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What's WS-I Up To?

What's WS-I Up To?

Eighteen months ago, BEA, IBM, Microsoft, and a number of other companies who have invested in the future of Web services got together and formed WS-I, the Web Services Interoperability (WS-I) organization.

In the past few months, WS-I has delivered its first batch of final material, including the Basic Profile 1.0, and supporting test tools and sample applications. This article takes a look at what the WS-I aims to do, what it's done to date, and where the organization is going.

Why WS-I?
Web services aren't being developed and standardized all at once; there's simply too much work involved (e.g., messaging, transport, description, discovery, security, reliability, and so on). Not only would this be impractical but it would also face the risk of failure in one area overshadowing the entire solution. These are some of the reasons that modularity and evolvability - the ability to revise different portions of the stack over time - are core concepts in Web services architecture.

As a result, Web services standards are designed to be as open ended and extensible as possible, so new pieces can be plugged in easily. Unfortunately, the very traits that assure the long-term success of Web services bring about a much more immediate problem: interoperability.

Because Web services are being developed by different people in different places, and because they're changing over time, there are glitches in how they fit together. Additionally, because all of the pieces are built to allow a great deal of extensibility, it's difficult to know which pieces to use.

WS-I was founded to improve interoperability by establishing profiles of Web services specifications that show people how to use them together, and to narrow down the optional extensions so that WS-I - compliant Web services can interoperate effectively and easily. It does not create standards itself, but rather guides people in the use of existing standards.

Growing Up
WS-I's first major deliverable was the Basic Profile 1.0, which was finalized in early August. BP1.0 is designed to provide a foundation for further profiling work by assuring interoperability between SOAP 1.1, WSDL 1.1, and UDDI 2. It also discourages the use of some optional features, like SOAP Encoding, that were judged to be the source of interoperability problems.

The Basic Profile is a step towards interoperability; it provides a basis for further refinement with other profiles that are focused on one particular function (e.g., security or reliability) or on a particular class of uses (e.g., coarse-grained business messaging or fine-grained systems-level RPC).

To accompany the Basic Profile, the Test Tools Working Group has produced a "sniffer" that is used to intercept Web services messages; an analyzer that examines them, along with their WSDL files; and a set of Test Assertions that can help verify a Web service's conformance to the Basic Profile (because of the nature of some requirements, it's difficult, if not impossible, to automatically verify all aspects of conformance).

The Sample Applications Working Group has created a variety of materials to demonstrate how Basic Profile-conformant Web services might be constructed, as well as to showcase the interoperability enabled by following WS-I profiles. Usage Scenarios document the basic patterns that profile-conformant Web services might use, while Use Cases are specific example applications that many WS-I Members have implemented to demonstrate interoperability.

For more information on all of these deliverables, see the WS-I Web site at www.ws-i.org.

Behind the scenes, the WS-I has been maturing as an organization as well. The Board has opened up several committees, including Marketing and Communications and Liaison, so that any WS-I member can participate in their work. The Liaison committee has been working to establish formal ties with a variety of organizations, including the W3C, the Open Mobile Alliance, and others.

What's Next?
WS-I is currently working to improve interoperability in a number of areas.

The Basic Profile Working Group is examining the issues involved in extending the Basic Profile with SOAP with Attachments.

The Basic Security Working Group is concentrating on improving various aspects of security, a critical requirement for functional Web services in the enterprise and beyond. According to its charter, this includes a variety of mechanisms, including SSL/TLS for transport security, S/MIME for attachments, and the output of the OASIS Web Services Security Technical Committee for message security. It is important to have multiple mechanisms because of the variety of requirements; while simple SSL is often adequate to keep prying eyes away from your SOAP messages in flight, more advanced applications require encryption of only part of the message. This allows intermediaries, for example, to understand the parts of the message that they need, without showing them other potentially sensitive data in it. XML-based security also allows security properties like encryption and digital signatures to stay with a message no matter which transport is used, and even to stay with it if it is stored (for example, in a database).

Another newer activity is the formation of a Requirements Gathering Working Group. Although it had not officially started as of this writing, this effort has caused a lot of excitement because it enables WS-I to gather business scenarios directly from end users and other organizations as input to the profiling process. We anticipate that this group will drive the future direction of WS-I, and help assure that the WS-I has participation from the broader community, rather than just the Web services vendors.

There are many rumors about which problems WS-I will attack next. At some point, a Basic Profile based on SOAP 1.2 and perhaps WSDL 1.2 will be required, but most people believe that more implementation experience is needed with these specifications before they can be profiled. Likewise, some have advocated aggressive profiling of reliability and transaction specifications, but WS-I is reluctant to do so without a well-recognized standard in these areas.

More interestingly, there has been some discussion of profiling intermediaries, one of the more potentially useful yet vaguely specified mechanisms in Web services.

For WS-I to meet these goals, it must master a number of challenges. Foremost in most people's minds are the political dynamics of the organization. Web services is somewhat unique in that virtually every IT vendor has signed onto it as an important new technology. However, this doesn't mean that there isn't disagreement about the details of their implementation, and sometimes traditional corporate rivalries come into play as well. WS-I, as a new organization in the center of this storm, must prove that it represents the interests of the community as well as its members in a fair and transparent fashion. Several steps have been taken in this direction, but only time will show it to have fully matured.

A more concrete issue is that of certification of Web services. WS-I has chosen not to require third-party certification to use its logo, because of the high costs this would bring to users. Instead, WS-I's recommendations are best effort and advisory, relying on the community to police itself over time. Whether this approach will work relies on consumers' ability to properly judge an implementation's claims.

Finally, WS-I is focused on conformance of Web services instances (that is, a particular endpoint), rather than tools or platforms made to generate and consume them. This is because it is very difficult to describe conformance requirements for tools and platforms, and because there is still a wide variety of opinion about what is desirable in a platform. Despite this, many members strongly believe that this is an important step in proving the organization, and it seems inevitable that WS-I will ultimately move in this direction.

Getting Involved
Unlike traditional standards organizations, it's possible to get involved in WS-I and make a difference with comparatively little effort because it's an organization focused on users and requirements, rather than research and development. The input of developers, both in terms of experience gained and requirements for the future, is actively sought in the Requirements, Sample Applications, and Profile Working Groups.

More Stories By Mark Nottingham

Mark Nottingham is a principal technologist in the Office of the CTO at BEA Systems, focusing on Web and Web services standards. He is the lead editor for the WS-I Basic Profile 1.0. He also participates in the W3C XML Protocol (SOAP) Working Group, and in the past has participated in the W3C, Internet Engineering Task Force, Java Community Process and other organizations.

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