ESB Service Meta Design

This post explores the idea of a meta model for the design of services in an Enterprise Service Bus (ESB), by identifying key competencies that services should realise. While there are exceptions to every case, the majority of services will find the realisation of these core competencies beneficial.

This is an “insight” post; it aims to stimulate discussion around the subject it discusses; these articles may appear prescriptive and perhaps dogmatic, but the objective really is for debate that leads to reusable knowledge and that is accessible to the wider community of software engineers in the area of focus.

This however is a meta design, so there is no code or example to show, neither is it advised to translate this directly into an implementation, without empathy for the usage context.

In my mind the core competencies of any enterprise service bus can be expressed in the acronym (REM); these are:
1). Routing
2). Enrichment
3). Mediation*

It is the complement of these core competencies that distinguish the ESB from other technologies within a SOA stack, and no business should countenance purchasing an ESB implementation if it does not provide these core competencies. Now, these core competencies are foundational and key, but there is a need for other ancillary comptencies to make for a compelling service offering, which will be introduced later. So, starting from the core, let us peruse the competencies.

Routing is all about delivery and making sure that requests are delivered to the target most likely to return value to the client of the enterprise; often, logic is required to implement routing intelligently, including dynamic destinations. Routing by the ESB decouples the client from the provider/implementation of the service, so that a change of service provider might be limited in impact to a change of the rule(s) or computation of routing.

Enrichment, as the name implies is adding information to an incoming or outgoing message. The simple case is where simple/atomic data item(s) are added from the context, but in some cases, the required data may need to be sourced from other services, in which scenario, enrichment takes the form of service composition.

I have marked out the third competence, Mediation, because it really is a composite of: security, protocol, message-pattern, data-format, etc. Mediation is the bridging of difference between two clients of the ESB; to wit, the client, and the provider. It is comparable to standing between the Taliban and US forces 🙂 In any conversation, there will be many differences. Mediation aims to bridge the gap, despite the many dimensions of difference, it may take various forms in one message exchange, even where canonicalisation is widespread.

In an implementation context, the service bus will sit on the boundary of the SOA, be it departmental or enterprise, and would be expected to provide certain value-add to applications, sub-systems, and services within the boundary, among which are:
1). Auditing
2). Security
3). Validation
4). Error management

The ESB is the best place for auditing of access to services since it is the first port of call of “clients” (external, and in some cases internal as well), therefore it is the most convenient location for keeping tabs on service usage parameters. One strategy I have witnessed is to log key-identifiers for each request; this makes it easy to trace problems through the rest of the enterprise, using only WS-Addressing headers.

If the ESB is fully delegated to man the boundary of the enterprise, it makes sense to delegate a significant chunk of the respobsibility for security to this layer. It is also a lot easier to implement a system in which all requests inside the boundary provided by the ESB, are to be trusted. The ESB becomes the frontier between the green zone and the red zone, said frontier being within the zone already protected by Firewalls and other security infrastructure that operate at the organisational/infrastructure level. This role (authentication and authorisation) may be realised by the ESB itslef, or further delegated to another component/layer within the SOA stack.

Many years ago, the acronym GIGO was quite popular; it is not often heard these days, but it is still relevant. Spelled out it means Garbage in, Garbage out. For the enterprise, Garbage in is bad news. It means valuable resource is being given over to service requests that will eventually return no value to the client. The deeper into the enterprise this junk travels, the more expensive it is to the business and its ability to scale and be available to valid requests. The ESB, should filter out bad data, just as it filters out bad guys, leaving other services free to focus on their core competencies.

Error Management:
The service bus is an intelligent, real-time post office that has visibility of most of the traffic moving in and out of the enterprise. For this reason, it is able to apprehend requests whose signature is known to provide no value to clients of the enterprise, and for which there is no known owner/manager. The ESB should therefore provide a problem-handler of last resort within the enterprise, so that such maligned messages are handled predictably and by the most likely target that can transform the problem into a solution or a relationship.

Having said much about the core and ancillary competences, it is pertinent at this juncture to return to our meta-design, and to say, all that has passed before is a buffet, wisdom though is needed to discern where desert ends and the main course begins, and whether to have the cheese and jam, after lamb, or to go for a coffee instead 🙂

Design must therefore weigh the value of all these comptencies in light of the context of use, and determine if there is value in implementing the competency in the ESB. For example, security must be examined in light of the value/confidentiality of messages, as well as the completeness of existing security provisions. Where existing facilities are adequate, or the value of the data in the messages is limited, security may or not be a value-add in the ESB; there are other considerations as well, such as performance costs of security for high demand services.

Where beneficial, the ESB service should facilitate auditing of all service requests to the enterprise, irrespecitive of the validity of said requests. Validation should be enforced as the next step for incoming messages, to ensure that the request conforms to the service contract, validation should also occur as one of the last tasks performed on outgoing messages, to ensure that the enterprise honours its contract with clients. Requests that fail validation must be prevented from going any further into the enterprise and an indicative response must be returned to the client.
Most ESB services will be required to undertake some mediation, especially if the service is at the boundary of the enterprise; such mediation will be one of the first step for incoming requests, and the one of the last steps for outgoing responses. Mediation will be influenced by the extent of canonicalisation and centralisation patterns in use in the enterprise, and the degree of overlap between the enterprise, partner systems in its value chain, and clients of the enterprise.

Enrichment is an optional task, the need for which may decrease with canonicalisation, and in scenarios where services are deployed as a wrapper, or for decoupling in one of the following scenarios: client to service provider; SOA layer to SOA layer. However, every ESB service must perform some kind of routing, because every request to the enterprise will have a destination. Most scenarios will be static, where the destination is pre-determined and unchanging; or static-calculated, where the full complement of possible destinations are known and unchanging. In exceptional cases, and in very sophisticated SOA, dynamic routing comes into play where the destination is rule-based, or a lookup, in these scenarios, the routing takes a form of service composition where another service (rule engine, or database) is relied upon to determine the destination of a request. Typically, routing will be the last step for an incoming request. It is useful to make a note on error management; this is an event that has no specific sequence of incidence, however each service implementation should provide this competence, even if it is delegated. In whatever form this implementation takes though, it is important that it does not interfere with the context, especially where transactions are involved.

To conclude, it is advised that for each competence, a value should be attached against the cost of SOA-wide implementation against localised implementations, and provisions of the same competence by other technologies in the SOA stack; a useful tool would be a matrix that lists each competency against alternative technologies, and for each, to identify the cost and value of a SOA-wide or localised implementation; notes should be appended for any context-related issues. The outcome of such an exercise will go a long way to help an organisation identify a meta-design for how best to use the various competencies of an ESB in the SOA, be it departmental or enterprise.
The flexibility, efficacy and efficiency of the configuration arrived from a meta-desing will determine the success of the ESB implementation and the services therein.

Oyewole, Olanrewaju J (Mr.)
Internet Technologies Ltd.
Mobile: +44 [0] 793 920 3120

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