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Application Server Architecture and BPEL

Promises and challenges

In recent years the application server has greatly evolved, expanding the set of core services provided by the infrastructure. The current Java platform supports XML data handling, scalability, load balancing, and other capabilities that allow application-level services to be developed more easily and deployed more reliably. This progression must now address developers' latest concerns regarding security, distributed transactions, and reliable messaging because applications no longer stand alone - they're deployed into a technology ecosystem that can span departmental and organizational boundaries.

In this environment, a well-behaved application not only needs to interact with external systems and consume services from them, but also needs to be a service provider. This is driven by a need for reuse and adaptability and fuels the current push toward services-oriented architectures (SOA).

However, this leads to the question: How do we get all these services to work together in a heterogeneous, networked environment? The answer is BPEL, the Business Process Execution Language for Web Services. BPEL provides a standard, portable language for orchestrating services into end-to-end business processes and builds upon a decade of progress in the areas of business process management, workflow, and integration technologies. It's built from the ground up around XML and Web services and is supported on both the Microsoft .NET and Java platforms.

What does BPEL add to the existing Web services standards and Java platform? It's clear that the industry must have been hungry for BPEL, given the support it has received from nearly every major technology vendor in the past year - but why? The first driving force is the new class of connected applications, which makes implementing business processes a mainstream problem that most developers must tackle. Surely a second factor was the alphabet soup of earlier proprietary workflow languages, which slowed their adoption and created a standards vacuum that BPEL fit perfectly. And finally, Web services have accelerated the process by providing a standard interface for publishing services and requiring a shift in the way service composition is done. BPEL, then, is just what the doctor ordered. The emergence of BPEL as a standard for describing business processes is a step in the evolution of the application platform (see Figure 1).

Aligning with this shift, many of the major technology vendors in both the Java and .NET camps have announced that they will ship BPEL engines in the future, so why are so few commercially available today? It turns out that the maturity of BPEL as a process language makes it feature rich but complicates the process of building a scalable, reliable BPEL engine. For example, BPEL is designed with asynchronous services at its core, but this means that servers must deal effectively with persisting state for long-running flows, correlating asynchronous messages, and reliably handling the case where an outbound message has been sent but the server crashes before the response is received. The rest of this article examines how these requirements, and the new standards to support them, naturally extend both the Web services standards and the current Java platform.

To make this discussion more interesting - and more comprehensible - let's consider a real-world example: an order management process at a large hardware manufacturer. This manufacturer accepts wholesale orders from many different sources and responds immediately with an order tracking number, but has a long-running flow in the back end to process and track the order and call the client back when an invoice is ready.

As shown in Figure 2, this flow needs to invoke synchronous services, such as looking up payment terms in an Oracle Financials package, as well as asynchronous services, such as submitting the order to a mainframe system, which will compute the invoice as part of a batch process. XML data is exchanged between all the systems and the manufacturer must process millions of these transactions a day at peak loads—tracking them, reporting on them, and handling exceptions, notifications, and manual processing steps as needed.

This process is a typical example of the new class of requirements that developers must address when developing SOA-based applications, including:

  • Bindings to heterogeneous back-end systems
  • Asynchronous interactions
  • XML data transformation
  • Flow coordination
These requirements are transforming the application server from a container for presentation and tightly coupled business logic to an infrastructure that equally supports asynchronous messages and flow coordination. This transformation is enabled and accelerated by emerging standards that will extend the boundary of the Java platform as we know it (see Figure 3).

Some of the key standards that are being implemented in J2EE application servers around this area include the following.

Extensible WSDL Binding Framework (JSR-208)
Web services are clearly demonstrating their value as an integration standard; however, not all back-end systems are SOAP or Web service enabled. The JSR-208 working group and existing frameworks like WSIF (Web Services Invocation Framework) from Apache focused on helping the Java platform support Web services messaging without requiring every system to be wrapped with a Web service. In this way, hardware manufacturers can use BPEL to orchestrate JMS messages sent to and received from the mainframe.

Process Flow Coordination (BPEL)
Asynchrony, parallelism, sophisticated exception handling, long-running processes, and a need for compensating transactions change the fundamental nature of what we think of as an application. While the order management flow looks simple, the long-running and asynchronous message exchanges alone would make it complex to implement in Java today. Add parallelism and compensation logic and things get downright ugly....

Reliable Web Messaging (WS-Reliability)
One of the challenges of SOA-based applications is that you can't assume that all the end-points are available at the same time, all the time. The WS-Reliability Web messaging standard lets the infrastructure guarantee the order and delivery of messages across service end-points.

Security (WS-Security)
In addition, security requirements are obvious when exchanging text-based messages over (and across) unsecure networks. By addressing this problem with infrastructure-level standards, security is provided without sacrificing interoperability.

XML Data and Transformation (JAXB, XQuery)
SOA-based applications need to access and manipulate XML documents flowing into and out of each service. New Java facilities like JAXB and languages like XQuery simplify these tasks.

User Interactivity (WSRP)
Most business processes incorporate user interactions at many levels, such as portals to initiate and inspect the state of processes, manual approval tasks, and exception handling. The Web Services for Remote Portlets (WSRP) standard enables the next generation of application servers to support user interactions in composite processes as robustly as they're supported for Web applications today.

Choreography and Contracts (WS-CDL)
As the Web services standards reduce the barrier for trading partners to interact, a formalism is required to describe the contracts involved in richer business collaborations.

Summary
The trend towards building SOA-based applications marks a fundamental shift in the way that applications are built. Applications today are triggered by events, orchestrating services from both existing and new applications, and integration must be asynchronous and loosely coupled to be reliable. Not coincidentally, a new set of standards has emerged to address these requirements, and vendor adoption of these open standards is increasing confidence and accelerating adoption in the IT community. This is clearly promising and will offer enterprises more seamless interoperability between heterogeneous systems and services than was previously possible. Of course, all the applications deployed on this standards-based infrastructure benefit from the inherent capabilities of the underlying platform.Of course, some challenges remain. Several standards in areas such as reliability and connectivity are less mature. Also, because this new architecture doesn't fully address information quality, vendors must provide data-quality services that offer profiling and cleansing features. Still, it's clear that these developments are going to dramatically change how we build applications - and that the application server and BPEL are at the core of this new wave.

More Stories By Amlan Debnath

Oracle Integration Guru and vice president of Server Technology, Amlan Debnath joined Oracle from TIBCO Software Inc., where he was vice president of Integration Products. While at TIBCO, Amlan drove TIBCO’s shift from messaging vendor to major player in the enterprise integration market, working actively with many world-leading customers to understand their requirements and develop products that better satisfied their needs.

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