SOA and the Common Information Model

The adoption of a common information model is an important consideration within any large scale application integration scenario such as that which underpins Enterprise SOA. The common model is the standardised representation of the key information artefacts moving between domain boundaries, and the inclusion of such an artefact within the SOA infrastructure is a natural decision. In conceptual terms this kind of a approach makes complete sense, where every endpoint maps it’s own localised dialect into central, shared, common model to facilitate a more efficient integration design process than the alternative of negotiating an exchange model with every remote provider around every single interface. On the face of it, whether or not a common model is injected into an integration scenario, a common model will evolve as a by-product of the integration work. As such it’s far better to retain a level of pragmatic control over the evolution of such a corporate asset then to allow natural selection and incremental evolution shape such an important asset. The main problem with the use of a common model is the question of design-time or runtime and the integration methodology applied by the integrators has a bearing over which of these modes can be leveraged.

From experience, however, the problem with a common model can be it’s lack of accessibility and the implications of it’s abstraction on the concrete interfaces engineered through it by local dialects. On the one hand, taking a SOA scenario, one could mandate that all service providers, regardless of internal model and interface technology dialects, expose a single service interface expressed in terms of the common model, upon a single SOA infrastructure blueprint. That way providers have the comfort of sitting all their localised, legacy and evolving assets behind a common interface which becomes the only way to consume that service.  Such an approach also implies that providers and consumers can be decoupled during design and delivery to the extent where the service contract derived from the common model would form the basis of a testable component further down the line…

The alternative to this kind of explicit representation of the common model in service interfaces is the adoption and the use of the common model as a design ‘platform’, through which integrators assemble and agree service contracts, which are then engineered as consumer-specific runtime interfaces, albeit expressed as a variation of a fundamental common model. This is not a p2p integration approach, but more of an efficient use of a common model, to facilitate integration through a re-usable service capable of supporting a range of consumer dialects.  To achieve this kind of model, there are some pre-requisites in the design-space which, in my experience have been difficult to achieve such that the extent of my hands-one experience is the use of the model as a concrete interface standard. (More on this latter option in a subsequent post).

So when we push SOA services with interfaces represented explicitly in terms of a common, abstract model, there are pain points:

  1. All endpoints must achieve seamless mapping into the common syntactic and semantic model. Semantics are always the poor relation, and structural mappings are easier to nail than the content-centric domain rules which must also be formalised.
  2. All service providers must provide an interface presentation with back-end integration into their applications implementing the service logic. Whilst ‘fronting’ an evolving IT stack with new, strategic interfaces is advantageous, the additional ‘layer’ is often seen as an issue although in my experience the overhead of an additional layer of xml processing is trivial compared to the usual latency of executing business logic in the application tier.
  3. All consumers must conform to a particular, common/non-native dialect when consuming a remote service. This is the primary area where I feel there is justifiable negativity, especially where a consumer of a strategic service may actually be a transient component, targeted for removal in the near future, and as such investment in consumer-side integration kit to facilitate interaction with newly established remote services is difficult to justify.
  4. Nobody likes a common model…as everybody has to do some work. Moving from a traditional EAI mindset – where we broker all integration solutions centrally, in which case the ‘how’ is hidden within black-box integrations, there is always this debate to be had. However when SOA is simply distributing ownership of common model to the endpoints as opposed to centralising it in an EAI scenario, I feel this point of issue is relatively trivial.

So I believe I can argue and justify a case for a common-model in all cases apart from point 4. The willingness of consumers to ‘take the pain’ of conforming to a foreign model – which may be non-trivial, is a tough nut to crack. Historically I have predominantly been in situations where the consumers of remote services are also providers of strategic services to remote consumers, so investment in new infrastructure to facilitate the ‘provider’ role can be leveraged to support the needs of local applications requiring consume-side adaptation to facilitate interaction with remote, common-model based services.

However I have done so, with an understanding in the back of my mind that there has to be a more effective way of linking strategic services based on a common-model with a diverse collection of consumers and client-side funding and organisational constraints.

In conclusion – using a common model as a concrete interface standard is do-able, but is a pretty heavy-handed and brute-force approach to something which ‘should’ be making life easier. As such I truly believe that a more collaborative framework in the design-space will facilitate a more adaptive integration approach, still 100% supportive of a common model, whilst facilitating low-cost integration. I will be expanding more on this new approach in my next post.

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