Less specs, more apps, Soap author says

A Microsoft engineer had harsh words this week for suppliers contributing to the plethora of web services specifications, and...

A Microsoft engineer had harsh words this week for suppliers contributing to the plethora of web services specifications, and advised developers to read less of them and get on with writing applications.

"Specs are like bodily orifices - everybody has them and they all have certain unique characteristics. But just writing a spec means nothing. If you write a spec that no one implements, did it ever really specify anything?" Don Box, an architect in Microsoft's .net software group, asked developers at the XML Web Services One conference in Santa Clara, California.

Box was one of the authors of the original Soap (Simple Object Access Protocol) specification in 1998. He acknowledged having contributed to the "cacophony" of Web services specifications and said he planned to write less.

A "terrible, terrible thing" has happened in the past two years, he told developers here. The software industry has become so fixated on new specifications that it has lost sight of the fundamental goal - using XML to link software applications together. While some new specs that have been proposed are important and useful, others are too complex and still others will probably never be used, including some from Microsoft, he said.

XML (Extensible Markup Language), a technology at the heart of Web services, is by now "pretty stable," Box said, and "the Holy Trinity" of web services - meaning Soap, WSDL (Web Services Description Language) and UDDI (Universal Description, Discovery and Integration) - are complete enough for most developers to use.

Other specifications are being hammered out to address security, management, orchestration and other aspects of web services, but he urged developers not to wait for the results.

"I strongly encourage you not to wait for all of this stuff to settle down. The important stuff has settled down sufficiently that unless you are building the enterprise information bus for your company, we are done. And if you're building that [information bus], wait a few months and that will settle down by the end of the year."

Box gave four tips for developers:

  • Read fewer specifications
  • Write more applications
  • Write less code by using tools that generate code automatically
  • Remember that humans matter, so if you must write a specification, make it legible.

Anne Thomas Manes, an analyst with The Burton Group, agreed in part. She noted that service providers such as Google have already deployed web services that allow customers hook up to their computer systems, while Merrill Lynch is using web services to link applications internally in place of IBM's MQ Series messaging software.

Upcoming specifications such as WS-Security, being hammered out by Microsoft, IBM and Verisign, will be useful for some, but in the meantime the existing SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) security standard "solves 80%" of security needs for web services.

IBM director of web services technology Bob Sutor said: "This has got to be the year we stop talking about Soap and WSDL and start talking a lot more about what a business can accomplish with web services."

Some specifications have been proposed for competitive reasons as much as because they solve any pressing need, Microsoft's Box suggested. "What matters is software, not specs written by vendors just to position yourself against five other vendors."

The XML Web Services conference ends today. Information is at http://www.xmlconference.com/

Read more on IT strategy