Yeah, I'm alive. And I remember the password to my blog. I've been away for a bit, working on something very cool involving the TV. If all goes well, you'll hear about it in a big way. Anyway, I'm still having a ball out here in reality. Building something real has a way of focusing your decisions about technology. My app is a distributed system, some of which runs in a cable plant head-end or telco office (whatever's on the other end of the wire in your living room), and some of which runs elsewhere. We also connect to some things on the Web. These connections have to be extremely flexible and the bar to adoption has to be low. The thing I finally realized (some of you will say “Duh!”) is that Web services are not a good way to do this.
It's depressing to think that SOAP started just about 10 years ago and that now that everything is said and done, we built RPC again. I know SOAP is really an XML messaging protocol, you can do oneway async stuff, etc, etc, but let's face it. The tools make the technology and the tools (and the examples and the advice you get) point at RPC. And we know what the problems with RPC are. If you want to build something that is genuinely loosely-coupled, RPC is a pretty hard path to take.
That realization would have gotten me down if not for the fact that something else jazzed me up an hour or so later. I was in the process of considering the alternatives when I finally understood REST. And wow, it was eye-opening. REST is often positioned as CRUD operations against entities identified by URIs. Then it is dismissed as to simplistic to be useful. You can't build with just CRUD, the reasoning goes, just think about why we write sprocs. I've been down that path any number of times and always ended up in the same place. But I had it all wrong.
I skimmed Fielding's thesis a while back, but it wasn't until I read Sam Ruby's recent poststhat it really sank in. Here's what I came to understand. Every communication protocol has a state machine. For some protocols they are very simple, for others they are more complex.When you implement a protocol via RPC, you build methods that modify the state of the communication.That state is maintained as a black box at the endpoint. Because the protocol state is hidden, it is easy to get things wrong. For instance, you might call Process before calling Init. People have been looking for ways to avoid these problems by annotating interface type information for a long time, but I'm not aware of any mainstream solutions. The fact that the state of the protocol is encapsulated behind method invocations that modify that state in non-obvious ways also makes versioning interesting.
The essence of REST is to make the states of the protocol explicit and addressible by URIs. The current state of the protocol state machine is represented by the URI you just operated on and the state representation you retrieved. You change state by operating on the URI of the state you're moving to, making that your new state. A state's representation includes the links (arcs in the graph) to the other states that you can move to from the current state. This is exactly how browser based apps work, and there is no reason that your app's protocol can't work that way too. (The ATOM Publishing protocol is the canonical example, though its easy to think that its about entities, not a state machine.)
The “state machine as node graph traversed via URI” view of the world has really interesting implications for being able to suspend and resume a protocol.Because links to other states are embedded in a state's representation there are interesting ways to solve dynamic load-balancing, data-directed-routing, versioning and other problems using normal Web infrastructure. And because it's HTTP based, you get all the features that protocol supplies, including streaming and support for non-XML MIME types (a huge concern when you're doing TV stuff). The one thing that's really missing here is a simple framework for implementing a URI graph on top of an HTTP handler (similar to what Marc's been working on for Java). I'm building my own now.
The thing I love about this model is that, as Sam says, it is of the Web, not over the Web. That doesn't mean I'll use it for everything. I use TDS to get to SQL Server. I use WCF for RPC-style communication between distributed components within major systems. I'll use this model when I cross major system boundaries, especially when I don't own both sides. I'll let you know how it turns out.