Is The End of SOAP Dominance Nearing?

Posted on 08/11/2007 ,

SOAP-based services currently dominate the enterprise landscape. Main reasons this are:

  • SOAP tight coupling with WSDL. Until recently, SOAP was the only supported WSDL binding. WSDL, with all of its issues (such as the convoluted structure), remains the only widely accepted vendor-neutral way of defining services.
  • In Java world, SOAP was promoted by adding its support to J2EE/Java EE via JAX-RPC and JAX-WS specifications. There is a way to create RESTful services using JAX-WS, however this approach has not gained wide acceptance due to a number of reasons (lack of standardized WSDL binding being one of them).
  • Solid support by software vendors. SOAP is supported in all application servers; there are plenty of development tools (including Eclipse and NetBeans) that can help with creating SOAP-based services.
  • Availability of a number of WS-* specifications that only work with SOAP. WS-* specs, such as WS-Security and WS-ReliableMessaging heavily rely on SOAP headers for passing message metadata.

SOAP, however, is far from perfect. It adds complexity and overhead and makes implementation of message intermediaries (e.g., gateway products) more difficult (XML message has to be parsed in order to obtain any information about the message, such as an operation name). On the other hand, the uptake of WS-* standards has been very slow, perhaps with the exception of WS-Security, so the benefit of WS-* integration with SOAP failed to materialize. Another supposed SOAP benefit is the protocol neutrality, i.e., a SOAP message looks the same over HTTP, JMS, RMI or any other supported protocol. However, most services are implemented using HTTP, or in some cases, JMS without any headers (unless WS-* is used), so this benefit has limited value.

So it is fair to say that in many instances, SOAP itself does not add any value to Web services implementation. Nevertheless, it's continued to be used because of the reasons listed above. But this situation might be changing in the future.

WSDL 2.0 fully supports HTTP binding. WSDL 2.0 stirred a lot of controversy (I personally think that it's a step forward from WSDL 1), however, it was finally accepted as a W3C recommendation in June, so we can fully expect that vendors support will follow.

Additionally, JAX-RS specification was created and included into Java EE 6. This will also promote development of RESTful services behind the firewall.

Currently, there a preconceived notion that REST is only good for Internet/WEB 2.0 environment, whereas enterprise services should all be using SOAP. The emergence of the two new standards will help change this notion.

Ideally, developers should be able to use the simplest binding that gets the job done. HTTP/REST can be a good choice for many "query-style" services. Services that accept more complex data can use "Plain Old XML" over HTTP post. Finally, services that have to rely on WS-* specifications will utilize SOAP. In all these cases, developers should be able to use same set of APIs for invoking the service and same set of annotations (obviously, with different parameters) for creating the service.

Perhaps this is how Web service development will be done in the future, but we are certainly not there yet.

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