that language leaves two impressions: a) looks kind of procedural to me, and b) XML is really too verbose to use as a framework for scripting language.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

MDA is so February

I'm riding the crest of the Ontology Driven Architecture wave that's sweeping the industry. Grady Booch et al. say your legacy appserver identifies you as from the last century... you need an Ontology-based application server. Joseki anyone? (Thanks Andrew Newman).

The perfect distributed application

The perfect distributed application: The client GETs an URL returning an enhanced RDF Form -- enhanced so that some RDQL accompanies each parameter. The RDQL describes how the client is to retrieve data from its own data model and populate the "form" parameters. The RDQL references RDF types and instances defined in the service's own ontology. Now a) we cannot require the client's data repository be physically stored as RDF, and b) even if it were, we cannot require that the client's ontology be the same as the one described in the service's ontology. So there is a model mapping problem ahead of us. But for the moment, presume we have solved that problem -- our client understands, somehow, the service's ontology, and can honor RDQL requests made using terms from that ontology.

So devise a client agent analogous to a web browser, and furnish it with with a reference to a callback interface it uses to satisfy RDQL requests. The callback interface is analogous to the human user, who, reading an ordinary HTML form page, knows how to populate the fields. This callback interface accepts RDQL queries, and honors them from your data repository. Voila! Instant, resilient distributed application engine. The service is free to change even the parameters it needs to satisfy any request. Say the airline reservation service evolves, and now, due to new TSA requirements, must have the passenger's Social Security Number to complete the reservation. No problem for our engine. The service simply adds a new element to the RDF Form, and supplies the RDQL to populate it. Our client agent passes the aditional RDQL to the callback, and obtains the SSN.

This system is a poor man's mobile agent. We're not going to use ObjectSpace Voyager, as cool as that is. Instead, our limited mobile agent performs local RDQL queries and sends messages back to the server. The enhanced RDF Form is the code for this agent. You download the form to your client agent and run it.

Now about that elephant in the room. How to map the service's ontology to our own? And don't we have to map everyservice's ontology to our own? Well, yes. Let's investigate how you'd attack that problem. (sound of dozens of shuffling feet leaving the room).

If your data model is an RDF store, the problem is mapping your ontology to the service's. The airline reservation service's ontology defines terms like Flight, Seat, City. Your own business's ontology has no concept of Flight or Seat. And it has an idea of City that's maybe a lot different from the airline's.

So part of creating this mapping is augmenting your ontology with terms required by the airline. Sure, you had city names in your model, but you didn't have airport codes like AUS for Austin. So wherever possible, you use constructs like owl:equivalentClass to map the airline's classes to existing classes in your ontology; elsewhere, add properties like airline:airportCode to your classes. You had to do all this work to invoke the service anyway, you know -- this is just a methodology for organizing it.

Now, if your data model is not stored as RDF, consider exposing an RDF interface to it. It would be straightforward to map SQL rows to RDF statements and column names to OWL predicates.

And in passing I'll mention that Service Data Objects are pretty cool. Programs operate on abstract object graphs, and you supply a Data Mediator Service that maps graphs to your own data model, be that in SQL, an XML repository, RDF repository, the file system, some remote EIS... wherever. If you've got a DMS, you've already mapped an arbitrary graph to your data model. So you can map an RDF graph to your data model. I'm not saying that work's done for you; just saying this problem is isomorphic to that one -- literally.

(I notice Patrick Logan remarking, "...if your restful interpreter and mine can understand some of the same state then they can cooperate. This is the idea behind these interpreters sharing partial ontologies or even being able to translate parts of one to another." Right on.)