A Service by Any Other Name

Romeo and Juliet - balcony scene

I remember when reuse was the Holy Grail. First it was object-oriented languages, then object modeling, then components, then services. While none of these has lived up to the promise of rampant reuse, one thing has – language. We have learned to overload and reuse terms to the point that most are no more descriptive than using the word “thing”. “Service” is one of these.

The OASIS Reference Model for Service Oriented Architecture 1.0 defines a service as “…a mechanism to enable access to one or more capabilities, where the access is provided using a prescribed interface and is exercised consistent with constraints and policies as specified by the service description”. This definition includes nothing about protocol, media types, messaging patterns, etc. Essentially, this definition applies to anything that exposes something to consumers over in a defined interface in a defined manner.

Well, that’s helpful. It doesn’t even resolve whether it’s referring to the application providing services or the specific endpoints exposed by that application. In the context of Domain-Driven Design, a service may even be share the same process with its client.

Some services are meant to be interactive. A request is made and a response is returned. Such a service is extremely useful when the response is being presented to an actual human user in response to some action of theirs. This immediate gratification provides an excellent user experience provided latency is minimized. When interactive services are composed within another interactive service, this latency burden quickly increases as the remote client can’t regain control until the service regains it from each remote service it’s called (barring a timeout).

Some services are meant to work asynchronously. These work well particularly well in system to system scenarios when there’s no need to for temporal coupling. A significant trade-off for this model is the additional complexity involved, particularly around error condition feedback.

Some services (typically SOAP-based) are meant to receive and return highly structured and well-defined messages invoking tasks to be performed. This works extremely well for many system to system communications. Others (typically RESTful services) provide more of a variation of media types which are dealt with using CRUD operations. These work particularly well when the client is mainly presenting the response (perhaps with some minimal transformation) to an end user. If the messages are less well-defined, then the level of client complexity increases. Services using well-defined messages that are exposed externally will typically have different versioning requirements than services meant for consumption by internal clients (where “internal” is defined as built and deployed contemporaneously with the service).

The points behind this litany of service definitions and usage patterns? Different styles are appropriate to different situations and precision in communication is important to avoid conflating those styles.

Providing functionality via a service, regardless of the type of service, is not sufficient to meet a need. Functionality should be exposed via the flavor of service that corresponds to the needs of the client. Otherwise, the client may incur more effort and complexity dealing with the mismatch than the functionality is worth.

The concept of a message-oriented API for the back-end allows it to meet all of these needs without violating the DRY principle. Just like UI components, service endpoints (SOAP or REST style) should not contain domain logic, but delegate to domain services. As such, this provides a thin layer primarily concerned with translation between the format and messaging pattern required externally and that required by the domain services. This allows internal consumers (again, where “internal” is defined as built and deployed contemporaneously with the back-end) to work either directly in-process with domain services or remotely via a very thin shim that retains the same message structure and solely provides the network communication capabilities. External consumers should have their own endpoints (perhaps even separate sites) that cater to their needs.

Having the thinnest possible service layer not only prevents duplication of logic but also lessens the burden of standing up new endpoints. Lowering the cost of an endpoint makes it easier to justify providing tailored APIs. APIs that are tailored to specific client types are simpler to consume, further reducing costs.

In my last post, I asked “do you need a service layer?” The answer remains, “it depends”. But now there’s a new wrinkle, “if you need a service layer, does it need to be a remote one?”

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3 thoughts on “A Service by Any Other Name

  1. @Gene – we had this discussion during SOA pilot: there are services and there are ..other services 🙂 In early days of SOA adoption the first obvious candidates for services were (at least from my experience) DAL services (provide access to Data Store) and real-time External Interfaces. Very soon my team discovered that even with proper business layer it was easy to dig “rabbit holes” from UI to DAL and bypass business layer (I call this anti-pattern “an internal bleeding” or bypass), on another hand some of our services were just wrappers for other services (a Russian Doll model). From this experience Service could be anything and could be called from any layer but as usual planning ahead is recommended. For Web applications we introduced a bunch of UI services that had been called through AJAX and served for rendering reference and domain model data in Views. IMHO Architecture should deal with conceptual model of services rather than deal with technical implementation in terms of hosting/protocols/SOAP, REST APIs etc. AFAIK only ultimate edition of VS enforced this – how implementation code is compliant with reference architecture. I would probably start with defining of layers and keeping a dependency chain graph….

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    • Indeed…I like to keep services at the outermost layer/ring of the application for that reason (mainly). The limits of service composition (for request/response scenarios) are, of course, another. I’ve found use of permissions another good way to keep people out of services not meant for them.

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  2. Pingback: Making and Taming Monoliths | Form Follows Function

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