Clemens Vasters on Longhorn

Exploring Next Generation Web Services with Indigo

January 2004 - Posts

  • Longhorn In Budapest: The relevance of Indigo today

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    I am in Budapest today and I am just done with my Indigo talk (you can find the slides at under “Talks”), having done it for the 6th time on this tour throughout Europe. After the events Den Haag, Oslo, Copenhagen, Helsinki and Geneva, I still find Indigo a very difficult topic to talk about on this tour. It’s not about technology or because my talk doesn’t work: It’s about whether people think it’s relevant to their work.

    The true challenge is to explain to the developers we meet that Indigo is going to be very important for them down the road. I find that when I talk to developers on this tour or look at their evaluation forms that very many of them apparently still write fairly compact (to avoid the word monolithic) ASP.NET applications or Windows Forms applications that use a conservative client/server approach. All presentation and logic resides in one tier and the only remote component worth mentioning is the database. That means that the majority of the folks sitting in my talks hasn’t even touched one of the existing distributed technology stacks that Indigo is set to replace.

    The difficulty presenting Indigo on this tour – alongside sexy stuff like declarative UI programming with spinning Windows and Videos with alpha-blending in Avalon and googlefast cross-media searches across all of your local storage media as in WinFS – is that Indigo is about things that are hidden inside applications and do not surface to the user. Stuff that drives server-applications is sometimes hard to understand without knowing the architectural background and the motivations. (Sidenote: A while ago I heard a rumor from a usually trustworthy source that the spinning balls in the COM+ Explorer exist because COM+ was horribly hard to demo as well and the spinning balls provided a good way of visualizing that stuff was happening.)

    The ideal talk for an unsuspecting audience with little knowledge in distributed systems would have to sell the whole idea of distributed systems to boot, the experiences and errors made, the reasons for why Web services are a good thing, the problems creating the motivation for and the principles of service oriented architectures, a set of some tangible application examples and use cases along with the solutions that Indigo provides; all of that in the same talk and within 75 minutes. And that in a way that developers get to see code and demos, too. That sort of talk would span about 20 years of distributed computing history. I am not sure this fits in 75 minutes. Therefore I think I will have to be happy with only a fraction of the audience being interested and/or willing to appreciate the things that I am talking about here. 

    Very many folks think that the topics I am talking about are only relevant to “big apps” and have a hard time seeing the benefits of something like Indigo – much in the same way as it is with Enterprise Services or Web Services.

    If you believe Don Box, who said at PDC that Indigo will ship at some point between Whidbey and Longhorn, and think about the implications of that, Indigo is in fact relevant to everyone writing applications that expose functionality to other applications in some way – now or at least quite soon. The first ship vehicle for Indigo will be, if Don’s statement holds water in its consequences, some service pack or upgrade pack for Windows Server 2003 and Windows XP. That means nothing less than the entire application infrastructure of Windows Server 2003 is getting a major upgrade probably in a year or so from now.

    If you are writing applications using ASMX, Remoting or Enterprise Services today, the impact of Indigo’s arrival can be immediate if you want to make it so. If you code your applications cleverly today (following guidelines explained by Joe Long here or in my talk) and don’t play too many tricks on the infrastructure – for instance by using the Remoting extensibility points – you should have a fairly smooth upgrade path to Indigo. The goal is that upgrading code will be simple and mechanical in most cases.

  • Indigo: The evolution of the in-memory message

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    The evolution of in-memory concept of messages in the managed Microsoft Web Services stack(s) is quite interesting to look at. When you compare the concepts of System.Web.Services (ASMX), Microsoft.Web.Services (WSE) and System.MessageBus (Indigo M4), you'll find that this most fundamental element has undergone some interesting changes and that the Indigo M4 incarnation of "Message" is actually a bit surprising in its design.


    In the core ASP.NET Web Services model (nicknamed ASMX), the concept of an in-memory message doesn't really surface anywhere in the programming model unless you use the ASMX extensibility mechanism. The abstract SoapMessage class, which comes in concrete SoapClientMessage and SoapServerMessage flavors has two fundamental states that depend on the message stage that the message is inspected in: The message is either unparsed or parsed (some say "cracked").

    If it's parsed you can get at the parameters that are being passed to the server or are about to be returned to the client, but the original XML data stream of the message is no longer available and all headers have likewise either been mapped onto objects or lumped into a "unknown headers" array. if the message is unparsed, all you get is an text stream that you'll have to parse yourself. If you want to add, remove or modify headers while processing a message in an extension, you will have to read and parse your copy of the input stream (the message text) and write the resulting mesage to an output stream that's handed onwards to the next extension or to the infrastructure. In essence that means that if you had two or three ASMX-style SOAP extensions that implement security, addressing and routing functionality, you'd be parsing the message three times and serializing it three times just so that the infrastructure would parse it yet again. Not so good.


    The Web Services Enhancements (WSE) have a simple, but very effective fix for that problem. The WSE team needed to use the ASMX extensibility point but found that if they'd build all their required extensions using the ASMX model, they'd run into that obvious performance problem. Therefore, WSE has its own pipeline and its own extensibility mechanism that plugs as one big extension into ASMX and when you write extensions (handlers) for WSE, you don't get a stream but an in-memory info-set in form of a SoapEnvelope (that is derived from System.Xml.XmlDocument and therefore a DOM). Parsing the XML text just once and have all processing steps work on a shared in-memory object-model seems optimal. Can it really get any better than "parse once" as WSE does it?


    When you look at the Indigo concept of Message (the Message class in the next milestone will be the same in spirit, similar in concept and different in detail and simpler as a result), you'll find that it doesn't contain a reference to an XmlDocument or some other DOM-like structure. The Indigo message contains a collection of headers (which in the M4 milestone also come in an "in-memory only" flavor) and a content object, which has, as its most important member, an XmlReader-typed Reader property.

    When I learned about this design decision a while ago, I was a bit puzzled why that's so. It appeared clear to me that if you kept the message parsed in a DOM, you'd have a good solution if you want to hand the message down a chain of extensibility points, because you don't need to reparse. The magic sentence that woke me up was "We need to support streaming". And then it clicked.

    Assume you want to receive a 1GB video stream over an Indigo TCP multicast or UDP connection (even if you think that's a silly idea - work with me here). Because Indigo will represent the message containing that video as an XML Infoset (mind that this doesn't imply that we're talking about base64-encoded content in an UTF-8 angle bracket document and therefore 2GB on the wire), we've got some problems if there was a DOM based solution. A DOM like XmlDocument is only ready for business when it has seen the end tag of its source stream. This is not so good for streams of that size, because you surely would want to see the video stream as it downloads and, if the video stream is a live broadcast, there may simply be no defined end: The message may have a virtually infinite size with the "end-tag" being expected just shortly before judgment day.

    There's something philosophically interesting about a message relaying a 24*7*365 video stream where the binary content inside the message body starts with the current video broadcast bits as of the time the message is generated and then never ends. The message can indeed be treated as being well-formed XML because there is always a theoretical end to it. The end-tag just happens to be a couple of "bit-years" away.

    Back to the message design: When Indigo gets its hands on a transport stream it layers a Message object over the raw bits available on the message using an XmlReader. Then it peeks into the message and parses soap:Envelope and everything inside soap:Header. The headers it finds go into the in-memory header collection. Once it sees soap:Body, Indigo stops and backs off. The result of this is a partially parsed in-memory message for which all headers are available in memory and the body of the message is left sitting in an XmlReader. When the XmlReader sits on top of a NetworkStream, we now have a construct where Indigo can already work on the message and its control information (headers) while the network socket is still open and the rest of the message is still arriving (or portions haven't even been sent by the other party).

    Unless an infrastructure extension must touch the body (in-message body encryption or signature do indeed spoil the party here), Indigo can process the message, just ignore the body portion and hand it to the application endpoint for processing as-is. When the application endpoint reads the message through the XmlReader it therefore pulls the bits directly off the wire. Another variant of this, and the case where it really gets interesting, is that using this technique, arbitrary large data streams can be routed over multiple Indigo hops using virtualized WS-Addressing addressing where every intermediary server just forwards the bits to the next hop as they arrive. Combine this with publish and subscribe services and Indigo's broadcasting abilities and this is getting really sexy for all sorts of applications that need to traverse transport-level obstacles such as firewalls or where you simply can't use IP.     

    For business applications, this support for very large messages is not only very interesting but actually vital for a lot of applications. In our BizTalk workshops we've had quite a few customers who exchange catalogs for engineering parts with other parties. These catalogs easily exceed 1GB in size on the wire. If you want to expand those messages up into a DOM you've got a problem. Consequently, neither WSE nor ASMX nor BizTalk Server nor any other DOM based solution that isn't running on a well equipped 64-bit box can successfully handle such real-customer-scenario messages. Once messages support streaming, you have that sort of flexibility.

    The problem that remains with XmlReader is that once you touch the body, things get a bit more complex than with a DOM representation. The XmlReader is a "read once" construct that usually can't be reset to its initial state. That is specifically true if the reader sits on top of a network stream and returns the translated bits as they arrive. Once you touch the message content is the infrastructure, the message is therefore "consumed" and can't be used for further processing. The good news is, though, that if you buffer the message content into a DOM, you can layer an XmlNodeReader over the DOM's document element and forward the message with that reader. If you only need to read parts of the message or if you don't want to use the DOM, you can layer a custom XML reader over a combination of your buffer data and the original XmlReader.

  • On the road on The Road to Longhorn

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    I leaving shortly for Den Haag for the first installment of the Longhorn Developer Preview Tour throughout Europe as part of the Dutch Developer Days 2004. We start tomorrow and I am quite excited since this is the first time I will speak about Indigo in any detail to a larger audience. I've witnessed Indigo "forming" from a distance when the team was still in "stealth mode" and it's great to see how it comes along.

    But be forewarned: In my talk there will be no live demos. I have 75 minutes for the talk and I had to decide whether I concentrate on explaining the "M5" milestone that is currently in development in Redmond and which implements the (likely) final programming model or whether I allocate more time to the M4 model found in the PDC build. The decision that I made was that M4 is so different from M5 that unless you want to get a major degree in Longhorn development history or have way too much time on your hands, learning and therefore showing M4 code is almost pointless. I will show code, but it won't run.

    If you want to check out how this first run of my talk goes (as usual, I don't really rehearse talks so this is as spontaneous, "fresh" and probably embarrassing as it gets on this tour), Microsoft Netherlands will have a live webcast tomorrow that you can log into at