Friday, November 04, 2005

Anti-patterns for SOA: Part One

This is a quick paper to explain some of the core tenets of SOA and illustrate a potentially unhealthy practice of trying to make functionality that exists behind a service interface visible to service consumers. Sadly, this practice seems to be growing in popularity lately which makes me question if people really understand why we are trying to move to SOA in the first place.

I came across this situation as editor of a requirements document for what may be a service oriented architecture for content management. In an early draft, I had copied what someone wrote:

"..a derived requirement that services would need to exist for Search, Read, Write, Copy, Move, Update, Merge, Version, Lock, Access Control Introspect type methods for content management. "

I received a comment back that stated :

Content transformation – might be overloaded on copy… alternatively might want to be able to create complex transformation pipelines (splits, branches and merge…)“

It turns out that this insightful comment was extrenmely useful and lead to an epiphany. I now believe that the set should be shortened to only the following services:

Search – to locate a reference from which the content may be retrieved.
Read/Retrieve – essentially the ability to retrieve a copy of content.
Write – a method that would make subsequent retrieval of the content via a service possible. Note that I did not state „to write it to some persistent media“. This will be explained more later.
Update – a method to update content without over-writing an existing version. This assumes some form of version control.
Move – the ability to associate content with an additional URI, IRI or similar reference pointer. Note that I did not state „to migrate content from one persistent location to another“. That makes assumptions of some specific functionality or mechanism behind a service interface.
Lock – lock permissions for content so no one else can invoke the other methods.
Delete – make the content no longer reference able via the service interface. This does not necessarily imply removing the binary sequence that represents the content.
Access Control Introspect – inspecting the access control policies associated with content.

The following should not be core services, but should be optional:

Copy – essentially, this is akin to a combination of read and a subsequent write. This could optionally be implemented but should not be core since it is redundant.
Move – implies the ability to migrate content from one persistent location to another and is nothing more that a combination of retrieve, write and delete. Note that in some cases, content may not actually physically move, it may simply just have a different reference. Many operating systems work this way.
Merge – merge is really retrieval of two or more bits of content, a port-retrieval join and then an write() of a new aggregate content. It can also take place entirely behind the service interface by the creation of a method that will enable the end result of the merge to be retrieved from a service call. This does not mean that the content is actually merged – it is simply possible to get aggregated content.

So you are probably seeing a pattern by now. The core tenet is the externally visible properties or effects of invoking an action VS. the functionality that enables the end result. In SOA, one should not try to focus on the latter, the focus is brought to the service itself. The implementation is not relevant to the consumer.

Case in point. Microsoft engineers have engineered windows so via the user interface, it appears that you can move something from one location on a hard disk to another. But did it really move? No. In fact, in many cases, all you are really doing is changing the pointers which results in a change in the way the view is created for the user via the GUI. Those of you who have programmed in C and CPP will be familiar with this concept.

One service should probably be out of scope for the first phase of the project:

Transform – implying custom manipulations of content.

So why should the first group be core and transform be not in scope?


Services are autonomous and manage their transparency. A service should remain as opaque as possible to mitigate creating dependencies from those who invoke the service. When you make a service request, you enter parameters based on what you want. If for example, a blob of data exists in XML format (let’s call it FOO), and you desire a copy of it in HTML format, you should ask for it like this:

Please retrieve FOO for me in HTML format?


get(FOO, html);

may represent a call to a java class. FOO in this case represents the thing you want and html may be an optional parameter to force the class to provide it in html rather than some default format.

When invoking this method, you should not care how the method gets you FOO in html format. It is not your job to question that. You only care about one thing. It either gives you FOO in html or it fails. Whether or not FOO.html was created by applying a complex transformation, aggregation or forced composition is irrelevant in most cases. Perhaps monkey’s banging out machine byte code randomly created it for you. It really doesn’t matter.

Bad Practice:

You should not be forced to ask for it in any manner that attempts to control processes behind the service interface like this:

“Please retrieve FOO for me and transform it from XML to HTML.”

The latter is bad architecture since it introduces unnecessary dependencies. When you ask for FOO in HTML format, you should not care whether or not it persists in HTML or some other format, only that you get what the interface promises you can retrieve.

The same principle applies for versioning and many other functions. Versions are merely parameters that can be entered into the server, but you should not specify how the functionality behind the service interface evaluates which one is the latest version or how it finds and serializes a specific version. All you need to know is that you either get the version you requested or a notice that the service failed.


There are multiple correct ways to architect a solution for allowing transformations. The first is based on the transformation happening behind the service interface. The service description can declare this is happening but should only do this if that information is necessary for the service consumer to know. Keep in mind that the Service Consumer cannot and should not see anything behind the service interface.

Example One – Good Practice:


The service consumer makes a call to the service and asks for a specific chunk of content in a specific format. In this case, it asks for FOO and specifies a parameter stating what format it wants foo in (HTML). The service takes the request, then retrieves a copy of FOO in xml format. Before passing it back to the service consumer, it calls an internal (and invisible to the service consumer) method to transform foo.xml into foo.html. It gets back the result then passes it back to the service consumer.

In this diagram, everything above the service consumer or below the service itself should be out of scope since there are no externally visible properties nor should assumptions be made about them. To introduce these dependencies would introduce unnecessary dependencies and assumptions and violate the core axioms of SOA.

Example Two – Good Practice

The second variation involves post–retrieval transformations and is also acceptable. Note that the patterns of interaction between service consumer and service provider are not broken.

In this case, the service is only capable of retrieving the FOO content in xml and passes the xml back to the service consumer. The service consumer subsequently transforms it to the HTML format.

In this scenario, the post retrieval use of the content is clearly out of scope for this particular SOA since it’s job is to facilitate the retrieval. There are an unlimited number of things that the user of the service consumer may do once it has retrieved the content. In Phase II, we MAY tackle a few of these however at present, all post retrieval uses should be out of scope until we have the core layer defined since there is a dependency on the base layer.

It should be noted that in this example, it is possible the Transformation component’s interface is visible to the service. That leads us to the third example.

Example Three – suboptimal

In this final scenario, the service consumer calls the service, and requests that the service redirect the response to a transformation service, with instructions to tell the transformation service to do something with it then return the result back to the service consumer.

This introduces several things that I would fire an architect for.

First – it mixes two tasks into one process. If something goes wrong, the service consumer will have great difficulty knowing where things went wrong. The service consumer also cannot accurately know the state of the service call since it would likely have no idea when the service passed the work to the transformation component.

Secondly, it also blurs two unique functions into one. This lessens the probability of uncomplicated reuse but building unnecessarily complex interfaces. The service interface, instead of handling simple requests, now has to handle requests overloaded with details of where to forward things, what protocol to use and what instructions to forward. Inelegant.

This scenario also introduces another potentially unhealthy risk – the service does not know if the transformation service is even available when it accepts the service request. The Service consumer may get some form of acknowledgement back from the service leading it to believe its request is being processed when in fact it cannot be completed. This would become much more complex in the real world if you layered protocols like WS-RX over top of the transactions.

Finally - As with OO programming and analysis, object should break large jobs down into several smaller tasks which can be completed and orchestrated at will. The third example above is akin to procedural web services. It also introduces dependencies between three components which may result in problems maintaining the system.


A core tenet of SOA is managed transparency. Consumers should not make assumptions about what happens behind the service, nor should they demand to see details of such they do not really need.

So what do you think? I wm interested in hearing some counter points but please feel free to agree also.


  1. I agree with the two good practices, but on the bad practice the challenge is almost that you could view the transformational element as a service which provide common capability and therefore it is good for everyone to use (at the edge) the XML/HTML conversion.

    Also if the transformation is simple mediation then its okay for both the end client and the service to use it as this could be a version interface problem (HTML was v1, XML is v2) that has to be solved.

    If the transformation was something like "addUserDetails" where the XML returns a customer ID which is then enriched for a fully qualified return and the policy of the project is full qualification then the bad practice would be more obvious.

    On bad practice and SOA the biggest element I tend to see is the "get" service which just represents a database table retrival and then there is another service called "add" and another called "update", rather than these being (correctly in my mind) combined into one service

  2. Most of what you are referring to is really REST: GET/PUT/POST etc. IMO SOA is more about actions and tasks than accessing and manipulating resources.

    While I can see why you might want to fire the architecture, I think that you are missing something else.

    A key problem with traditional OO is what I call Object Spaghetti. This is 'caused' by the very fine grain nature of OO programming languages and (maybe) the lack of some critical features. The effect of OO spaghetti is lots of small objects each handling a relatively small piece of the problem.

    So, just as important as small reusable pieces is minimizing interdependencies -- in the client code as well as in the service code.

  3. Yes you are both correct in your observations. I had considered POO or "Pasta-style Object Oriented" style. The primary consideration is to explore whether or not it is a good practice or bad practice to route service responses via third party entities belonging to different domains if there is no good reason. I will assert that example 1 and 2 are preferrable to 3 if there are no compelling reasons. Thank you for the feedback ;-)

  4. OMG Duane, you realize that you just derived the Web (more or less) from first principles there, right? Quite a bit of WebDAV as well.

  5. 1. I saw the part 1 also.

    My comments for the part1:

    While i agree with the statement that the service customer need not mention/ worry about any transformation, it may be necessary in certain cases as an option , that the transformation method be specified, but still the override can be given by the provider.

    For example if a simple messaging service is given, the transformation method may be given by the service consumer (More by a thick consumer).
    Ofcourse not all consumers (Thin) may want to provide it and may be happy the transformation be provided by the service provider.

    2. Also in part 2 , i saw the reference of grid and the way how it refers to utilise the services. Though it have not asked for any comment, I got some doubt in that. Would welcome feedback.

    Generally GRID principle is that it is supposed to provide a QOS though without a central point of administration similar to web, and also supposed to take care of self tuning. Hence strictly speaking by definition
    of Grid network, there is no need of anybody owning a network. Even if it
    is owned by multiple policies via partners, i would like elaboration on how this will allow leases to the nodes via "services" ? especially if the service is of application in nature and how this would necessitate at least one service per node?

    Do we need to have one set of rules for grid enabled services and another for uber services? Also a cluster tends to refer to a homegenous set of computers and an uber service may also help to locate a non - homogenous computers.


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