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Does a Web Service Make a Service for SOA?

SOA Service & SOA SLA as drivers for renovating legacy applications for SOA

What could be easier than to take your application, wrap it with a Web Service, announce it or register it in the UDDI and get a SOA Service? Even better - take a data warehouse, cover a SQL executing code with a Web Service and expose it to SOA, isn't it simple? This article is for those architects and managers who like such "simplicity." If you believe that a Web Service itself doesn't convert an application into the SOA Service, you might read the article just out of curiosity.

A Service or Not a Service
Discussions about Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) initiated by people working with legacy applications and data storages like Data Warehouse (DW) have gotten a lot of press attention recently. While it's good for SOA's popularity the discussions typically declare a few SOA characteristics and say something like "We have so rich/important/business crucial data and, if we just expose it into a SOA, it will be great opportunity for us." An intention of exposing DW to a SOA sounds suspiciously like the five-year-old movement of exposing all applications to the Internet. Have we forgotten that mistake already? Have we understood the difference between Web applications and Web-enabled applications? Did anybody count the man-centuries spent in IT to convert and modify existing applications to make them really work in the Internet environment?

When I participate in such discussions, I usually ask one question: "To make some ground for DW working in SOA, please tell me what is a service in DW?" I am given two types of answers: either "none" or "We do a lot of data transformations and/or perform sophisticated data aggregation and produce business intelligence reports out of the DW." Well, data manipulation procedures performed in the DW might be considered as services, however, I have not found a definition of DW that would describe a service as a part of it. That is, DW wasn't designed for services.

Anyway, what's so special about a "service"? Why is wrapping access to a DW or an application with a Web Service not enough to obtain a service? What has to be done, if anything, to make such applications work in a SOA? Here I'll try to identify a process that could take place when one prepares a legacy application to support a Service for SOA.

Approach to a Definition of a "Service"
In different spheres of human activity, there may be many definitions of a service. My understanding of service behavior with regard to software components is an action/activity performed by the service provider for the service consumer in accordance to a contract between the provider and the consumer. While contracts may vary, the most flexible type unties/decouples/isolates a consumer from a provider. In the business, as we know, the consumer pays for the service and tends to consider a service provider a servant. This leads to two conclusions:

  • a consumer looks for a provider with the contract that meets the consumer's goals.
  • a consumer can agree with some of the constraints a contract puts on him if the contract still meets the goals and decouples the consumer from the provider's internal conditions.
The conclusions point to the difference between using a software component as a traditional application and using it as a service. In the former case, a consumer depends on the application specifics and, if something isn't suitable, the consumer has to adapt and wait for the application to be refined. In the latter case, a consumer deals with a service application only if the contract meets his needs and the application constraints are reasonable. For example, the constraints can provide some business values such as security, which adds business trust, or remote invocation, which can lead to service scalability and robustness.

Jumping ahead let me say that one SOA service can engage another SOA service doing this transparently to the consumer. If the second service provides the proper data based on an "update schedule", i.e., the data are obsolete for some period of time, the first service tends either to find a substitute service with the correct data for that period of time or switch to a totally different service, without any "schedule problems." In any case, the consumer shouldn't depend on that schedule. Otherwise, all service contracts have to reflect one service specifics, which leads to quite an insufficient architecture and, actually, couples services and consumer together. Described is not a SOA rule, it's a business rule and due to SOA agility principle, SOA promotes the same behavior.

Thus, the service contract can be used as a requirement when one transforms the application into a service. A well-known expression of a contract is a Service Level Agreement (SLA). There may be a single SLA for all consumers or the provider can maintain individual SLAs with every consumer. If we took a typical SLA used for DW, for instance, and a SLA used in SOA, we'd get the starting and ending points for the process we have to implement when exposing a DW to a SOA.

The process includes not only a new connectivity interface but changes in behavior dictated by the Service SLA. For immutable applications, the process assumes building a service façade layer to interact with other services and consumers.

Service Interface in SOA
SOA implies certain requirements in the service interface. In short, the interface has to be:
1)    stable
2)    self-describing
3)    independent from provider implementation and its resources
4)    registerable/searchable
5)    accessible programmatically
6)    versioned
7)    accessible under control (security)

As you see, there's nothing about the Web in the requirements. Indeed, any particular interface implementation is suitable if it meets the requirements. It may be, for example, CORBA IDL. As we know, many elements of Web Services specifications were derived from CORBA. So, why is a Web Service (WS) as an interface so attractive for SOA but still not enough?

Web Services technology defines the abstraction of service behavior via standard WS Description Language (WSDL). It also provides for the abstraction of data via XML and the metadata definition via XML Schema. WS technology offers a WS registry known as UDDI (Universal Description, Discovery, and Integration) and a set of standards to support security ( WS-Security and related standards), transaction (WS-TXM, WS-Coordination, WS-AtomicTransaction, and WS-BusinessActivity), aggregation and management (WS-BPEL and WS-CDL), and interoperability (WS-I Basic Profile).

Agreement between leading technology vendors on XML and most WS standards makes Web Services really the best candidate for a universal interface for SOA. Some specialists include SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) in the basis of SOA while others disagree with it and consider SOAP only one of several possible and convenient protocols for WS binding. SOAP alone simply doesn't provide enough abstraction for a service definition, that's why we need WSDL and we already know a few WS models that don't use SOAP binding.

What's not included in WSDL is the information considered by a consumer when he makes a business decision about the service. That is, you can automatically invoke a WS but you're not supposed to do so blindly, without estimating the inherited risk. It's simple: if you want to cook some French fries, you'd not use a pan without checking if it burns oil. The same relates to WS - the service may be accepted if you know its connectivity interface and its quality characteristics like performance, change control rules, error-handling scenarios, and so on. This information is usually described in the SLA. So a SLA can be treated as a container that includes business knowledge and service interface definition - both to meet the consumer's needs. A lot of legacy systems also work on the basis of SLA, however, those SLA are traditionally provider/application-centric.

Service Level Agreement for SOA Service
Currently, some efforts are made in the industry to define and formalize SLA for WS - these are specifications for Web Service Level Agreements (WSLA) and the Web Service Offerings Language (WSOL). The WSLA provides a structure of definitions of basic SLA elements. While it is a subject for separate article, we note the fact that the WSLA pairs SLA parameters with their metrics. That is, providing for SOA SLA means constant monitoring, analysis, and compliance reporting of actual runtime parameter values that aren't a part of most legacy application SLAs.

Though a SOA SLA isn't standardized yet, it's very important to understand what can be included in it. Table 1 gives an example of a SOA SLA. Some parameters are measurable (as represented in WSLA) and some of them aren't.

There are no mandatory or optional parameters in the SLA because they are all business- and context-specific. As mentioned already, neither Web Service/WSDL nor any other programming interface can address such SLAs. On the other hand, not all services require such detailed SLAs. Its can be periodically refined and extended when more objective information is gathered about the Service. The SLA demonstrates that participation in SOA requires both - the service interface and service behavior.

The only other thing I'd like to note is that it's better for maintenance and further enhancements if all services in your system have a unified SLA, especially when the number of Services is expected to grow over the time. Otherwise, managing the Services quickly gets out of hands. That is, the better you define the Service, the fewer problems you have at runtime and the more consumers you attract to use it.

Thinking in SOA
We can find tons of publications describing how to wrap a legacy application with a Web Service. Many serious works recommend the same solution - the most scalable and flexible way of wrapping is to create a thin layer on top of the legacy application. The "preserve-and-extend" approach has gained a reputation as being the most reliable and cost-effective model for dealing with business-critical legacy apps.

Some vendors propose developing connectors and gateways where the former run in a mainframe and latter outside the mainframe (screen-scraping). Both models act as proxies shielding actual applications and helping to provide SLA. Merrill Lynch, in particular, has created an integration platform using plug-ins with parsers, metadata assemblies, and drivers that runs on the mainframe and exposes legacy apps through Web Services via HTTP and MOM protocols. This platform is even called a Service Oriented Legacy Architecture. However, many experts suggest that transitioning a legacy application to a Service for a SOA isn't that straightforward: simple wrapping just "preserves" the application but doesn't make it a "first-class SOA citizen" without an "extension."

Let me give you two examples. The first one is about a traditional application in the financial industry; it may be considered a base line for the second example. Assume that the task is to calculate the credit risk of swap transactions (a special type of financial transactions). The transactions comprise the transaction data themselves, related financial streams, and cash flow data. These are dynamic elements that usually persist in an operational data store. Other related data about supply feeds and financial clients are static and usually persist in a reference data store.

The traditional application-centric approach of building a credit risk calculation component addresses the access interface(s)-access protocol(s) and defines data location, the data access mechanism (direct SQL, Stored Procedures, Views, security controls, etc.) and the data availability schedule. The team developing the application has to deal with its consumers (dictating application constraints) and constantly negotiate data status and updates with the database maintenance team. It leads to per-application specialized code that has to transform data to meet particular application needs. Any change in the data affects the application and all its consumers (via production re-deployment, at least). Such complex daily management task may be sufficiently executed if the team has enough resources and deals with only a few applications but this is a dream nowadays. A more realistic consequence is a shortage of resources and degraded quality, as well we know. And, there's no room left to support business growth.

A service-oriented approach defines the credit risk calculation engine and the metadata that the engine can work with. That is, the engine knows about different calculation formulas and intermediary data storages, if needed; it also knows how to deal with data if it meets metadata requirements. That's it. The consumer of the calculation service specifies what calculation to perform - for intra-day or end-of-day transactions. The input data is provided by another service, e.g., the Data Access Service (DAS), which also knows where to place calculated results. The calculation engine hasn't a clue where to get data from, what transactions to process, when to do the job; it only cares whether the DAS provides a SLA and acts appropriately if the SLA is violated. Now every development and support team can concentrate on its own business and provide related SLAs.


More Stories By Michael Poulin

Michael Poulin works as an enterprise-level solution architect in the financial industry in the UK. He is a Sun Certified Architect for Java Technology, certified TOGAF Practitioner, and Licensed ZapThink SOA Architect. Michael specializes in distributed computing, SOA, and application security.

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