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Weblogging has been pretty thin for me lately, as has everything else. for the past few months now I've been working on a large XML-driven integration project at Sun Microsystems. I consult as a data architect to the group that drives the main Web site, as well as product marketing pages and other data-driven venues. That's been a large part of my day job for the last four years, and in the most recent project Sun is working in a versatile new e-commerce engine. They put a lot of care into analysis for integrating this into existing product pages, so I found myself waist deep in XML pipeline architecture and data flows from numerous source systems (some XML, some ERP, some CMS and every other TLA you can fathom). The XML pipeline aggregates the sources according to a formal data model, the result of which feeds normalized XML data into the commerce back end. A veritable enterprise mash-up. It's been a lot of work, leavened by collaboration with a top-notch team, and with the launch last week of the new system I've found palpable reward.

Web Usability guru Martin Hardee, whose team put together the stringent design parameters for the project, mentioned the new feature this week.

We're already off building on this success, and it's more enterprise-grade (yeah, buzzword, sue me) XML modeling and pipeline-driven architecture with a global flavor for a good while to come, I expect. And probably not all that much time for Weblogging.

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Today's (non-XML) WTF or High stakes in the SOA sweeps

So here's Infoworld's daily nugget of wisdom, poised over the provocation: "Should you fire your enterprise architect in 2007? Take the test."

The largest and most disturbing issue ... is the fact that there seems to be a huge chasm between the traditional enterprise architecture crowd, and those looking at the value of SOA. Indeed, enterprise architecture, as a notion, has morphed from an approach for the betterment of corporate IT to a management practice, at least for some. Thus, the person that is needed to understand and implement the value of SOA is sometimes not the current enterprise architect in charge. -- David Linthicum.

So the SOA wars are heating up. More and more smart people are pointing out that the emperor has no clothes; but stakes is still crazy high. Some folks haven't yet made all their money from SOA. So how do the stakeholders respond? With cold-blooded threats.

"So your architect isn't all bought into SOA, eh? Well fire him, dammit."

And oh, isn't it delicious irony that this dude is claiming it's the experienced architects cautious on SOA who are establishing a pet management practice within IT. Oh, there's no way the SOA sellers could be guilty of that. Noooo. Never. Never. Never. Neeeever!

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Service Modeling Language

I'd long ago put up a very thick lens for looking at any news from the SOA space. With analysts and hungry vendors flinging the buzzword around in a mindless frenzy it came to the point where one out of twenty bits of information using the term were pure drivel. I do believe there is some substance to SOA, but it's definitely veiled in a thick cloud of the vapors. This week Service Modeling Language caught my eye through said thick lens, and I think it may be one of the more interesting SOA initiatives to emerge.

One problem is that the SML blurbs and the SML spec seem to have little substantive connection. It's touted as follows:

The Service Modeling Language (SML) provides a rich set of constructs for creating models of complex IT services and systems. These models typically include information about configuration, deployment, monitoring, policy, health, capacity planning, target operating range, service level agreements, and so on.

The second sentence reads at first glance as if it's some form of ontology of systems management, basically an actual model, rather than a modeling language. No big deal. I see modeling languages and actual models conflated all the time. Then I catch the "typically", and read the spec, and it becomes evident that SML has much more to it than "models of complex IT services and systems". It's really a general-purpose modeling language. It builds on a subset of WXS and a subset of ISO Schematron, adding a handful of useful data modeling constructs such as sml:unique and sml:acyclic (the latter is subtle, but experienced architects know how important identifying cyclic dependencies is to risk assessment).

I'm still not sure I see the entire "story" as it pertains to services/SOA and automation. I guess if I use my imagination I could maybe divine that an architect publishes a model of the IT needs for a service, and some management tool such as Tivoli or Unicenter generates reports on a system to flag issues or to assess compatibility with the service infrastructure need? (I'm not sure whether this would be a task undertaken during proposal assessment, systems development, maintenance, all of the above?). I imagine all the talk of automation in SML involves how such reports would help reduce manual assessment in architecture and integration? But that can't be! Surely SML folks have learned the lessons of UDDI. Some assessment tasks simply cannot be automated.

SML shows the fingerprints of some very sharp folks, so I assume I'm missing soemthing. I think that much more useful than the buzzword-laden blurbs for SML would be an document articulating some nice, simple use cases. Also, I think the SML spec should be split up. At present a lot of its bulk is taken up defining WXS and ISO Schematron subsets. It seems a useful profile to have, but it should be separated from the actual specification of SML modeling primitives.

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"Semantic Transparency" by any other name

In response to "Semantic hairball, y'all" Paul Downey responded with approval of my skewering of some of the technologies I see dominating the semantics space, but did say:

..."semantic transparency" in "XML Schema" sounds just a little too scary for my tastes....

This could mean that the names sound scary, or that his interpretation of the idea itself sounds scary. If it's the latter, I'll try to show soon that the idea is very simple and shouldn't be at all scary. If it's the former, the man has a point. "Semantic Transparency" is a very ungainly name. As far as I can tell, it was coined by Robin Cover, and I'm sure it was quite suitable at the time, but for sure right now it's a bit of a liability in the pursuit that most interests me.

The pursuit is of ways to build on the prodigious success of XML to make truly revolutionary changes in data architecture within and across organizations. Not revolutionary in terms of the technology to be used. In fact, as I said in "No one ever got fired for...", the trick is to finally give age-old and well proven Web architecture more than a peripheral role in enterprise architecture. The revolution would be in the effects on corporate culture that could come from the increased openness and collaboration being fostered in current Web trends.

XML ushered in a small revolution by at least codifying a syntactic basis for general purpose information exchange. A common alphabet for sharing. Much is made of the division between data and documents in XML (more accurate terms have been proposed, including records versus narrative, but I think people understand quite well what's meant by the data/documents divide, and those terms are just fine). The key to XML is that even though it's much more suited to documents, it adapts fairly well to data applications. Technologies born in the data world such as relational and object databases have never been nearly as suitable for document applications, despite shrill claims of relational fundamentalists. XML's syntax mini-revolution means that for once those trying to make enterprise information systems more transparent by consolidating departmental databases into massive stores (call them the data warehouse empire), and those trying to consolidate documents into titanic content management stores (call them the CMS empire) can use the same alphabet (note: the latter group is usually closely allied with those who want to make all that intellectual capital extremely easy to exchange under contract terms. Call them the EDI empire). The common alphabet might not be ideal for any one side at the table, but it's a place to start building interoperability, and along with that the next generation of applications.

All over the place I find in my consulting and speaking that people have embraced XML just to run into the inevitable limitations of its syntactic interoperability and scratch their head wondering OK, what's the next stop on this bus route? People who know how to make money have latched onto the suspense, largely as a way of re-emphasizing the relevance of their traditional products and services, rather than as a way to push for further evolution. A few more idealistic visionaries are pushing such further evolution, some rallying under the banner of the "Semantic Web". I think this term is, unfortunately, tainted. Too much of the 70s AI ambition has been cooked into recent iterations of Semantic Web technologies, and these technologies are completely glazing over the eyes of the folks who really matter: the non-Ph.Ds (for the most part) who generate the vast bodies of public and private documents and data that are to drive the burgeoning information economy.

Some people building on XML are looking for a sort of mindshare arbitrage between the sharp vendors and the polyester hippies, touting sloppy, bottom-up initiatives such as microformats and folksonomies. These are cheap, and don't make the head spin to contemplate, but it seems clear to anyone paying attention that they don't scale as a way to consolidate knowledge any more than the original Web does.

I believe all these forces will offer significant juice to next generation information systems, and that the debate really is just how the success will be apportioned. As such, we still need an umbrella term for what it means to build on a syntactic foundation by sharing context as well. To start sharing glossaries as well as alphabets. The fate (IMO) of the term "Semantic Web" is instructive. I often joke about the curse of the s-word. It's a joke I picked up from elsewhere (I forget where) to the effect that certain words starting with "s", and "semantic" in particular are doomed to sound imposing yet impossibly vague. My first thought was: rather than "semantic transparency", how about just "transparency? The problem is that it's a bit too much of a hijack of the generic. A data architect probably will get the right picture from the term, but we need to communicate to ithe wider world.

Other ideas that occur to me are:

  • "information transparency"
  • "shared context" or "context sharing"
  • "merged context"
  • "context framing"
  • "Web reference"

The latter idea comes from my favorite metaphor for these XML++ technologies: that they are the reference section (plus card catalog) of the library (see "Managing XML libraries"). They are what makes it possible to find, cross-reference and understand all the information in the actual books themselves. I'm still fishing for good terms, and would welcome any suggestions.

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Mike Linksvayer had a nice comment on my recent talk at the Semantic Technology Conference.

I think Uche Ogbuji's Microformats: Partial Bridge from XML to the Semantic Web is the first talk I've heard on that I've heard from a non-cheerleader and was a pretty good introduction to the upsides and downsides of microformats and how can leverage microformats for officious Semantic Web purposes. My opinion is that the value in microformats hype is in encouraging people to take advantage of XHTML semantics in however a conventional in non-rigorous fashion they may. It is a pipe dream to think that most pages containing microformats will include the correct profile references to allow a spec-following crawler to extract much useful data via GRDDL. Add some convention-following heuristics a crawler may get lots of interesting data from microformatted pages. The big search engines are great at tolerating ambiguity and non-conformance, as they must.

Yeah, I'm no cheerleader (or even follower) for Microformats. Certainly I've been skeptical of Microformats here on Copia (1, 2, 3). I think that the problem with Microformats is that value is tied very closely to hype. I think that as long as they're a hot technology they can be a useful technology. I do think, however, that they have very little intrinsic technological value. I guess one could say this about many technologies, but Microformats perhaps annoy me a bit more because given XML as a base, we could do so much better.

Mike is also right to be skeptical that GRDDL will succeed if, as it presently does, it relies on people putting profile information into Web documents that use Microformats.

My experience at the conference, some very trenchant questions from the audience, A very interesting talk by Ben Adida right after my own, and more matters have got me thinking a lot about Microformats and what those of us whose information consolidation goals are more ambitious might be able to make of them. Watch this space. More to come.

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No one ever got fired for...

In my previous entry about enterprise architecture and complexity I forgot to touch on one thread that occurred to me.

My recent experiences, and Dare's quote, bring me to mind of the old adage: "No one ever got fired for buying IBM". Why is there no sign of a corresponding "No one ever got fired for designing like Google"? To be sure, IBM was on top a lot longer than Google before it became subject of the proverb, but hey, the Web age is a faster age, right? Where's my accelerated fulfilment when it comes to enterprise applications architecture?

I get the impression that instead, among the C-level cloisters of many run-of-the-mill companies, the reality is more "no one ever got fired for ordering a titanic Oracle or ERP license and thereupon building an unmaintainable application superstructure". It seems a lot harder to explain to the board that you are introducing revolutionary efficiency in your organization's information systems by learning the lessons of the Web (the most successful distributed information system ever). That sounds dangerously generic to the eyes of analysts trained to receive all truths from Chicago-cluster consultants. It does not sound like a roll-up of synergies to cross the chasm and monetize emergence of elastic markets. Paying the toffs gigabucks and then bending over for the inevitable business process re-engineering is just how it's done, lads.

So no one gets fired for Google-like systems architecture. No. Outside the crescendoing Web 2.0 bubble, no one gets hired in the first place if there's the slightest sniff they'd contemplate such a thing. Shame. Web 2.0 is not a bubble (square-one-dot-com) because it's based on near-trivial technology. It's a bubble because there are very few opportunities for arbitrage in a marketplace whose point is to provide customers unprecedented transparency and choice. The very place where such an approach can more consistently provide value is within the enterprise whose information systems have so long been bantustans of baroque and isolated systems. The enterprise is where there is a real chance of information systems revolution from Google-like technology. And it's the one place where no one is looking to build and deploy technology the way Google does.

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Today's wot he said

Dare Obasanjo, earlier this week:

The funny thing about a lot of the people who claim to be 'Enterprise Architects' is that I've come to realize that they tend to seek complex solutions to relatively simple problems. How else do you explain the fact that web sites that serve millions of people a day and do billions of dollars in business a year like Amazon and Yahoo are using scripting languages like PHP and approaches based on REST to solve the problem of building distributed applications while you see these 'enterprise architect' telling us that you need complex WS-* technologies and expensive toolkits to build distributed applications for your business which has less issues to deal with than the Amazons and Yahoos of this world?

Gbooyakasha! I've recently had occasion to discuss my "enterprise" credentials with some mainstream-y CIO/CTO types. It always amazes me how many of that number gaze vacantly at simple architectural ideas, and find true comfort in endless, overlapping boxes with data arrows flying in all dizzying directions, so long as those boxes are labeled "Oracle", "SAP" and such. I certainly understand it's easy to confuse simple with simplistic, but unnecessarily complicated should not be so hard to spot, and it's all over the place in your friendly neighborhood enterprise.

I've considered myself an enterprise architect because I've worked in the architecture of solutions that require workflow across departments within medium-sized organizations. Lately, however, I've come to wonder whether unfortunate practice has tainted the title.

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Semantic hairball, y'all

I'm in San Jose and the Semantic Technology Conference 2006 has just wrapped up. A good time, as always, and very well attended (way up from even last year. This is an extraordinarily well organized conference). But I did want to throw up one impression I got from one of the first talks I went to.

The talk discussed an effort in "convergence" of MDA/UML, RDF/OWL, Web Services and Topic Maps. Apparently all the big committees are involved, from OMG, W3C, ISO, etc. Having been an enthusiastic early adopter in the first three technologies, I was violently struck by the casually side-stepped enormousness of this undertaking. In my view, all four projects had promising roots and were all eventually buried under the weight of their own complexity. And yet the convergence effort that's being touted seems little more sophisticated than balling all these behemoths together. I wonder what's the purpose. I can't imagine the result will be greater adoption for these technologies taken together. Many potential users already ignore them because of the barrier of impenetrable mumbo-jumbo. I can't imagine there would be much cross-pollination within these technologies because without brutal simplification and profiling model mismatches would make it impractical for an application to efficiently cross the bridge from one semantic modeling technology to the other.

I came to this conference to talk about how Microformats might present a slender opportunity for semantic folks to harness the volume of raw material being generated in the Web 2.0 craze. The trade-off is that the Web 2.0 craze produces a huge amount of crap metadata, and someone will have to clean up the mess in the resulting RDF models even if GRDDL is ever deployed widely enough to generate models worth the effort. And let's not even start on the inevitable meltdown of "folksonomies" (I predict formation of a black hole of fundamental crapitational force). I replaced my previous year's talk about how managers of controlled information systems could harness XML schemata for semantic transparency. I think next year I should go back to that. It's quite practical, as I've determined in my consulting experience. I'm not sure hitching information pipelines to Web 2.0 is the least bit practical.

I'm struck by the appearance of two extremes in popular fields of distributed information management (and all you Semantic Technology pooh-pooh-ers would be gob-smacked if you had any idea how deadly seriously Big Business is taking this stuff: it's popular in terms of dollars and cents, even if it's not the gleam in your favorite blogger's eye). On one hand we have the Daedalos committee fastening labyrinth to labyrinth. On the other hand we have the tower of Web 2.0 Babel. We need a mob in the middle to burn 80% of the AI-one-more-time-for-your-mind-magic off of RDF, 80% of the chicago-cluster-consultant-diesel off of MDA, 80% of the toolkit-vendor-flypaper off of Web services. Once the ashes clear, we need folks to build lightweight tools that actually would help with extracting value from distributed information systems without scaring off the non-Ph.D.s. I still think XML is the key, and that XML schema systems should have been addressing semantic transparency from the start, rather than getting tied up in static typing bondage and discipline.

I have no idea whether I can do anything about the cluster-fuck besides ranting, but I'll be squeezing neurons hard until XTech, which does have the eminent advantage of being an in-person meeting of the semantic, XML and Web 2.0 crowds.

Let's dance in Amsterdam, potnas.

See also:

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