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10/05/2004

The Message Is The Software

Back in the 1990’s Sun Microsystems famously coined the term “the network is the computer” in an effort to illustrate that distributed computing, enabled by networks, was destined to triumph over monolithic CPUs. A similar and perhaps more important revolution is now underway in the software world. In this revolution, monolithic compiled binaries are rapidly being replaced by fragments of distributed code held together by increasingly robust message systems. Far from simply relaying information, these message systems are rapidly evolving into “stateful” clouds. As these vast, intelligent, clouds evolve they are becoming, in many ways, the heart and soul of modern software.

Falling to Pieces
The fragmentation of software binaries is well-worn trend that started with some of the early component models and accelerated dramatically thanks to the adoption of the J2EE and .Net component models. With the advent of Web Services and Service Oriented Architectures (SOAs) such fragmentation has accelerated once again. As software fragments and distributes, the role of messaging systems increases in importance for it is these messaging systems that provide the virtual “glue” necessary to hold a distributed application together.

You’ve Come a Long Way Baby
Describing message systems a merely “glue” might have been appropriate back in the days of EDI, but today’s messaging systems are far more complex and capable than their predecessors. Increasingly these systems are not just intermediaries, but an integral and inextricable part of business processes.

The foundation of the modern message system is XML. This simple, yet powerful standard has leveraged its web-based heritage to become the de-facto foundation of almost every major message standard proposed and/or adopted in the last several years.

XML’s power lies not just in its accessibility and ubiquity but in its flexibility and extensibility. Despite its advanced capabilities, early implementations of XML-based message standards tended to simply replicate existing EDI/ANSI standards and thus treat messages as mere “data Sherpa’s” limited to hauling structured data back and forth between applications. However, as the true power of XML has become apparent, next-generation XML-based message standards have tried to incorporate some more advanced capabilities.

The Rise of “Stateful” Messages
Two of the most powerful types of next generation XML-based messages standards are “transgenic” and “stateful” standards. Transgenic XML standards encapsulate text-based code fragments within an XML message. These code fragments can then be uploaded into binaries during run time. For example, it’s possible to map XML elements to java objects and then upload those elements, via a parser, directly into a Java runtime environment.

This is at once both an incredibly powerful and an incredibly scary capability. It is powerful because it allows text-based messages to modify run-time code making it possible to do “on-the-fly” updates of user interfaces, business logic, or what have you. It also allows business logic to “travel” with data payloads which can ensure consistent execution (e.g. encapsulating the formula necessary to calculate a complex derivative within a message about that derivative). It is a scary because it could potentially turn an innocuous looking XML message into the mother-of-all Trojan horses by enabling hackers to attack and change the business logic of programs while they are still running.

Given the risks of transgenic XML, most next-generation XML standards are avoiding such capabilities and instead focusing on “stateful” standards. Stateful XML standards provide mechanisms for embedding/ammending not just the state of a particular operation into a message but often the business logic necessary to complete that operation, and even the larger business process context of that operation. By embedding state and business logic within a message, these standards create a truly “decoupled” and asynchronous software environment in which the message truly becomes the central focus of a software system.

BPEL in the Vanguard
One emerging example of an XML-based “stateful” message standard is Business Process Execution Language (BPEL). At one level, BPEL is simply a standard that defines how business partners interact on a particular business process. However, BPEL can also be used as a “stateful” standard in which the business process is both defined and managed by the message itself. As the BPEL spec itself says:

“It is also possible to use BPEL4WS to define an executable business process. The logic and state of the process determine the nature and sequence of the Web Service interactions conducted at each business partner, and thus the interaction protocols. While a BPEL4WS process definition is not required to be complete from a private implementation point of view, the language effectively defines a portable execution format for business processes that rely exclusively on Web Service resources and XML data. Moreover, such processes execute and interact with their partners in a consistent way regardless of the supporting platform or programming model used by the implementation of the hosting environment.”

While BPEL is obviously still in the early stages of becoming a “stateful” standard, it’s not hard to imagine later versions of the standard explicitly amending messages “on the fly” with state, data, and process information thus conferring to messages many of the same capabilities of complied binaries.

The Intelligent Cloud
As messages begin to take on more of the capabilities and responsibilities traditionally assigned to compiled binaries, the supporting messaging infrastructure must necessarily become more secure and sophisticated. The combination of massive numbers of “stateful” messages with a sophisticated infrastructure effectively creates an intelligent messaging “cloud”. Inside this cloud, messages can be routed, modified, and secured with minimal endpoint interactions. Ultimately, interactions between messages and even the creation of new messages can be accomplished within this cloud all based on pre-defined “stateful” standards and without the need for pre-compiled business logic or processes.

Cloud of Opportunity
For venture investors, the emergence of this intelligent cloud and the migration towards messaging and away from complied binaries offer a multitude of interesting investment opportunities. Clearly there will be increasing demand for intelligent message processing software and equipment. To that end, a nucleus of XML-aware networking equipment companies, such as Datapower and Reactivity, have already emerged as have some standards based message brokers (such as Collaxa which was recently purchase by Oracle). New companies are likely to emerge focused on brokering messages associated with emerging “stateful” standards and still others may find ways to acceptably secure and control “transgenic” messaging.

As these new companies emerge they will help cement the transition away from binary-centric software towards message-centric software and in doing so they will confirm what we can already see today: that the message is the software.

October 5, 2004 in EAI, Middleware | Permalink

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The thoughts and opinions on this blog are mine and mine alone and not affiliated in any way with Inductive Capital LP, San Andreas Capital LLC, or any other company I am involved with. Nothing written in this blog should be considered investment, tax, legal,financial or any other kind of advice. These writings, misinformed as they may be, are just my personal opinions.