Qualtiies of a good Middle Tier Architecture

IT programmers and consultants spend a lot of time designing Middle Tier architectures. This practice is common in typed languages like c++, Java, and C#. This article examines the "qualities of a good Middle Tier architecture" so that an assessment can be drawn of these architectures. In conclusion the more popular Middle Tier solutions, namely, Stored Procedures, EJBs, COM+, and SQLJ are examined for their pros and cons.

I have been consulting with various IT organizations since 1987 focusing on C++, Java, and C#. An important observation during this span of time is that IT programmers spend a lot of time designing the Middle Tier. During the client server days this used to be the data tier. The Web paradigm pushed the Middle Tier to prominence. In addition media and educational institutions have also propagated the following ideas:

  1. Multiple tiers are better than a single tier
  2. Business logic is better represented in objects
  3. One must work only with objects and not data

The pre-supposition is that it is somewhat inferior not to have such theoretical foundations to any "Enterprise Worthy" architecture. It is only with trepidation that one could meekly suggest Stored Procedures as an effective model (Not necessarily the ultimate physical implementation) for the Middle Tier architecture.

Recently I was talking with a colleague of mine Richard Czyzewski on this topic of middleware. We have talked about CORBA, Object Databases, RMI, EJBs, WebServices and COM+. I was routinely mentioning to him how these systems have become increasingly easier to work with but still lacks some very convenient and practical features of Stored Procedures.

After recovering from the sanity of this suggestion, I have decided to analyze Stored Procedures in the hope of arriving at a good set of Middle Tier architectural qualities. This article is a summary/commentary of these qualities. I assume a relational back end for much of this article.

What is Middle Tier architecture?

During the client/server days it is common for a client GUI program to talk directly to a database server. Web applications introduced the three tier model by default. Browser is the client tier. Data base the backend tier. Webserver and its extensions became the Middle Tier.

This Middle Tier offered better scalability options in terms of connection pooling, and stateless high transactional volumes. The architecture that goes into this tier is usually called the Middle Tier architecture. The software solutions in the Middle Tier are called The Middleware. There are a lot of good examples of middleware: ColdFusion, PHP, J2EE, .Net, so on and so forth.

When a typed language like Java or C# is chosen to implement this Middle Tier, developers tend to create a fairly extensive architectures to support their applications.

What happens in the Middle Tier (responsibilities)?

The two primary activities in a Middle Tier are: reads, and writes. Reading data involves retrieving the raw data based on input parameters, massaging the data, and delivering the data in the requested format. Writing data involves manipulating the data stored using certain business rules and processes. In a sense the write operation changes the state of the database server.

How do Middle Tier and Business Components relate to each other?

If you compare the functionality of the Middle Tier it doesn't take long before realizing that the Middle Tier work can be accomplished by Business Components. So, in a sense the architecture of the Middle Tier becomes the architecture of components.

Business components allow you to write business logic using a set of interfaces. Business components allow you to replace functionality with newer versions. Multiple vendors can provide implementations of a business component that you can make use of. The standard Middle Tier architectures like EJB, COM+, and CORBA are essentially business component models.

The lineage of "Business Components" lie in Objects. Their primary model of inheritance, polymorphism, encapsulation is rooted in having a physical "object". Relational back ends (The independent beasts that seem to have resisted all object winds very successfully) don't want to be tied down by objects. With out that explicit tie-in with data "Business Components" seem to expose their drawbacks when we consider them for the Middle Tier. Business components (or objects) are not as malleable, dynamic, or fluid as one wish them to be in a changing environment like relational databases that serve multiple needs.

The real nature of Middle Tier, particularly when back ended by relational databases, seem to be a collection of tasks or services that can be composed at will into newer services. This leads us to SOA: Service Oriented Architectures. I prefer to call it Task Oriented Architectures. Because "Service" seem to connote a tier with corresponding transport liabilities. On the other hand a "task" is an in process stateless architectural element that can be executed in a local process or a remote process.

How can Middle Tier exist in Single Tier applications?

When Middle Tier architectures are designed, little thought is given to single process constraints. For example, I write two business components as session beans in an EJB tier. As my inverse-luck would have it, I will have a need to run the same business components in a command line application that I am tasked to finish in 10 minutes. I should be able to do this without having to go through all of the EJB stuff in that 10 minutes. So any architecture that we chose, we should be able to invoke tasks in both single tier and multi-tier applications. As a result Task Oriented Architecture is not only a concern of the Middle Tier but also of every application, both stand alone and distributed.

Ideas on Tier-less computing

The above observation lead me to predict that the future of EJBs and COM+ lies in "tier less computing". In my mind they are heading there slowly. I believe COM+ is very close to being there. Let me elaborate what tier less computing is. "Tier less computing" states that a business component or a task can run independent of the logical tier that it is embedded in. In a sense every tier becomes a container for this task to run in. In this space "a task" (usually implemented as an object with a well known method) becomes the primary unit that moves along, gets replaced, applied security to etc. This idea also resonates with REST.

Qualities of a good Middle Tier Architecture

Back to the central topic of this article, namely the qualities of a good Middle Tier architecture. As I go through the derivation of these qualities I use Stored Procedures as examples to discuss these qualities. This does not mean that Stored Procedures are perfect for all scenarios. Stored Procedures happen to draw on some very good qualities of middleware.

Easy to discover

I call this principle the Genie principle or the Genie Rule. As they say, when you find a Genie, perhaps your first wish should be to speak the Genie's language. An important requirement for Middle Tier is that it is reusable. More than one developer will make use of the assets created as Middle Tier. If you are encouraging other developers to use what you have created, the first fundamental requirement is that they find what you have created. So when a new developer comes on board, he/she should be able to browse through what's out there for him/her to use.

You would think such a requirement is obvious. Instead a more likely scenario is: A developer is pointed to a source code control system with a certain project name containing the source code and libraries for the Middle Tier. The developer will be lucky to get this project downloaded and built. You are not sure what other dependencies exist for the Middle Tier to even compile. Even after compilation you are faced with an array of Java classes you don't even know where to start. For example there may be a 100 classes in that package. In reality there may be only 4 interface classes that the developer wants you to use. But this is usually not obvious.

You will go through a different experience if the Middle Tier were to be available as Stored Procedures. You can use any database browser to list the available Stored Procedures. Stored Procedures tend to be fairly stand alone with very little coupling to other procedures. In some database systems these procedures are even arranged into packages for better classification.

The designers of middleware should give a lot of thought to how developers will discover the middleware functionality.

Easy to call

Let us examine the story above a bit further. Once you know that there is a procedure or function that you can call, the next questions is: what do you have to do to invoke the procedure with some sample data? With the traditional Java environment you have to create and compile the client code before you can call the proc. With Stored Procedures it is a relatively easy task (This may not be true with Oracle cursors). In SQL server, just type in the proc name, the arguments and hit the execute button. You will see the results right there in a certain default format (rows and columns).

Easy to call from multiple environments

Another important characteristic of Stored Procedures is that you can virtually call them from any environment: JDBC, ODBC, C API, Perl, etc. This may not seem that important at first. But in the last 10 years I have noticed that an IT company is more likely to change their front end technology or language compared to their database. So a Middle Tier architecture that is accessible to more than one technology is quite valuable. For example Stored Procedures can be called from your reporting engines such as Crystal Reports and Actuate while you develop the primary system in Java. This cross compatibility is what made relational databases one of the mainstay of the IT environments.

Easy to monitor the response

Sometimes web is described as a large database of documents that changes its state with each POST. At least that?s what happens in a database all the time. Middle Tier is expected to affect these changes. In other words when you call an API in the Middle Tier it would have altered the system state in some manner. The question to the caller is "Did the intended change take place"? How can one verify? In case of a Stored Procedure you can just take a look at the affected tables and see that the new rows are there or existing rows changed etc. This traceability of response is important for a quick testing cycle. On the other hand if we take a black box approach you are never really comfortable if the changes took place or not. In tactile systems this is called tangible feedback effect. In your car if you press on the gas pedal it gives you a certain feed back as to whether it is working or not even with out looking at the dials.

Easy to create a new component

The above 4 qualities ensure that you can discover, test, evaluate, call Middle Tier apis. Assume that in the process you have decided that the existing functions will not do. So you want to write a new component or function. In Stored Procedures, simply start typing in your new code and the database container will absorb it instantaneously. The build/creation environment is very easy.

Compare this to writing a new session bean. Perhaps the IDEs have realized this challenge and provided a one button approach to creating a session bean. Even with that you need to know what JDBC is and probably a host of other APIs depending on the functionality.

Easy to test the new component

After creating a new component, one has to write a test harness to explicitly test the component. You can't simply invoke the api declaratively. For example you can do this in Stored Procedures as mentioned above. You can also do this for some implementations of web services where you can type in the arguments and execute the service. As I said this is not impossible to design into all sorts of systems. But first it should be recognized as a central quality attribute of the Middle Tier.

Easy to deploy the new component

Now that we have the component, and tested the component, we are now eager to deploy it. Again with Stored Procedures this deployment is instantaneous. As soon as you compile the Stored Procedure in the database it is immediately available for usage. The Java components are gradually getting there. Still this process is not as transparent. The idea is to upgrade/grow functionality one class at a time. In addition to Stored Procedures, JSPs are a good example of this model. Again this goes to show that you can always implement good qualities as long as we can recognize them as important.

Easy to deploy the multiple versions of a component

Now we are getting into an area where Stored Procedures don't do that well. Take the case of backward compatibility of deployed components. Stored Procedures bind directly to a physical name. There is no separation of interface and implementation. This bites when it comes to backward compatibility. With objects you can have multiple versions of the implementation available so that older clients can continue to bind to older implementations while newer ones will bind to newer implementations.

Easy to categorize components

This is a quality that Stored Procedures are really crying out for. Here is the problem. You go to a database navigator and list the Stored Procedures. You will see 100s of them listed one after the other. It is very difficult to find out which one you want from this stack. Oracle helps this process by allowing packages. Packages are collections of Stored Procedures that are grouped together into modules.

Considering that these Stored Procedures are independent entities, there is no reason why one should not be able to categorize them into any sort of hierarchy. This means that a proc can be part of two or three packages if that makes sense. This organization should be possible even dynamically.

The same classification approach can be taken to services. This is what is possible with the service directories such as UDDI. But there is no reason why this classification mechanism needs to be as complicated.

For example the URIs in a REST like framework should be able to affect this classification easily.

Easy to document a component

Because Middle Tier by its very nature is coded for other people to understand and use, how this facility is documented becomes important. Something like JavaDoc that can drill down through packages and classes and functions is a good start.

Stored Procedures for example suffer from a lack of emphasis on documentation. Because Stored Procedures are declarative the code can be cryptic and documentation becomes crucial to see the intent of the author. But at the same time it should be pointed out that normally Stored Procedures despite their joins can be read easily by an expert programmer in a single setting. So it is a mixed bag with Stored Procedures.

I think the JavaDoc approach can be extended where by programmers and users can add to the documentation in an adhoc manner dynamically any time while the program is running. Essentially you have a documentation server for the APIs. This is similar to blogs where the API becomes the topic of a blog. This documentation can be added as an after thought both by the author and also by the users. As time goes on this accumulated documentation will be an excellent guide to the users.

Easy to look through the component and understand what it does

Even with all these facilities, it may not be clear what a component does. It becomes necessary to dig into the code and find out what is happening for real. The code of a component should be readable and make sense. For example, Stored Procedures tend to be (at least should be) small, and less coupled. Because of this you can understand what a Stored Procedure does in a single sitting.

This becomes a little challenging in Java as there tends to be a higher level of coupling with other APIs and modules. There are ways to minimize this coupling in Java. For instance one can have a set of declarative reusable parts as in an orchestrated workflow. Then a business component becomes merely an orchestration of calling these parts. As a result the code of the business component will read more like a script rather than a low level Java code. The parts themselves become well known over a period of time. For example an FTP part, an XML reader part, a File Reader part, a DataBase reader part etc. One advantage to parts is that reading a row from a file or a database doesn't have to involve a file read or a JDBC call but just the Part invocation.

Ability to develop component in relative isolation

When you decide to write a new component the idea of isolation plays a part. Relational databases are great examples where isolation levels (The opposite of coupling) are high. For instance you can develop a Stored Procedure that can operate on a set of tables with very little regard to the other Stored Procedures that exist. It is also not uncommon for multiple applications developed in multiple languages to work on the same relational data store. This relative isolation is a great boom for business components and services because they can be developed in parallel by multiple teams.

In a Java application server that is back ended by relational databases the same isolation should be possible. For instance you can declare a series of transactions each comprising of SQL and then use Java purely as a scripting engine for these transactions. When these scripts become as dynamic as JSP pages, it becomes very easy for developers to write new tasks or services that get dynamically compiled in. Here is an illustration of this approach



<Tx name=1>
		 <type>databaseExec</type>
		 <database-name>abc</database-name>
		 <statement>insert into a table</table>
</Tx>


<Tx name=2>
		 <type>databaseExec</type>
		 <database-name>abc</database-name>
		 <statement>Update a table</table>
</Tx>

<type-parts>
		 <databaseExec>com.parts.DatabaseQueryUpdaterPart</databaseExec>
<type-parts>

In the example above we have two declarative transactions "Tx1" and "Tx2". Now you can write a Java component like the following


public class MyUpdateComponent {
		 void execute(arg1, arg2) throws ExecutionException		 {
		 		 try		 {
		 		 		 Hashtable ht = new Hashtable();
		 		 		 ht.put("arg1",arg1); ht.put("arg2",arg2);
		 		 		 execute("Tx1", ht);
		 		 		 execute("Tx2",ht);
		 		 }
		 		 catch()		 {}
		 		 finally {}
		 }
}

In essence the body of your components look like a scripting engine where the scripting language is Java. And in fact the database server should be able to accept these Java scripting elements and define business components out of these elements.

Ability to debug through the component

Stepping through the execution of business components is an important quality as this allows the testing process to be more streamlined and modern. This is such a common requirement that one would expect all systems to have it. This is not as true as I wish as it is.

For instance debugging Stored Procedures is not easy. The latest tools are bridging this gap but the process is very slow even when it is available. Debugging regular Java programs is not that bad in the Java IDEs. But debugging JSP pages and servelets is still a chore in most of the IDEs.

On the other hand in single vendor controlled environments like ASP.Net debugging is just great. The primary thing you notice in visual studio.net is how fast the debugging sessions are. Things run almost as fast in the debugging environment as they do in their non-debugging environment. This encourages one to step into debugging with a bit more frequency.

Ability to ignore transactions, connections, database details etc

This quality is one of the most cited reasons for EJBs. The idea that you can write business components with out paying attention to transactions programmatically is quite attractive and productive. Actually Stored Procedures do this a lot better for the most common case. When you are writing a Stored Procedure, you don't think about connections. You just access your tables and update tables. Similarly you don't think of transactions in Stored Procedures as they are all controlled by the invoker. Why can't we do the same for our business procedures that are written in Java? We absolutely can. It is a mindset change. In the example cited above the "MyUpdateComponent" is unaware of connections and transactions. Connections and transactions are better controlled externally and declaratively.

One way to recognize a spotty business component design is to see if the business components are explicitly passed connections, and transactional contexts etc. In such an environment it becomes very hard to script business components into higher level components.

Independently call a component with sample data

When we define a component we usually don't think about sample data that can be used to invoke the component to test it. It will be nice to define the sample data when a component is deployed. This will allow for quick testing of the component without spending a lot of time looking for this sample data.

For cases where this sample data can not be provided before hand, an explanation should be provided as to how to obtain this sample data from the environment. This is to allow new members of the team to quickly test and use the reusable Middle Tier components or services.

Easily substitute one component for another (Ex: One stored proc vs. the other)

This quality goes into the heart of evolvable systems. Interface and implementation separation is the first step to take on this road. Then you have to answer how you can evolve both interfaces and implementations over time while keeping the client code backward compatible. Implementation of an interface can change in three dimensions. One dimension may be provided by multiple vendors supplying the same functionality. One dimension is functional variation. For example sending a message may mean email in one case and a voice mail in another case. The third dimension is the functionality evolving over time.

In this scenario tasks and services have an advantage over components. Because components are considered hosting multiple tasks, replacing one task might mean replacing an entire component and hence other tasks with it. Where as when tasks or services are implemented by single objects with well known method of execution the granularity is at the task level. In my mind this works out better.

Should the Middle Tier deal with typed objects

There are cases where a full blown object Middle Tier makes complete sense. But I think certain concessions can be made when the back end is a relational database. Relational databases are fluid, dynamic and largely type less. Stored Procedures gained much of their advantages because they remained type less as well. Their inputs are fundamental types and outputs are fundamental types. This allowed them to have very little dependency on a typed model.

A Middle Tier that is based on services rather than components is essentially a transactional model similar to Stored Procedures. But then there is the question of input types and output types. If these were to be typed then those type libraries need to be available at compile time.

It is also difficult to add fields to the API as this requires re-compilation. As a result I am tempted to think that a Middle Tier that follows common types (result sets, XML documents etc) might come out better than a typed a solution. A type less approach should increase interoperability and malleability.

Does it mean we need to abandon types altogether? There is a clever trick we can play so that the clients (or even servers) can still use types if they choose. Imagine a Middle Tier API returning a result set (Most likely an abstraction of it so that you can use it for non-relational data sources as well). The client can decide to work with the result set directly or the client can loose-cast the row of the result set to a value object. By "loose-cast" I mean a dynamic cast where the fields of the value objects are resolved using reflection and then cached for subsequent calls. This late type binding can offer three advantages.

  1. Objects are not instantiated and tiered down when they don't need to (In the Middle Tier)
  2. If you are doing forward iteration on a result set you may be able to get away with one value object for n number of rows
  3. You can loose-cast two value objects on to the same result set row. This ensures certain freedom to the Middle Tier developers to add additional fields

We can also take it a step further and have the Middle Tier API return a hierarchical data set (HDS: basically an XML format). And this generic data can be similarly bound to a typed object on the client side and thereby giving us similar benefits as above. Whether to return an HDS or a ResulteSet is very much situation dependent. Both have their places.

So we have indicated that the client has a choice between objects, result sets, or hierarchical data sets. What about the writer of the service. The writer has similar choices. The writer can create a Java object and the framework can convert it to XML based on the client if the client requests it. If the entire service is constructed declaratively then most likely the entire XML document is constructed on the fly there won't be any need for objects on the Middle Tier.

How do the existing Middle Tier Components stack up?

Let us see how some of the following technologies fare as part of a Middle Tier strategy. The technologies covered include:

  1. Stored Procedures
  2. SOA
  3. EJBs
  4. COM+
  5. SQLJ or Java Procedures

Stored Procedures

I have used Stored Procedures as the bench mark middleware to draw Middle Tier qualities. Where available Stored Procedures are a very good choice for a number of applications. There are some disadvantages nevertheless. If you want your system to run on multiple databases, then they become a hindrance. But do realize what you are giving up in the process. Sometimes with this single excuse most of the systems are designed with out Stored Procedures and takes lot longer to develop and never see the light of the day.

The other disadvantage of Stored Procedures is that some databases do not support Stored Procedures. It is possible for these databases to put in place a Java architecture where you write what are called "Java Procedures" paralleling the Stored Procedures.

Even in databases where Stored Procedures are supported another drawback is the categorization or classification of these Stored Procedures into distinct modules. Oracle has packages that can solve this problem partially. The real solution is to have a tool that can walk through the database and create arbitrary Java packages representing all the Stored Procedures. This approach has two advantages. The first is you achieve classification. The second is you can use JavaDocs to document these Stored Procedures in an html format that the developers can learn about.

SOA

SOA stands for Service Oriented Architecture. SOAP WebServices is an example of SOA. SOA has much in common with Stored Procedures, that you can even call it "Stored Procedures" for application servers. Much of the benefits touted for Stored Procedures should be realizable by SOA as well. Depending on an SOA implementation these advantages may or may not be available. For example for discovering services you need UDDI or some sort of a directory service. I think such a solution is too prohibitive for simple applications. It should also be possible to invoke services from web sites using test data without writing any programs. This is partially true at this time. Hopefully in the next few release you will have full support for this. Although SOA can be designed with minimum coupling, when Session beans are used as the implementation tier for SOA, we reintroduce the coupling again in terms of Java types. Another key piece that SOA has to address is the "in process invocation" of services. It should be transparent whether a service is invoked locally or remotely. When invoked locally the plumbing should be removed and the client should be able to work with the native objects.

EJBs

Volumes have been written about EJBs already. Session beans closely resemble SOA and Stored Procedures: stateless and transactionally secure. One difference is that in Stored Procedures a service is usually a single procedure. So the services can be replaced individually. A session bean on the other hand is a collection of APIs. To replace any single service you have to replace an entire collection of APIs. I believe we can improve upon session beans by introducing a layer called "Java procedures" and another layer where the Java procedures are categorized into a dynamically altered set of session beans to provide better categorization.

Entity beans are a very different approach to Middle Tier. The heart of the Middle Tier that is discussed so far is its "request/reply" or "services" or "API" nature. The idea is not based on objects. Entity beans are completely Object based. The Middle Tier is seen as a collection of objects. This makes perfect sense if the backend is an object database. When the backend is a relational database, two things seem to trip up Entity Beans. These are:

  1. Object to Relational mapping
  2. The fluid and changing world of relational databases and fixed and typed world of objects

The problems that EJBs are trying to solve are the same problems that Object Databases are trying to solve. The rigidity of types in OO databases, or the inability to accomplish fluidity in types might be the reason for the lack of success on part of object databases. I believe there is future for Object database, but I believe as a technology we may have to take few more steps before returning to this technology.

COM+

COM+ is an interesting animal. And I like what I see so far in .Net. First of all there are no entity beans. So in total, COM+ is lot easier to digest. COM+ is also nudging towards a tier-less computing model. For example, writing a component is simply creating an interface and an implementation and that's it. So it is no different than writing a class. And it is pretty close to being able to invoke this interface either locally or remotely. Which means you can write clients and test them in a single tier environment and at deployment time deploy them on multiple servers. I don't mean to say here that one can completely ignore the local and remote issues all the time. My point is there are cases where you can. And let this decision be a deployment decision rather than a compile time one. Another nice thing about COM+ is that it is integrated into every .net. This means you can take advantage of it even in console applications.

This goes to say that transactions and component management is as relevant to stand alone applications as it is to application servers. This means some of the facilities of EJBs are well served by bringing them down to the standard JDK. COM+ does not have all the nice features listed here but will be a nice back bone to implement the additional services on top it.

SQLJ or Java Procedures

As I have suggested, the Stored Procedure model, owing to its simplicity provide great opportunities to make the life of a client programmer very easy. But Stored Procedures have some disadvantages the primary one being the portability. I believe we can invent or architect something called Java Procedures that parallel Stored Procedures. These Java procedures essentially can auto manage transactions, connections, composition, etc, while manipulating the database data. The one draw back that needs to be overcome in Java are the following

  1. Hard coded references to data sources
  2. Explicit handling of connections
  3. Explicit handling of transactions
  4. Embedded SQL
  5. Ability to deal with non database yet relational data sets

Some of these problems have already been addressed. But the toughest one is the embedded SQL. One solution here is the SQLJ standard. But somehow I am not very comfortable with pre-compiled solutions. Just one more variable to worry about. One work around is to use configuration files where the SQL is listed as a transaction. The Java procedure then can invoke that transaction using its name. Under this scenario the Java procedure look like a script that executes these transactions. This model served me well. But one drawback here is that you have to ship your configuration files with the jar files. One approach is to package these configuration files as part of the jar. Once databases buy into this approach, they can even embed this approach directly in the database server and provide all the nice features of Stored Procedures while using Java as their programming language while still using plain SQL for database transactions.

Where am I heading with the Middle Tier architectures

As part of architecture for my J2EE product Aspire/J2EE, I have experimented with Java Procedures. They seem to work well. There are still some loop holes in this approach that I need to think about, but overall I am quite happy with the idea. Here are some additional things that I have in my Middle Tier arsenal

  1. Declarative tasks or parts
  2. SQL in configuration files and not in Java code
  3. Transactions controlled by the framework and not by the business components
  4. Middle Tier emits : Objects or Relational Data Sets or Hierarchical Data sets
  5. client calls to the Middle Tier are : service oriented, or "request/reply"
  6. Declarative composition of components
  7. Parts/Workflow facilities
  8. One object per one service
  9. Write for single tier, but deploy in a multi-tiered environment

What is lacking

  1. A browser for the available Middle Tier apis
  2. A categorization tool to discover the Middle Tier apis
  3. Auto generate language bindings for the data sets (relational or hierarchical)

Where is the Middle Tier heading

I think there are two strong moves afoot. On one side the Middle Tier is taking a turn towards the well tested service oriented architecture. CICS/DB2 and Stored Procedures are examples of this same architecture. These are well proven paradigms. SOA is an amalgamation of the same principles coupled with XML and Objects.

The second enhancement is coming from the object camp. Here the focus is shifting from transport technologies (rmi, webservices, http) to the core objects: namely interfaces and implementations. Meaning if you write a class with an interface and an implementation, you can distribute it using any technology. This is most evident in COM+. But I expect this to happen in Java as well utilizing dynamic proxies.

There is also an increasing awareness that these components need to be visible. The COM+ component browser is an example. I also believe the REST approach to SOA is a simpler one compared to SOAP. I also believe the REST approach will make the discoverability better. For example it is lot more easier to list a collection of URLs on a web site. These URLs can not only give data when invoked, but they can also give out metadata when invoked with some additional parameters. For example a URL can give out Java class definitions on the web browser for the data that it will give out. The same URL can also give out other language bindings.

Further references

1. Improving your career with Aspire and Tomcat. This link is published at O'Reilly's OnJava center. This link outlines how RDBMS developers can effectively play the roles of web application architects by using Stored Procedures as their Middle Tier.

2. Bringing the J2EE Cathedral to the Bazaar. This link is published at O'Reilly's OnJava center. This link outlines how J2EE development can be simplified using declarative paradigms as the Middle Tier.

3. Transparent Data Pipelines for JSP. This link is published at O'Reilly's OnJava center. This link is an in-depth study of incorporating data access mechanisms for web application development.

4. For Tomcat developers Aspire comes in a jar. This link is published at O'Reilly's OnJava center. This link outlines how declarative data access could work in Java.

5. Using Hierarchical Data Sets with Aspire and Tomcat. This link is published at O'Reilly's OnJava center. This link outlines how RDBMS developers can effectively use Aspire to retrieve XML declaratively from relational databases. This article makes a case for websites which are B2C and B2B at the same time using Aspire and Tomcat.

6. Moving Beyond JDBC - OSCON 2003, Portland. This link points you to the speakers page at OSCON 2003. This session at OSCON 2003 gives the advantages of Hierarchical Data Sets in web development.

7. Aspire Knowledge Central Home page. Some of the principles outlined here are used in constructing this web site. This is a content management for the general public to do web logging and as well as maintain online documentation for free/open-source products.